I'm going to do something risky: I'm going to proffer a theory about Miley Cyrus.
Miley, of course, has been in the news constantly throughout the fall of 2013, whether about her eyebrow-raising performance with Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards, her nude video for the No. 1 hit "Wrecking Ball" or her Internet feud with Sinead O'Connor. Toss in the boundary-obliterating hedonism of "We Can't Stop," and it's tempting to dismiss Miley as just another post-teen pop star who's veered utterly off the rails.
I wouldn't have been surprised to find evidence of that tragic trajectory on every single song off her fourth studio album, Bangerz. And, to be frank, there's no shortage of raw and rebellious stuff here.
What I wasn't expecting, however, was an opening song, "Adore You," that finds Miley fantasizing about … getting married. It's the first of several tracks on which she pours out her shattered expectations about love with an earnestness that's almost as shocking as her recent bad behavior. So in between all the f-bombs, the sleazy lyrics, the Molly madness and other decidedly un-Hannah Montana-like behavior, my theory lurks: Miley Cyrus is a young woman with a hole in her heart the size of Texas. And she has no idea what to do with it other than trying to fill it with all of the worldly things she can think of.
"Adore You" finds Miley telling a man—perhaps former fiancé Liam Hemsworth—"When you say you love me/No, I love you more/When you say you need me/No, I need you more/Boy, I adore you, I adore you." Though it's clear that the couple is in bed together, that intimacy nevertheless prompts Miss Cyrus to dream of a wedded future, a future she credits God with providentially crafting: "I love lying next to you/I could do this for eternity/You and me were meant to be/In holy matrimony/God knew exactly what He was doing/When He led me to you." Then, a much sadder Miley wistfully ponders what might have been on "My Darlin'": "I walked through a pool of water, and I seen the shadow of a brokenhearted girl/Pictured us walking to the altar, for better or for worse/ … We were supposed to be together." Likewise, "Wrecking Ball" laments unbreakable walls that separate two people who once loved each other.
As the album progresses, Miley's pain devolves into numbness and anger—not good things. Still, stabbing moments of honesty burst forth occasionally, such as when she sings, "If our love is at the end/Then why do I still want you?" ("Drive"). On "Maybe You're Right," she concedes, "You might think I'm crazy/That I'm lost and foolish leaving you behind/Maybe you're right."
By album's end, Miley's once hopeful heart seems little more than a hollowed out husk. She confesses achingly, "I surely can't help you/I'm hurting myself/I've turned into someone else," then admits sadly, "I used to believe love conquers all/'Cause that's what I've seen in movies/Come to find out it's not like that at all/You see, real life's much different." Ouch. The song ends by echoing verses in the Apostle Paul's 1 Corinthians 13 love passage: "Love is patient/Love is selfless/Love is hopeful/Love is kind" …
… after which Miley's hurt prompts her to give each of those phrases a glass-half-empty twist: "Love is jealous/Love is selfish/Love is helpless/Love is blind."
When Miley's not nursing her broken heart, she's got other things on her mind. Namely, partying. Hard. "We Can't Stop" is a manifesto of indulgence, giving shout-outs to sex, strip club dancing, drinking, cocaine snorting and Ecstasy use. Miley tells anyone tempted to critique her lifestyle that she and her friends are the ones making the rules: "We run things, things don't run we/ … It's our party we can do what we want."
"4X4" finds Miley fleeing with her lover, Bonnie-and-Clyde style, from pursuing police. Crude lyrics reference nearly soiling herself ("Lean out the window, it's when I go/Driving so fast 'bout to p--- myself") and perhaps having sex ("Deep down inside like a pit bull in heat/He's almost coming, so we head for the streets"). Meanwhile, guest contributor Nelly's verse includes a pairing of "mother" with the f-word and multiple uses of "n-gga."
Speaking of profanity, the repeated chorus of "SMS (Bangerz)" includes an f-word as well. The angry "FU" finds Miley telling an ex, "I got two letters for you/One of them's F and the other one's U." Elsewhere, we hear uses of the s-word, as well as "d--n," "h---" and "b--ch." "Do My Thang" finds Miley bragging profanely, perhaps about being stoned: "Look at me, I'm high up off the ground, baby/Oh, shoot, pass that s--- around, baby/… I'm a Southern belle crazier than h---/Getting wild up in here/ … We don't give a f---."
"#GETITRIGHT" finds Miley sensually detailing her bodily sensations when she sees a guy she wants to have sex with. She eventually tells him, "You're sexy, sexy/I got things I want to do to you." She also admonishes him to get off the phone so he can join her for a carnal rendezvous ("I wish I could feel ya'/So hurry, hang up that d--n phone/I been laying in this bed/All night long/Don't you think it's time to get it on?")
"Love, Money, Party" seems to have two meanings as Miley says those are the things she lives for ("We want love, money, party") even as she acknowledges that they don't satisfy ("Money ain't nothing but money/ … Love ain't nothing but love, when you learn to love, ain't nothing but love/Party ain't nothing but a party, when you party every day/It ain't nothing but a party"). Other lyrics could be heard as hinting that heartbreak drove her to dabble in lesbianism ("I've been through heartbreaks, heartbreaks/Much for anyone with a human heart to take/ … I done been through the fire and I done met a girl on the side."
In her best moments on Bangerz, Miley Cyrus suggests that what she wants most is lasting, married love. In her worst moments, however, she's willing (even eager) to settle for far less, namely a casual hookup paired with Ecstasy at a party: "It's our party, we can love who we want/We can kiss who we want/ … We like to party/Dancing with Molly" ("We Can't Stop").
Telling lyrics on "Love, Money, Party" suggest, interestingly, that Miley is aware of the tension between those two mindsets. "If I can't trust," she wonders, "then why am I giving my heart in exchange for him to love me?" That's a great question ... and she proceeds to answer it in sexual terms, saying a relationship that doesn't work out isn't much different than an empty one-night stand. She sings, "'Cause there ain't much difference/In a one-night stand than one that ain't for me." In other words, why should she risk giving everything if she may end up with nothing?
In lines like those, I wonder if we hear the heart of a young woman who desperately longs for more than just a sexual connection—no matter how brazenly she insists otherwise. Still, those occasional moments of depth (or at least the acknowledgment that there is such a thing as depth) on Bangerz ultimately get buried by reckless responses to pain, disillusionment and disappointment. If she can't have the fairy tale ending her heart yearns for, Miley's quick to tell us that she's perfectly willing to profanely embrace sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as a painkilling, heart-numbing substitute.