Miley Cyrus has an image problem. Not in the traditional sense of the term, where the problems revolve around someone’s negative public image, but in a matter where the problem is her image is nebulous as hell to begin with. There’s nothing wrong with being chameleonic in music: artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, or (for a more recent example) Lady Gaga have all shifted styles from album to album. The problem with Younger Now and by extension Cyrus’s chameleonic nature is that Cyrus shifts genres in a way that’s slightly problematic and more than slightly boring.
With Younger Now, Cyrus has shed her past image to give us an album composed entirely of folky, relaxed country pop. The subtext can’t be overlooked: with the narrative of growing up and coming into her own, Cyrus has rejected black culture to create this wholesome, sanitized, white image. On her 2013 album Bangerz, Cyrus leaned into a more typically black/”urban” image, embracing cornrows, twerking, grills, and other brief moments of cultural appropriation in an attempt to push herself into a hip-hop aesthetic. Other writers have written more about this (check out Zeba Blay’s excellent piece in the Huffington Post) but for Cyrus to so casually shrug off black culture like she was going through an embarrassing fashion phase at college is disingenuous at best, offensive at worst.
Likewise, gone is any sense of edge. In between Bangerz and Younger Now, Cyrus released Miley Cyrus’s Dead Petz, a psychedelic, experimental album influenced by and featuring the Flaming Lips. Reviews for Dead Petz were mixed but nobody could state that the album wasn’t interesting, whether in an intriguing way or a bile fascination sort of way. With Younger Now, Cyrus has replaced any hint of edge or any trace of something different in her sound with a creepily sanitized generic country pop. Occasionally the songs veer into something slightly different: “Week Without You” marries the country pop with doo wop stylings, like Meghan Trainor decided to do a song for CMT. But the end result is still kind of dull, hampered by an odd arrangement and middle of the road lyrics. The worst thing of all is that none of these songs let Cyrus show off her voice. Part of the reason “Wrecking Ball” blew up the way it did was that Cyrus put so much emotion in the bridge and chorus. I’d argue that “Party in the U.S.A.” has become a verified pop classic also due to that fact: throughout that entire song, Cyrus sounds like she’s having fun. Nowhere in Younger Now does Cyrus even approach half of that energy and emotion she puts in either of those songs. If the image she wants to project is bland and slightly Stepfordian, she’s succeeding.
The lead single, “Malibu,” is emblematic of everything about the album that annoys me. It’s a bland, insipid love song with cliche rhymes. The vocal range consists of an octave or so as Cyrus repeats the same few musical phrases and the same five notes ad nauseam. She aims for sweet and gentle, she lands somewhere in monotonous and disappointing. The video is hilariously over the top in Cyrus’s push back towards moral purity: her hair is in pigtails and she wears a series of blatantly girlish outfits, all in white. It’s a blatantly manufactured and blatantly boring aesthetic.
Some songs off the album are quite good: the title track provides a wonderful start to the album and is an amazingly catchy earworm, with surprisingly deep lyrics that sites like genius.com will inevitably dive into. “Rainbowland,” a play by numbers campfire folk song, is lifted by the presence of Dolly Parton, who consistently gives her best even if she doesn’t have much to do in the first place. “Rainbowland” features the most touching moment on the album as well: voicemail recordings from Parton to Cyrus talking about the song itself. But, for me, those songs are few and far between.
Partly due to Miley Cyrus’s image problem, she can never catch a break. There will always be some facet of Cyrus’s career that people dislike, whether it’s her Disneyfied Hannah Montana days, her pop power ballads of “The Climb,” the hip-hop esque Bangerz, the psychedelic and odd Dead Petz, or this relaxed country pop of Younger Now. And at least for me? It’s this album that I dislike. Younger Now is a dull and boring attempt at stripping anything obnoxious, and likewise anything interesting, from Cyrus’s music and her image. But, if there’s one good thing about Miley Cyrus, it’s that I have absolutely no idea what her next album would even sound like. As she sings, “change is a thing you can count on.” Let’s hope she’s right.