Miley Cyrus, Revisited

It might seem a little premature to revisit the career of a 21 year-old singer, but Miley Cyrus deserves that consideration, because she’s more than she seems.

Serious music critics have steered clear of Miley Cyrus long enough, because this kid can really sing her lungs out. If you have chance to watch her face when she is covering great songs by great songwriters, you can see how deeply she is into the music. One of things that trips up cover artists is that they don’t understand the lyrics, or they simply don’t feel them the way the original artist did and you can’t sell a song if you don’t understand it.

Now, I’m not a serious music critic, but I have perfect pitch, and I know good when I hear it, and great when it comes around and, right now, Cyrus is hovering between good and great.

Miley Cyrus understands the lyrics. Take her cover of Bob Dylan’s classic, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” for example. She doesn’t just sing the song. She sells it. She paints you the picture the same way that Dylan once did. (Dylan, himself, has taken his classic onstage mumbles into his songs, with detrimental results, to the point where I decided to pass up this year’s tour. Last year’s visit to Florida was painful enough.)

One of the characteristics of good cover artists is that you can understand every word they sing, because covering classic songs requires that kind of clarity of speech something that, in recent years, has fallen into some disrepute among singers and, sadly, actors as well.

If you’ve found it difficult to follow some recently released films, without realizing why, watch them again with the volume turned WAY up and you may find that the actors are mumbling because the lines suck. Even Tom Hanks, widely noted for the sharp clarity of his delivery, which rivals that of a good stage actor, has been mouthing some of this lines lately, most notably in “Cloud Atlas,” a case in which clarity was even more crucial because of the made-up language used in that film.

Many years ago, I was a sound man for rock and roll bands. I didn’t last long, because the hours were long, the money was short, and the career path was non-existent. There is nothing harder than miking a rock and roll band so that you can hear every word the singer sings, and nothing makes that more difficult than singers who mumble their words because, if you turn the pots on the singer’s mikes up, you inevitably pick up other instruments, generating unwanted echoes and reverbs.

On the other hand, no sound man wants to work with a screamer because screamers distort your whole setup, and their sound bleeds into the other mikes, which means you have be johnny on the spot to turn them down before you blow some eardrums. Miley Cyrus is a screamer, all right, but she screams with precision.

Try listening to Miley Cyrus covering a Fleetwood Mac song and tell me she doesn’t have Christy McVie down pat. Or, check her against Bob Dylan’s version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and tell me her phrasing isn’t as good as Dylan’s was.

One of things that’s really hard for singers to get is the breathing patterns they need to adopt for certain classic songs. If you don’t get the breathing right, you can’t sing the song, any more than you can play the song without having the chord progressions down pat. If you watch her very closely, you can see her counting her breaths. (Watch her head. She nods to herself ever so slightly when she turns the corner on a difficult phrase.)

Sometimes, a singer takes you by storm. You’re immediately overwhelmed by the pizzazz of the delivery. Madonna and Lady Gaga comes to mind in that respect. Never was any doubt that Madonna was a keeper, or that Lady Gaga is one. Sometimes, however, a singer has to grow slowly on you and, occasionally, by the time you get the message, the singer is already gone.

Miley Cyrus is growing on me. I’m not going to inflict a Miley Cyrus concert on myself, or my significant other, either, but I will pick up a compilation of her covers and, if she should ever gets to do a duet with Dylan, McVie, or just about anyone else, I’ll buy a front row seat for that show. It may not be obvious to the casual listener, but this girl loves harmonies, and so do I.

If there’s one thing Cyrus needs is for someone to come along who can write some good original songs for her. She may think she can write songs, and maybe someday she will get to that plateau, but her life experience to this point hasn’t provided her with the angst that a great songwriter needs to write great songs. To reach the people, you have to be the people, and that’s the one thing that no one will give Miley Cyrus a chance to be: one of the people.

It’s really hard to get off the star path and, when someone does, it is even harder get back up there again, so most of the people who make it to star status never take the chance by stepping down off their pedestals and mixing with the groundlings who buy their music. But the people love nothing more than the star who can forget the stardom long enough to pick up the common threads of ordinary lives and weave them into something we recognize as an important reflection on the way things are right now.

Someone once asked me why poets think they have to suffer to produce their poetry. I told him then that poets don’t suffer in order to produce poetry; they write poetry because they’ve already done the suffering, so they might as well get some poetry out of it. (He became a forensic psychiatrist, whatever that is. I became a poet, and I am still trying to figure out what that is. To each his own.)

You don’t have to suffer quite as much to be a songwriter as you do as a poet, but it helps. I don’t know if Cyrus has that kind of greatness in her, but no one else knows that either, one way or the other. What I do know is that she’s a candidate for greatness, if she doesn’t blow it, and that’s so tragically easy to do with the temptations people will insist on putting in front of her. I don’t know what the future has in store for Miley Cyrus,and you don’t either. I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned to find out what is going to befall her. I assure you that we will all be informed about the outcome, if we all live long enough for the future to unfold.

Musical Commentary by Alan M. Milner

Studio Version of “Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”:

Live version from Ellen DeGeneres:


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