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She's just being Miley, no apologies: Cyrus' ACL Fest Weekend 2 set is one for the books

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman

Miley Cyrus showed Friday at the Austin City Limits Music Festival that she’s one of the best and most influential rock stars of the past 20 years — we were just waiting for Generation Miley to grow up and prove it.

By belting all her weird hits, covering the rock & roll songbook better than any Carnival Cruise singer, and encouraging onlookers to listen without prejudice, for the second week in a row the “Wrecking Ball” singer cruised to a proverbial “best in show” blue ribbon at ACL Fest. Her 90-minute set was beautifully sung and already stands as one of the festival’s most memorable ever. You’ll remember it glowingly 10, 15 years down the line.

From ACL Fest Weekend 1:Miley Cyrus, rock goddess, communes with Janis Joplin's spirit in Austin City Limits debut

She’s Elvis Presley, another cultural tourist with elite charisma and towering, distinct vocals. But she’s especially suited to thrive because she isn’t afraid to riff and perform freely.

I watched two Cyrus sets during back-to-back ACL Fest weekends: She rolled out the same tightly planned, 19-song setlist, but the Honda Stage enjoyed distinct performances. She’s loose and funny up there while simultaneously deeply respectful of her fans.

“Free Britney,” Miley told her patrons randomly, well after performing Britney collab “SMS (Bangerz),” before suddenly remembering that Britney Spears was recently freed from her father’s conservatorship, and adding: “That bitch is free now.”

Miley Cyrus performs during Austin City Limits Music Festival for the second weekend on Oct. 8, 2021, at Zilker Park in Austin.

For Cyrus, it’s been a uniquely strange and painful career. High-profile romances and splits. Backlash over genre-bending. A house burned down by wildfire. It’s trauma she’s endured under the hangover of being a former child star, but the 28-year-old has mentored Generation Z: young Americans with lightning-fast processors who don’t remember life before the internet culture wars. Because she's herself and evolving, her fans ride for her the way graying millennials did for Taylor Swift in 2014. But Swift was peak relatable as an affluent person: firstly to a nation of startup staffers. Miley has always been a ride-or-die for awkward teens. 

“We grew up watching her,” Oscar Medina told Austin360 last week. Medina and his sister Raquel braved the weather delay to spend four hours at the front of the gates and get in first ... only to crowd alongside the front barrier for five more hours.

More:All hail Megan Thee Stallion, who gave fiery ACL Fest Weekend 2 show

On Friday, pre-Cyrus Honda Stage performer Megan Thee Stallion called upon audience members to dance with her. That included artfully dressed men who joked about “calling in today” when they got in front of her microphone and a woman in a pizza costume. The apparently perplexed Megan Thee Stallion rolled with it. I bet they were Cyrus fans camped out, too.

From the opening, pitch-shifted “It’s our party” refrain of “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus set the tone: We’re doing hits through all the eras, even if cultural critics derided them for borrowing too many ideas from hip-hop in an insensitive fashion. Rap producer Mike Will Made-It outdid himself on the aforementioned set starter, filling every void with melancholy keys and synths — why leave it behind? Here, Cyrus ad-libbed a defiant lyric: “It’s my song and I’ll sing what I want to.”

The rap genre fare didn’t halt there. While revisiting 2013’s “Love Money Party,” Cyrus not only left in Big Sean’s guest rap but put the words on the screen. And to top it off, she performed a song she featured on for Mike Will Made-It, the knocking “23.” 

That’s downright inclusive.

“For you and for me, as different as each of us are, we have one thing in common,” Cyrus said. “Right now.”

Cyrus later elaborated.

“My morning mantra was that ‘change is constant,’” she said. “I think you guys tonight are an amazing example of that mantra coming to life.” She added that this ACL weekend “feels different.” 

I think it was better. In particular, her cover of former Threadgill's performer Janis Joplin’s “Maybe” this week hit every note and followed every distinct, delightfully rambling lyric. 

“I do this song for me,” Cyrus said of the Joplin interlude.

Last week, her constant covers (Cher, Blondie, Sinead O’Connor) distracted me from her catalog, but the point about, say, releasing “Heart of Glass” last year during quarantine was that you shouldn’t stop playing and discovering. 

“So much information, new fears,” Cyrus said of the pandemic onstage, vowing that she wanted to “never stop releasing songs.”

She later returned to this theme of grace and thankfulness before singing the moving “Malibu,” a song she wrote after a house fire: “As long as our souls are in these capsules … we are home.”

The set was reflective and romantic but mostly a noisy, guitar-loaded toast to individualism. Someone’s “Miley made me gay” sign flashed twice on the fan cam; patrons enjoyed a video of skeletons doing sex acts on a motorcycle; 2009 teen idol hit “The Climb” returned with tricked-out motivational purpose — and won for most exuberant cell phones recording at once. 

You might call the show unapologetic, but as Cyrus said on stage, she wouldn’t. “None of those things fit the person I am inside.” She’s still figuring out how to be a rock singer, which is the exciting part.