Thoughts on Miley (Pt. 1): Is “Dead Petz” the Millennial “Pinkerton”?
By now the story is legend: in 1996, Weezer, radio-friendly alt-stars beloved by fans and critics alike, released an achingly personal sophomore effort that was entirely unbeloved by fans and critics alike; crucified as failures, the band retreated into hiding and reemerged years later as an inoffensive pop-rock outfit determined to never gamble with another album like Pinkerton, only to find that it had become reevaluated as a masterpiece whose genius would forever be weighed unfavorably against anything the band ever attempted in the future. It was the ultimate Devil’s Bargain: a great album whose greatness has ironically worked to the detriment of its creators at every stage of its existence.
In 2015, Miley Cyrus released Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, a sprawling, weirdly intimate follow up to the persona-exploding phenomenon that was Bangerz. After a momentary flutter of interest, critics and fans roundly rejected the album as a vanity project, and after enough time even Miley herself turned on it; with the release of the mild, placative singles “Malibu”, “Inspired”, and “Younger Now” this year, coupled with interviews renouncing her drug use and intentional bids for controversy, it seems as though the entire basis for Miley’s new persona is the assertion that Dead Petz was basically just a silly mistake made by a high person. Does this set-up sound familiar?
The reputation of Dead Petz has remained relatively static over the years, but listening to it today in all its mellow, vision-quest-y glory I am absolutely adamant that critical opinion will grow more and more favorable with time until it’s seen as, if not Miley Cyrus’ best album, certainly her most interesting. It actually seems weirdly obvious that a person who has never heard a Miley Cyrus song and has no contextual knowledge of her career would probably be most intrigued by this album, strange, personal, and uncommercial as it is. But, clearly, we do not yet occupy the reality where the obvious appeal of Dead Petz is actually obvious. Why is that?
Both Pinkerton and Dead Petz are defined by the thing that everybody claims to value most in art: honesty. The two albums share a gory, specific level of confessionalism that is not commonly seen in mainstream pop: Pinkerton famously contained references to River Cuomo’s erotic fantasies of an under-age fan and Dead Petz tracks like “Milky Milky Milk” and “Bang Me Box” were the real grown up anthems that Cyrus had only conceptually toyed with on previous releases like “Can’t Be Tamed”. One would be hard pressed to fault Pinkerton or Petz for not unflinchingly reflecting the psyches of their creators, and one would think that the uncomfortable ideas relayed on both albums would be seen as proof of their sincerity (Miley Cyrus might sometimes be painted as a corporate shill, but releasing a free, no-hits album about death and sexual exploration doesn’t exactly scream “sellout”). On paper, these albums hit all the notes that a critical consumer would want out of a serious artist: experimentalism, confessionalism, intensity, etc. But, obviously, nothing solely exists on paper.
For some reason, people had an inability to trust in the sincerity of Pinkerton and Petz, in spite of (and perhaps because of) how glaringly obvious that sincerity was. Rather than praising the albums as honest, people interpreted them as tasteless (of Pinkerton: “get-down party anthems for agoraphobics”) and vain (of Petz: “a borderline unlistenable slog through dorm-room poncho bullshit”). If people even believed that Cuomo and Cyrus were expressing something genuine, they certainly saw that genuineness as self-serving and exclusive, akin to the kind of cringey, fleeting oversharing that defines the adolescent mindset. And so, rather than feeling closer to these artists, the general public became disdainful of the level of intimacy that appreciating their works seemed to demand.
In 2001, Rivers Cuomo issued this now infamous statement on Pinkerton (roughly 5 years after its release):
“It’s a hideous record. … It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away. It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.”
Reading that statement, it’s pretty clear that Cuomo was not simply disturbed by Pinkerton’s critical and commercial failure; he was also disturbed by the fact that the album that was probably the most honest reflection of his inner-self was universally regarded as creepy and undesirable. Pinkerton’s failure wasn’t simply artistic, it was personal. It was the kind of failure that made its creator reevaluate his actual life and personality. In order to deal with the failure of Pinkerton, Cuomo had to adapt the same opinion shared by the general public: that real honesty is a neutral charge, and “oversharing” is honesty’s cloudy mutation, perverted by fleeting passion. Rivers Cuomo had only thought he was being himself, when in actual fact he was just being temporarily crazy. His future projects would be weird and touch on his personal life, but Cuomo would never dig as deep again: deep digging had lost its meaning.
“I’ve always been very stoned on your shows,” Miley Cyrus revealed on a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “’member the last time I was here? I was dressed as a bunny rabbit and then like a cat. There’s a reason for that: I was high.” That statement is one in a long line of anti-drug sentiments issued by Cyrus as part of her promotional mission for her new album Younger Now. Cyrus, to be fair, isn’t exactly claiming to be Puritanical, but she’s certainly been keen on renouncing the wacked-out, psychedelic persona that she spent the past few years championing. Implicit in much of her current PR is the idea that the controversy and the outrageousness that defined her two biggest post-Hannah albums were not the product of someone who was in an honest frame of mind. Those albums were not an extension of the “real” Miley Cyrus: people like the “real” Miley, and nobody really liked Dead Petz, possibly including its creator. The weirdness that informed that album, Cyrus seems to be reasoning, only seemed authentic because she was stoned and because she was doing something different. “I love talking to people, and I approach them in a normal, ‘Don’t treat me different, ’cause I’m not’ way,” Cyrus told Billboard, “that’s what started this evolution for me, getting out of my Dead Petz phase. People stare at me anyway, but people stare at me a lot when I’m dressed as a fucking cat.”
Both Cuomo and Cyrus, it seems, are capable of producing intensely weird and personal work, but are unable to reconcile that artistic impulse with their need to be liked. Pinkerton and Dead Petz both reflect compulsions towards controversial earnestness, but their creators are not really “controversial” people. That might seem like an odd statement to make about someone like Miley Cyrus, who’s generated some of the biggest performance-based controversies in recent memory, but all of Cyrus’s pre-Younger Now statements tend to reflect a similar sentiment, the idea that the alienating weirdness of the Dead Petz-era was actually a hindrance on her ability to communicate with people, rather than proof of artistic integrity. It’s a similar sentiment to the one that Rivers Cuomo forwarded in a pre-Pinkerton apology letter to fans, where he claimed:
“There are some lyrics on the album that you might think are mean or sexist. I will feel genuinely bad if anyone feels hurt by my lyrics but I really wanted these songs to be an exploration of my ‘dark side’ — all the parts of myself that I was either afraid or embarrassed to think about before. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff on there.”
Both Cuomo and Cyrus are intelligent enough to recognize that real honesty is not necessarily pretty, but they are also (perhaps unfortunately) intelligent enough to know that it’s hard to sustain a career on people hating your guts. They are forced to navigate their own extreme poles of extroversion and introversion, and because they are populists at heart, they don’t stick long with the alienating side of their persona. History, however, is kinder to their confessional tendencies.
It’s easy to say that the lesson people would be wise to take away from artists like Miley Cyrus and Rivers Cuomo is that under-appreciated art is, by design, not easy to appreciate in its time. People have a curious illusion about controversial work: they recognize the value of work that grows better with time but are unable to give any work with that potential the benefit of the doubt. There is, however, another element to these albums’ expanding greatness that goes beyond mere shortsightedness, and that is the comparative tameness of the works that followed.
Past “failures” that are disregarded in their own time very often require comparative tameness to bring out their hidden value. Certainly that is true with Weezer; a major part of the Pinkerton mythology involves the work that came after, whose perceived “insincerity” subconsciously enhanced the “undesirable sincerity” of Pinkerton. Miley’s new songs (which I do like, by the way) work in a similar manner; regardless of how good they are, their aggressive rejection of the Dead Petz era makes Dead Petz seem like a rarer article. Because it’s unlikely Miley will ever go as far out artistically again, the value of the Dead Petz experiment is vastly increased.
One has to remember that when Pinkerton and Dead Petz first came out they weren’t seen misunderstood or potentially misunderstood, they were seen as overly understood. Their gratuitous insights into the ids and sex lives of their creators were seen as predictable, or at least not beyond the comprehension of normal audiences. Pinkerton was a cartoon version of 90’s sad-boy angst, not any kind of bravely unflattering self-portrait, and Dead Petz seemed like the “Miley being Miley” mantra pushed its logical extreme, not some kind of surprising introspective document. In order to become positively seen as misunderstood, they needed to be weighed against work that was more vague and impersonal. This phenomenon is akin to having a friend who you always think is overly dramatic suddenly becoming weirdly subdued; in the absence of their manic energy, you begin to miss it.
It seems depressing to say this, but it’s very possible that truth in art needs to be punctuated by a form of death to be appreciated. People resist the great leap forward not simply because it’s scary, but also because it requires too much of a relationship with the far-reaching artist. In order to really internalize Rivers Cuomo’s musings on lust (ie “you’ve got a look that makes me think you’re cool/but it’s just sexual attraction/not something real so I better keep whackin’”) and Miley Cyrus’ musings on death and the cosmos (ie “I’ve seen death, I’ve seen truth/I’ve heard lies, I’ve seen birth too”) you would have to have really believed in them as more than just entertainers, and entrusted them, as commercial entities, with a level of personal intimacy usually reserved for people you know in real life. There is no worse feeling than being exploited over meaningful sentiments (sex, death, self-knowledge) so its natural to resist artists who so flagrantly wave those themes around. It’s only after the relevance of their statements have passed and those artists either die or return to making work that requires much less from the consumer that it feels comfortable to embrace their honesty.
At this point you would hard pressed to find anybody who’d be comfortable openly shitting on Linkin Park, but the day before Chester Barrington’s suicide it was an overwhelming opinion (among non-fans, obviously) that their music was extremely corny. Only now that their principle songwriter is dead is it OK to accept the honesty in lines like “I got a heart full of pain/head full of stress/handful of anger/held in my chest” as being legitimate and moving, not simply whiny and dramatic. I realize I’m not making a groundbreaking point here; of course artists are better appreciated when they’re dead, of course it is easier to say “I knew this person” than “I know this person”. But while artists live and breathe with severely undervalued works behind them it would be nice to rush the process of their reappraisal along. Great work is rare work after all, and the more we forgive those who really attempt it, the more attempts there will be.