In 2015, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz subverted the pop music narrative with one of the genre’s best albums. Instead of starting out as a soulful singer-songwriter and taking a sharp turn to the mainstream like many before her, Miley chose to take a career a decade in the making and do something unthinkable — make a challenging album that ignored the core audience she had spent so long amassing.
Commercially, it’s hard to say if Dead Petz was a failure. As Cyrus didn’t charge for the album, sales are irrelevant. Perhaps the biggest pull for her last record Bangerz were the controversial videos it spawned. Including director’s cut views, the first single “We Can’t Stop” racked up nearly 700 million visits to date. Its follow-up, “Wrecking Ball” landed just under 900 million — making it the fastest rising video ever featured on YouTube at the time.
In contrast, Dead Petz has fizzled. Lead single “Dooo It!” is still significantly under 20 million views, despite the fact that it premiered with all eyes on Miley at the 2015 VMAs she hosted. It’s hard to imagine a more press worthy moment, unless, of course, one thinks back to the way that she promoted Bangerz at the same awards show in 2013.
Coming on the heels of the first song from Dead Petz, Cyrus released “BB Talk” earlier this month. So far, it hasn’t even cracked 10 million hits. In fact, it’s only within about 12,000 dislikes of being more hated than loved on the site’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down system. That’s especially troublesome for fans who have dug into the rest of the album — that’s not much more pop on the record than “BB Talk” offers. It’s safe to say, Miley won’t be dropping another “Wrecking Ball” anytime soon.
Still, it doesn’t take a music critic to note that Cyrus couldn’t be bothered any less by this lack of popular recognition. Dead Petz is a cry to be taken seriously as an artist. Its songs are a push to be inventive and expressive, not to pre-package radio singles. While some have said she threw away what she built up in 2013, Miley could not have picked a better time to take this hard left: she’s flat-out too big to fail right now, even when she does.
Many of the criticisms levied at Dead Petz hold some truth. At 19 tracks, it is overlong. Cyrus drops dozens of drug references that become cumbersome, not because they are shocking, but because she runs out of words to describe them in an interesting way. A stunning lyricist, Miley is not; but the same can be said for two of the other women winning best pop album of 2015 in many circles: Adele and Carly Rae Jepsen. The lyrics to “Hello” are flatly cliché, as is, frankly, the entire rest of the song; and Carly’s smash single’s chorus is literally “I really, really, really, really, really like you. And I want you. Do you want me, too?”
So why are people hailing these two women while dismissing Dead Petz? Adele is certainly a more powerful vocalist than Cyrus, but she’s also insanely boring. “Hello” could have been featured on any of her preceding albums, even all the way back to 19. It’s a huge pop hit because it’s so inoffensive — it fails to challenge the listener, or rather succeeds in its dullness. Similarly, Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” is probably the best pop single of the year, but it will be quickly forgotten in favor of slicker models of the same formula utilized on the track.
Dead Petz, on the other hand, is a far-reaching freak show of a record. The psychedelic rock of “Karen, Don’t Be Sad” and “Tiger Dreams” fit along beautifully with the confessional pop moments of the record like “Space Boots.” Dead Petz can be boring, yes, and even tedious, but unlike so much pop music, the artist herself is not bored making it. There’s a genuine excitement in what’s being brought the table here that goes far beyond knowing you’ve just nailed another chart topper. You can hear it when her voice cracks in “Pablow the Blowfish,” that yearning necessity to sit down and record something — music as cathartic therapy.
Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is the best pop album of 2015 because it’s not about the hooks. It’s about the songs that don’t connect, and the vulnerability that comes along with putting them out there anyway.