Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
“Maybe all the chaos is for your amusement / Here to tell you somethin’ that you don’t know,” sings Miley Cyrus on the opener to her highly anticipated and ultimately rock-focused seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts. The release comes after the universal disappointment of her last full-length record Younger Now, which attempted to soften her image with songs that remain some of the best in her catalogue. But that rootsy country pop sound didn’t work for anyone, Cyrus included. As an adult star, the singer has quickly established herself as a musical chameleon—one who has both immeasurable talent and a desperate need to avoid stagnation almost a decade after Hannah Montana ended. As a result, much of the ‘80s rock influences on Plastic Hearts feel impersonal, simply a new way to keep listeners at arms’ length.
This isn’t a bad album; the production is refined, the songwriting completely cohesive, and each track tells an important story. But for the most part, Cyrus spends a lot of time trying to navigate two distinct worlds: the ever-changing world of pop and the fickle yet conservative world of adult contemporary. The singer’s collaborations with Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks will surely resonate with listeners who lived through that era, but in the present—for those who grew up with Cyrus, those who lived through both the Can’t Be Tamed and Bangerz eras and lived to tell the tale—Plastic Hearts feels like just another attempt to please everybody.
Which makes the copious use of liberating adjectives ironic. “I was born to run / I don’t belong to anyone,” she shouts on lead single “Midnight Sky.” The song has hooks galore, but the lyrics sound like someone who has to work overtime to keep herself relevant: a label that certainly does not apply to Cyrus. While the singer sounded completely at peace three years ago on both “Malibu” and “Younger Now,” in comparison, she sounds mostly restless and out of place. The album’s original title was She Is Miley Cyrus, with the star explaining that “she” did not refer to anything in particular: “‘She’ does not represent a gender. She is not just a woman. ‘She’ doesn’t refer to a vagina. She is a force of nature. She is power. She can be anything you want to be, therefore, she is everything.” By contrast, that theoretical album sounds a lot more interesting and would have encompassed everything Cyrus stands for, much like on Bangerz or even Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. Would it have been weird? Definitely, but it would have been Miley Cyrus—not Miley Cyrus trying to be Joan Jett or Stevie Nicks.
Plastic Hearts’ best moments come late in the album when the glam rock façade subsides. On the Mark Ronson-produced ballad “High,” the singer grapples with public life and relationships: “Sometimes I get a little too hurt / Got my mind goin’ places it ain’t wanna go / Sometimes I get a little too low / And I can’t see myself through the fire and smoke.” On “Hate Me,” she comes to terms with her own mortality: “I wonder what would happen if I die / I hope all of my friends get drunk and high / Would it be too hard to say goodbye?” On “Never Be Me,” she delivers what sounds like the thesis statement for her current era: “If you’re looking for stable, that’ll never be me / But I hope that I’m able to be all that you need / If you think that I’m someone to give up and leave / That’ll never be me, no.” And on the standard edition closer “Golden G String,” Cyrus speaks directly to negativity and a world on fire in her most personal offering in years: “And you dare to call me crazy, have you looked around this place? / I should walk away / Oh, I should walk away / But I think I’ll stay.”
Little feels certain at the moment, but one can confidently say that Miley Cyrus will keep putting on different hats in the years to come. Plastic Hearts would have been better if emotional depth had been prioritized over Blondie drag, but it proves Cyrus’ versatility as a performer, in case there was in fact anyone still trying to define her by her Disney Channel days. Like any good chameleon, she’s just going to keep on changing those colors.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Plastic Hearts: “Midnight Sky,” “High,” “Hate Me,” “Never Be Me,” and “Golden G String”