Miley Cyrus hits Milwaukee with crafty irreverence

Bill Lamb, Contributing writer

For audiences who attended Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz tour last night hoping to be shocked and titillated, it must have been a long evening. On the other hand, those looking for an irreverent concert fueled by music ranging from country classics to hip hop were likely to have left Milwaukee’s BMO Harris Bradley Center with a smile.

After her ill-conceived, headline-grabbing performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards last fall, it was difficult to know what to expect from Cyrus. For those who’ve seen her televised performances, the Bangerz tour is really not that shocking.

While an abundance of sexuality was on display, from the bedroom antics of “#GETITRIGHT” to riding a gold, low-riding SUV with full crotch on display for “Love Money Party,” the performance presented a carefully designed, engaging set piece for each song. There was enough variety to keep audience members wondering throughout the evening what was coming next.

Prior to the tour, Cyrus announced that “our whole tour is literally based on animals,” and she did not disappoint in the zoologic arena, although her animals were in fact ithe imaginative designs of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. These ranged from dancing teddy bears to a 50-foot wolf that accompanied Cyrus’ energetic performance of “Can’t Be Tamed.”  A red-and-white plaid, two-person horse helped deliver the winking country music parody “4×4.” It’s hard to describe the orange fuzzy creature that stalked the stage for the hip-hop torch ballad “FU.”

Although the strong majority of the audience appeared to be heterosexual 20-something women, from the opening act onward it was clear that everyone was welcome at this show. Swedish pop duo Icona Pop, who last fall delivered a memorable Marc Klasfeld-directed Ball culture music video for the song “All Night,” opened the show, bringing the arena to life with the top-10 pop hit “I Love It.” Cyrus engaged in a few moments of same-gender sexuality onstage as she groped one of her female backup dancers.  A benefit of Cyrus’ anything-goes approach is an air of acceptance.

Despite the spectacle, at the heart of any Cyrus performance lies her vocal talent.  While it is clear there are recorded backing tracks included in the tour, seven years as a high-profile live performer have honed her vocal skills.

One of the most rewarding segments of the performance was the intimate acoustic session that came approximately two-thirds of the way into the show. Cyrus sang songs that ranged from Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks classic “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” to a country reworking of OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and a signature performance of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene.”

The energy seemed to flag somewhat for the first encore of mega-hits “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball,” but the exuberance returned for a closing confetti cannon and fireworks round of “Party In the USA,” complete with dancing Liberty Bell, Statue Of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.

Often overlooked in assessments of Cyrus’ recorded and live work is the liberal use of parody to poke fun at everything from discomfort with her subject matter to country music tradition and overused symbols of wealth in the hip-hop community. Witness the spangled leotard decorated with cannabis leaves topped off with an oversized marijuana pendant. Or the song “4×4,” with its line, “Bang on the dashboard, just chipped a nail,” and “Do My Thang’s” line, “I’m a Southern belle crazier than hell.” Both are refreshingly irreverent parodies of the drama in country music songwriting.

There was clearly nothing to do but laugh when Cyrus pulled out all the wealth-obsessed, hip-hop culture stops with a gold-plated, low-riding SUV shooting dollar bills around the stage while the singer rode the hood with her legs spread wide.

Will the Bangerz tour be dismissed as a pop culture artifact in 20 years, or will it be seen as part of the arrival of an enduring artist? Cyrus has already shown some of the hallmarks of endurance.  She’s adept at reinventing herself and bringing her core audience along for the ride. Few young artists have better connections within the pop music establishment. She worked with Pharrell Williams, the hottest pop producer of the moment, on her album — and then returned the favor on his. She was able to enlist 20-year veteran music video director Diane Martel as the tour’s creative director.

Also, Cyrus has carefully aligned herself with iconic figures Britney Spears (there was a Britney Spears mask carried on stage in opening number “SMS Bangerz”) and Madonna. And we know something about their staying power.