Balloons and butt plugs. Teddies and dildos. Candy and MDMA. The imagery of Miley Cyrus' live show is so hysterically binary it slams the audience like a wrecking ball. An ex-Disney princess dances with a fluffy pink gorilla before calling the crowd 'a bunch of fucking sluts' and rubbing her crotch. Racing strobes and LSD graphics illuminate one jaw-dropping prop after another; it's like being Mike Teavee flung into a Nickelodeon TV nightmare by Willy Wonka.
Miley's been in the UK for about a week now for the European leg of the ‘Bangerz’ tour to promote her fourth album. Every show's had more or less the same template with a rising of the stakes now and again. At the GAY show in London on Friday (May 9), she caused a stir with a reference to date rape drugs - "Everyone's gay, all it takes is one cocktail.. And if that doesn't work, sprinkle something in their drink.. That's what I always do” - before fellating an inflatable penis. The most recent cause for pearl-clutching is Miley posting a picture of her 'dirty hippy' feet on Instagram, a move the Daily Mail has branded 'unedifying'.
I went to see Miley perform in London last week and I'm still trying to make sense of it. On the one hand, the Bangerz show is a thrilling, brazen celebration of freedom, individuality and choice. I felt electrified by both the intense visual stimulation and also watching a woman so emancipated from her highly trained childhood. Miley does not give a single fuck, and there's a power in that. The lyric of the show that really resonates is from 'Doing My Thang': "Every single night and every single day/ I'mma do my thing/ I'mma do my thing"... Miley is simply Doing Her Thang. Miley's thang is Doing Her Thang.
A cohesion between the stage aesthetic and her online profile suggests the Miley 'character' comes direct from her own mind. Sinead O' Connor's notorious open letter in 2013 feared she was being 'pimped' by the male-led pop industry though Larry Rudolph, her manager and the man who used to manage Britney Spears, has said she is doing it "organically." From the look of the show, Miley's appears to be the boss. There's something potent and empowering about watching her on-stage confidence. Unashamed, unvarnished, undressed.
It was also amusing and playful. When she enters, sliding down a fleshy, snaky Helter Skelter tongue, and then twerks in chaps on an enormous statue of her recently deceased dog, Floyd, it's hard not to laugh
Music-wise, the highlight was an acoustic medley section. Wearing a diamante cowboy flannel shirt she covered Bob Dylan's 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' as well as songs by Dolly Parton and Arctic Monkeys. Just 10 minutes earlier, she'd asked the crowd if they wanted to 'get wet', spraying them with water from her mouth and joking about flashing her "titties" but suddenly, the hyperactive child morphed into a soul singer, bringing emotion to Dylan's lyrics with a rich and powerful voice lost on her other cod-R&B bangers. Her cover of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' received the greatest cheer of the evening as she changed the lyrics, calling Jolene a "fucking old cunty woman" or something to that effect.
But… I also felt really uncomfortable. Though lots of massive pop stars have embraced raunch culture in the way they present themselves, Miley takes it to a different level. While it's pretty normal for Rihanna, for example, to disrobe and simulate masturbation, Miley does it while calling the audience "fucking sluts". Which would be fine, if most of the audience sitting near me weren't under 10 years old. When Miley started humping a gold car I couldn't help glancing over to a nearby six-year-old to see if her mother was covering her eyes.
The general tone of Miley's abundant chatter was hyperactive and affectionate: "I'm so fucking happy to be in fucking London with you mother fuckers, you're the fucking best, let's get fucking hiiiiiiiighhhhhh!!" On that note, her "Weed never killed anyone" moment was the only one that genuinely seemed reckless (hello cannabis-induced psychosis). Similarly to the way she mocked mental health after O 'Connor's letter, it seemed more a statement of ignorance than ill-judgement.
But does any of this matter? Do entertainers have a responsibility to be good role models to their fans? Should pop music have the same societal moral standards? Or is it just backward and purist for people to feel a little ambiguous towards some of her judgments? She's had a fair share of criticism recently for "accessorising with black people" and for degrading dwarves - and the thong police were out in force at her tour in the US holding up Bible verses that read 'The Teaching Of Smiley Virus Will Wreck Your Life'.
Nirvana, Madonna and many more artists have traditionally invoked the ire of parents and the excitement of teenagers. But Miley's stance compared with, say, Kurt Cobain's, is superficial and trivial. She's not subverting anything in particular. She's more a hyperactive Puck than a genuine punk.
"I don't like kids," said Miley in a recent interview with Ronan Farrow in W magazine - and it was evident at the London 02 that her original Hannah Montana fanbase is not the priority now. S&M imagery, marijuana leaves, Parental Advisory stickers, dollar bills, candy, a glut of bum shots, bright turquoise sharks, bling, inflatable hot dogs, groping, blue foxes, sequins, spangles and Vegas... the Bangerz show had a lot going on. But the result of this strange, sticky mix of innocence and adulthood was that, without the children in the audience, it just wasn't very controversial at all.