Miley Cyrus’ “MTV Unplugged” reveals she doesn’t need the gimmicks

Yes, Miley dirty-danced with Madonna. But the big shock of her concert special was her genuine talent

Topics: Miley Cyrus, Madonna, mtv unplugged,

Miley Cyrus' "MTV Unplugged" reveals she doesn't need the gimmicksMiley Cyrus performs with Madonna for MTV Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014. The 21-year-old pop star and the 55-year-old Queen of Pop grinded and grabbed each other as they performed Cyrus' hit "We Can't Stop" and Madonna's 2000 track "Don't Tell Me" Tuesday during a taping in Hollywood. The "MTV Unplugged" special that closes with the duet is set to air Wednesday. (AP Photo/Sandy M. Cohen) (Credit: Sandy M. Cohen)

Miley Cyrus was 2013′s queen of publicity stunts — in a pop landscape that has consistently rewarded the artist who most imaginatively trolled the audience, Cyrus grabbed attention last August with her news-cycle-dominating twerking at an MTV awards show and refused to let go. After some five months of giving vastly more than the audience can reasonably expect, Cyrus showed up on MTV’s “Unplugged” last night with a few more tricks. The slightly surprising thing the acoustic concert proved is that she doesn’t really need them.

“Unplugged” has historically been home to performances in which the performer’s true self comes out, devoid of the gimmicks that might frame, say, an awards-show performance; the franchise produced two Grammy albums of the year by aging legends (Tony Bennett and Eric Clapton), one set that made Nirvana’s legend, and another that ruined Lauryn Hill’s. Cyrus used her hour of airtime to frame herself as a person with an odd but benign sense of humor that complements, rather than detracts from, her voice.

Cyrus began her performance in a faux-”Hee Haw” getup, complete with blond bob wig and plush horse galloping around the stage; she was 100 percent covered up, though when she changed, later in the show, into a bikini top, she made her reputation for public semi-nudity into a little joke. “You can look at life one way or the other — half-naked or half-clothed.” Even her hillbilly drag couldn’t possibly be construed as offensive; she phrased it as a tribute to Nashville and followed it up with a note-perfect cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

That’s the thing — Cyrus showed off a vocal talent that anyone who’d bothered to listen to her album would have already known about, with as few distractions as she’s likely to throw out. She was in strong voice at the Video Music Awards and American Music Awards last year, too, but got headlines, instead, for her outfits (a flesh-toned and a cat-print bikini, respectively).

The takeaway for anyone drawn to a Miley Cyrus TV special on the basis of endless media coverage is that Cyrus is actually talented and has a full complement of good songs from her recent album “Bangerz” — and, given that her wardrobe is no longer in any way remarkable, it’s the last shock she had in her arsenal. The concert seemed to show that she’d learned, too, from the truly nasty elements of her past performances — black performers onstage were treated as legitimate backup singers and part of the act, rather than objects for Cyrus to slap and objectify. Reducing the fripperies onstage by a small percentage allowed Cyrus to reach far less for outrage. The whole thing was a surprise, but not a troll.

You Might Also Like

It’s been easy to forget Cyrus’ genuine musical talent throughout her career — not that Cyrus herself has seemed to mind. From her start as Disney Channel sensation Hannah Montana, when her fame was bound up in a materialistic fervor of merchandising deals, to later reinventions (Cyrus has, now, released two albums celebrating her transition into sexualized adulthood), it’s never just been about the music — if it were, Cyrus would be far less able to get an audience for the music. 

A perfect symbol of the paradox in which Cyrus finds herself came at the end of the show, as the young pop singer was joined by the person who set the standard for contemporary pop stardom and a perfect negative example. Cyrus and Madonna duetted on a mashup of the latter’s 2000 hit “Don’t Tell Me” and the former’s “We Can’t Stop.” Cyrus sounded terrific; Madonna sounded, fans must concede, less terrific, and — though these things are subjective — seemed to as usual be going through the motions. (She’d previously done stunt-y live performances with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, M.I.A., and Nicki Minaj, and even when kissing Spears, never seemed to actually be engaging with the younger talents.) Cyrus was goofily singing a recent hit of hers. Madonna was engaging in a publicity stunt. Only one of them seemed to be having fun at all. Miley Cyrus may be stuck in an ecosystem in which the biggest and most openly trollish gambits for attention can succeed. But her special proved that there are far worse fates than setting out to get attention by doing what comes naturally and doing it well.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...