Miley Cyrus, rock goddess, communes with Janis Joplin's spirit in Austin City Limits debut
It wasn’t quite a “Midnight Sky” — more like an 8 p.m. one, thankfully free of the deluge that caused Austin City Limits Music Festival to get a three-hour-late start on Friday — but Miley Cyrus took one of the night's headliner spots and, well, you can’t say she didn’t make it her own.
In an Austin360 tradition, Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb share their thoughts, she said/he said style.
DSS: So ... rock star energy, spectacular covers, copulating skeletons, strange philosophical musings about the intrinsic value of humans vs. insects. That was ... something.
EW: Something, and everything, and I expected nothing less. So, I have spent way too many of my 32 years considering the career of Miley Ray (née Destiny Hope) Cyrus, from the “Hannah Montana” days, through the Disney kiss-off phase, to the uber-popular and unfortunate hip-hop appropriation, with a detour to the Flaming Lips burnout weirdsville stuff, into the dreamy surf boards-and-crystals material, and now landing on her Joan Jett/Lita Ford rock woman rebirth. And it’s always seemed like she has the raw talent, and more raw charisma — like, sashimi raw — but her professional taste level has often been downright strange. And, dare I say, bad.
But I think this ACL Fest coronation revealed, or reinforced, the truth about Miley the artist. She is one of the most accomplished interpreters of pop and rock standards of our time. And that’s no dig; it’s a pretty damn cool thing. Any time Miley ventures into what we have to believe are her own sonic and lyrical tastes, things get … I think the word “oof” works more often than I’d like.
DSS: I’ll admit I don’t have the depth of Mileyology that you do. I really started paying attention to her in the twerking era. Worth noting: That phase of her career is literally the reason "cultural appropriation" became a mainstream term in American pop culture. That’s also where she started this set, and she did it in a way that really underlines your point. Bringing it in with the 2013 hit “We Can’t Stop” was a big hype-generating move, but the moment that put me in my feelings was when she segued into “Where is My Mind?” by the Pixies. The first of many powerful covers of the night.
EW: Yes, let’s talk about the covers, because I don’t think it’s controversial to say they were her star moves. (Well, besides some of the teen-pop throwbacks, but more on that later.) A take on Blondie joint “Heart of Glass,” which went viral on TikTok last year, is my preferred version of the song, no shade to Miss Deborah Harry. Thanks to her recent embrace of the swagger that’s always been coursing through her veins, Cyrus gave it all the grit and glamor that it deserves.
Her rendition of Austin icon Janis Joplin’s “Maybe” was nothing short of chilling and thrilling, the howls and the sweet nothings making me dearly want a Miley Cyrus blues album. We even got a Cher cover in “Bang Bang” that segued into absolute 2008 bop “7 Things.” (Again, more on that later.) That’s what I mean when I say she’s carrying the standards forward — if there’s a great American songbook for the rock age, I think Cyrus, with a lightning-in-a-bottle voice and extreme genre fluidity, is its keeper right now. But I know that you waited all set for a particular cover, Deborah.
DSS: Yes, the Janis Joplin joint was truly heart-stopping, but her mashup of “Wrecking Ball” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song that defined my coming-of-age years, had me almost in tears. She’s said in interviews that after her house burned down in a California wildfire in 2018, her voice actually changed. It became deeper and more powerful. And that section of the set was just a stunning demonstration of exactly how much emotion she’s able to convey with her voice. I remember shortly after she lost her home, she performed “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” with Mark Ronson on “Saturday Night Live,” and it was that wrenching performance that transformed me from Miley-curious to a serious fan. That song was also one of my favorites from her Zilker set.
EW: I wrote “country-rock-disco is her lane” in my notes during that song, which kinda proves my point about genre fluidity. That’s not a lane so much as it’s the whole highway. It’s interesting you mention her voice changing. I was reminded so many times in this set, especially on the glam-rock stuff from “Plastic Hearts,” how much she’s benefitted from age, vocally. She always had a rasp, which could be a little awkward when she was wearing blonde Party City wigs on the Disney Channel. Now, she’s just pure ferocity.
OK, and here’s where I get to talk about the “Hannah Montana”-era stuff. I was so glad that songs like “7 Things” and “See You Again” not only made the setlist, but felt fully renovated by Cyrus’ coming of age. I mean, you saw me jumping up and down to those. And my lord, she transformed “The Climb,” which is a sappy adult-contemporary slog that you hear on the “Delilah” radio show, into the kind of arena power ballad you can crush a Bud Light to. Seriously, imagine if you did a couple science projects when you were 16, and they won ribbons, and then you had to do those same science projects on demand every night for the rest of your life.
OK, I’ve gushed enough. What about the rough parts? Because I think we might agree this does not go into the annals of legendary, flawless ACL sets.
DSS: Well, there was the weird “Dead Petz” section which included “Dooo It,” a Flaming Lips collab that I really don’t need to ever hear again. The strange ‘90s public access TV video distortion on the big screen only made it more annoying. And speaking of odd video choices, the aforementioned copulating skeletons who cycled through a wide and varied range of pornographic positions cut the emotional power of an otherwise moving version of “Malibu” in a way that seemed ill-conceived. (There were more pornographic cartoons to accompany “Can’t Be Tamed,” but those, fashioned as a naked cartoon version of Miley, kind of made sense.) I was also baffled by her use of pyrotechnics, which started on the first track. I expected they would build to a spectacular fireworks finale, but that didn’t really happen at all.
EW: Co-sign. She also loves a mid-song yarn, just like godmother Dolly Parton, but Cyrus’ are 100% less witty and more incoherent by the same proportion. Joyless psychobabble. Then the grand finale, “Party in the U.S.A.,” was kind of a fiasco. It was hard to tell if she was having trouble with her ear monitor, or if she got winded, or if she was just tired of singing that song and wanted to pass it off as a crowd singalong. But to say that she “sang” that hit on Friday night gives too much credit to her vocal cords in that scenario. The literal mic drop at the end made me laugh out loud.
OK, final thoughts?
DSS: In many ways, that blend of rock, disco and country you mentioned made Miley Cyrus a perfect headliner for ACL Fest, an event that has far more twang in its DNA than any of the other mega festivals that drive the modern music industry. The rock star moments when she really owned her power were truly exhilarating and rank up there with some of my favorite ACL performances. Miley’s been in the spotlight for so long that it’s easy to forget that she’s only 28. Her current incarnation is my favorite Miley we’ve known so far, and she has the potential to continue to evolve in spectacular ways.
EW: She had me from the moment we saw that teased hair and gunmetal grey glitter eyeshadow. When she said, “I’m sure some of us grew up together” to the crowd, I was like, “Damn, she has really been so famous, for so long.” Sure, the rapping was a choice to begin with and remains a choice. I find it hard even to be mad, though, watching someone who’s had to figure out who she is in the public eye and seems finally to have landed on what feels right. That’s perhaps a cliched take on child stars, when I’m trying to glean meaning from a night that prominently featured skeletons in mid-coitus. However, as a wise teen superstar once told me, you get the best of both worlds.