On Saturday night, in a sports stadium so yuppified it sells $9 artisanal frankfurters to satisfy the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood surrounding it, Miley Cyrus, wearing cowboy boots and yellow fur, climbed aboard a massive hot dog suspended from the ceiling and rode it like a bucking bronco into the sky. As she rattled off dick jokes from the massive weiner, I was transported out of urbane New York and back through middle school memories from my upbringing in the midwestern city of Pittsburgh: WWF wrestling theatrics, Britney Spears, Howard Stern, MTV Spring Break, South Park. Miley is a complicated figure, but that’s what makes her so suited to be a pop star, because America is complicated too.
The south has reigned in teen pop for years—it can’t be a coincidence that the woman who set the tone of the aughties’ landscape was Louisiana-native Britney Spears and the one currently keeping the pace of this decade’s is Tennessee’s Miley Cyrus. As though the rest of world couldn’t possibly understand how people do things down south, Britney used to explain away her much-maligned behavior, like driving a car with her infant son on her lap, with a simple justification: “We’re Country!” And Nashville’s Miley Cyrus, the goddaughter of Dolly Parton and real daughter of the most famous mullet-wearer in the world, loves reminding people of her roots just the same: no matter how crazy she gets, she’s still slow things down and take time out from the insanity to reflectively belt out “Jolene,” as she did Saturday night at her sold-out Bangerz show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Since Elvis, the heart of tween soul has often been below the Mason-Dixon line, and while Miley might have changed unitards many times throughout the night, she hardly was ever seen without a pair of rhinestoned cowboy boots.
Miley certainly recognizes the lineage and her place in the history of Americana—she was raised in the temple of Britney, and rightfully acknowledges her teen pop predecessor as her top influence: throughout 2013, she gave Brit Brit a guest spot on the album for “SMS Bangerz,” made a huge spectacle of sitting front row at Britney’s debut show for her residency in Las Vegas and compared her own think-piece-inducing VMAs performance to Britney’s legendary MTV moments. But if Britney represented the American south of evangelical churches and beauty pageants, publicly clutching her virginity while shedding more and more clothes, Miley has shifted the teen southern capital of teen pop to the heart of the city: Atlanta.
In Barclay’s on Saturday, as an audience overwhelmingly comprised of young girls in crop tops waited for Miley to step on stage, they sang along with a backing soundtrack of trap rap star Juicy J; it was impossible not to see how Atlanta’s music culture has come to be, in no small way, America’s music culture. Georgia’s rap capital has been creeping up the charts for decades, but in the last year, Miley’s Bangerz album, with contributions from Atlanta’s own Future and Mike WiLL Made It, has helped make southern rap culture an unavoidable part of the mainstream media landscape. This is, of course, what got Miley in trouble with people in the first place: it’s totally fine to be offended by her decontextualized rummage of southern rap culture on Bangerz, and you would be more than remiss not to notice some of the troubling racial aspects of her performances. But putting those arguments aside, if only for a moment, it’s certainly fascinating to watch the growing pains as a region’s music evolve into total pop music domination. Miley’s performance of “23,” one of her signature Atlanta-indebted songs with Mike WiLL, was simultaneously the show’s most annoying and most interesting moment. If Miley really does wear Air Jordans on her feet, as she brags in the song, we all know that she probably only started to last year. But does that cheapen the spectacle of her singing about the sneakers? Your answer most likely depends on what age you are—the 16-year-olds in the audience presumably only started buying their own shoes for themselves last year anyway, instead of letting mom and dad choose, so Miley’s new affinity for sneakers probably matches their own.
If part of Miley’s repertoire is to bring the idea of the iconic Atlanta strip club to the fore of pop music, I have to say in her defense, she’s doing it in a female-centric way, much like Rihanna’s “Pour it Up” video, a dream world in which the strip club becomes a homosocial space of pleasure for women. When she asked her fans to show her their tits, the concert started to feel like the most massive “no boys allowed” slumber party in history. As she grabbed her crotch or put her ass in the air, I kept thinking about the difference between Miley and Britney’s presentation—compare Britney’s long blonde tresses, the very definition of Playboy sex appeal, with Miley’s short cut fit for a tomboy who needs nothing getting in her way. If Britney offered up a confusing pretense of sexualized southern-belle wholesomeness, Miley’s mission is just pride in causing a pure ruckus. She is the craziest girl in your crew, doing outrageous things not for the boys but to get the most laughs; Bangerz felt like the kind of private space you need in high school to try out all the things you’ve heard of but don’t actually understand. We all remember the older kid who first told us about French kissing, right? As Miley, wearing gingham underwear, slides down an oversized replica of her own tongue, or tells her audience that they need to do their musical homework by listening to Bob Dylan, or plays a Waka Flocka song that your parents would hate—all of which she did onstage Saturday night—she’s offering up an education that might not always be the most sound wisdom in the world, but is wisdom nonetheless.
As Miley bragged at one point that she was the biggest slut in the room, I realized that part of her educational offering is to passionately not give a fuck about being called names, whether it’s ho, redneck or hick, and that’s something worth listening to. In fact, the show was a veritable celebration of all the people that get made fun of in 21st century America: a kiss cam lingered longingly on two boys making out to “Adore You,” Miley humped little people and Amazon Ashley simultaneously, and a group of dancers spun sexually in hypercolor teddy bear costumes, reminding me not of childhood, but of the flourishing American plushie subculture of people that have a sexual fetish for stuffed animals. You could argue that Miley is objectifying all of these people, and maybe you’d be right. But the truth probably lies somewhere between objectification and celebration, and doesn’t that feel like the most American middle ground of all? Anyway, at least we can now say that a sold-out stadium’s worth of kids have seen a wider world than is often portrayed on TV, and it’s up to them to make up their own minds how they feel about it.
By the end of the night, the imperfections of Miley and her Bangerz tour started to feel like strengths. This was a weird, wild world to inhabit, filled with problems and pleasures alike, but so is real life. We are all freaks to someone, and it’s actually nice to have a celebrity who out-freaks us all. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Rihanna, Beyoncé, Britney or Madonna taking themselves so un-seriously that, as Miley did throughout the night, they’d spit up backwashed water on their front row of fans or sing a romantic love song to an oversized statue of a puppy or ride a hot dog like a mechanical bull and brag about how big their weiner is. You could call all of those things gross, or you could just admit that if no one was watching, you’d behave exactly the same way.