Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I still think Miley Cyrus's 'We Can't Stop' is a sad song

It's the end of 2013. Well, it's close to the end, anyway. And naturally, this is the time when we all reflect on the past 12 months of our lives — where did it go wrong? where did it go right? what were the big events of the year? And I don't know why I woke up this morning thinking about this, but one of the biggest events of 2013 is Miley Cyrus. I know she's a person and not an event, but throughout the year it seemed that Miley Cyrus wasn't just a person, or a pop star, or a Disney actress going through a "transition." She was a spectacle, a topic to be discussed (also, disgust), a chance for talking heads to get on their soap box. As she said in her MTV "documentary:" This was a strategic hot mess. She even states that now no one can put her face on something and just sell it like they used to in the heyday of Hannah Montana. Miley traveled so far to the other side of the spectrum so that people would stop associating her with her Hannah Montana alter ego, so that they couldn't stop talking about her.

We can't stop stalking about her. We can't stop. Just like her summer anthem. When I first heard "We Can't Stop" right before summer was set to begin, I thought it sounded almost lifeless. I turned to my sister and said how it was slow and kind of depressing, without paying much attention to the lyrics. Now, I have no problem with a sad song, I just didn't think it would climb the charts with how melancholy it sounded. It took several repeated listenings, but eventually "We Can't Stop" was engrained into my brain in its pop predictability.

I have no arguments for this: "We Can't Stop" is a good, solid pop record. But it didn't sound like all other pop records I've heard. I'm sure if you despise pop music, it all sounds like the same dreck. In fact, people say that every day about "We Can't Stop." We've made an entire year of statements like that. Listening to "We Can't Stop," however, was different than listening to the other (number one, according to charts but not my personal iTunes history) summer anthem "Blurred Lines" or even "California Gurls" a couple of years ago. I don't think anyone listening was able to articulate it; we all thought it was different yet still catchy. Then the video came out, which looked like a hodgepodge of non sequitur eye candy. By the end of the summer, all I could think of was how disconnected its anthem status was to how I felt listening to Miley almost whine on the record. Apparently, I wasn't alone; a perhaps over-analytical Business Insider article mentioned the same (met with some perhaps deserved guffaws), as did Philly Mag, and other bloggers.

2013 was a year of satirizing the rich and famous and the vapid young people who look up to a life of nothing but fame. We opened the year with Spring Breakers which was a film about exposing the shallow aspirations of our youth. Then, Lorde's number one hit "Royals" came, which poked fun at songs about money and partying, while still pointing out the narrator's own duplicity for wanting those things. And the summer began with The Bling Ring, which was in the same vein.

To me, "We Can't Stop" is just another addition to the social commentary. To me, Miley Cyrus has made a year of subverting expectations. She spent an entire year trying to tarnish her good name and decided to release an album titled Bangerz. But Bangerz opens up with "Adore You," a pop ballad love song. Bangerz is an album with only about three or four certified club bangers actually in it — "We Can't Stop," "SMS (Bangerz)," "Love Money Party," and "Do My Thang" — out of 13 songs. For all the hullabaloo of Miley Cyrus releasing an album that will destroy our young'uns' morality and innocence, she earnestly decided to open the album with a song where she belts in a slow ballad, "Baby, baby, are you listening? / Wondering where you've been all my life / I just started living / … / When you say you love me, know I love you more / When you say you need me, know I need you more / Boy, I adore you."

And if you listened to the song, you'd agree that it transitions quite easily into the second one on the album, "We Can't Stop," musically. "We Can't Stop" is the most auto-tuned and computerized Miley Cyrus sounds on the entire album. Sure, there are some tweaks here and there for sonic effect throughout, but "We Can't Stop" makes an entire record of her processed voice or the processed voice of others. It begins with a deep male voice declaring that they can't stop — can't. When Miley asks for a "hell no," someone can barely yell it out before fading into obscurity in the background. Whenever Miley screams out "yeah," it's processed to death and sounds like a flailing cry, coupled with her demure "oo-oohs" throughout the entire record.

I won't even get into the video (especially not the other more fundamental issues), but people hardly crack a smile in that thing, even though they're supposedly on molly. I won't say that every image in the music video is in support of its sadness, but only for the same reason that I won't say that everything about the song itself is attributing to its sadness, for the same reason I wouldn't say the same about Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring. For me, part of the genius of "We Can't Stop," as well as those films, is how it incorporates strong pop influences to masquerade as a summer banger. The same way Spring Breakers employed actors that fall into the demographic as well as appeal to the very demographic that it was satirizing, hoping to pass as a regular film, I feel about "We Can't Stop."

Even on her other party songs on the album, the theme is somewhat the same. On "Love Money Party," a song I disliked for being a bit lazy but mostly being redundant, Miley Cyrus sing-talks, "Money ain't nothing but money / When you get to the money, it ain't nothing but money, yeah / Love ain't nothing but love / When you learn how to love, it ain't nothing but love, yeah / Party ain't nothing but a party / When you party every day, it ain't nothing but a party, yeah." She even questions why she gave up her heart to someone who wasn't right for her, comparing a wrongful love to a one night stand. She chants, "Love, money, party" over and over as if its a vicious cycle, one she can't stop, lest she begin to realize it's all a fa├žade.

But I don't think anything is as telling when she finally says, "Money get low, and the DJ stop, then the music slow down, and that shit get blurry."

In fact, the only time Miley Cyrus sounds at all happy throughout the entire album is on "#GETITRIGHT," a song about waiting for her lover to get home or begin paying attention to her so that they can, well, get it on.

I know plenty will think it a stretch. And I know many are saying that Miley Cyrus didn't really have a hand in writing "We Can't Stop." In truth, it was a song that was supposed to be for Rihanna. But Cyrus does retain a writing credit on it, so who knows how it changed. She also has a writing credit on "Love Money Party," a song that, if you don't think "We Can't Stop" is much more illuminating than it seems, all too obviously clashes with the superficial elements of "We Can't Stop."

Or maybe Cyrus didn't mean to do this on purpose. But I agree with Philly Mag, art speaks for itself. I think Cyrus has definitely proven to be at least a bit self-aware about her 2013 antics. She understands what she's doing, just as we know she's only trying to shock everyone; she certainly wouldn't have opened up Bangerz with "Adore You" if not. Bangerz is so wistful in its own right, and whenever I listen to "We Can't Stop," I can't help but feel the same way — that it's a song about being caught up in the flashiness of being young, having money, popping mollies, and wishing you could stop to feel at some point, but you just can't. You can stop for the fleeting moment it details and enjoy it for its pop catchiness and then you can make note of what it is.

And when I look back at 2013, I can't help but feel that a lot of our pop culture was criticizing this very thing. It was a trend I think we passively ignored, from Spring Breakers to "Royals" to The Bling Ring. And whether intentional or not, whether you agree or don't, for me, "We Can't Stop" will be lumped with them.

When I'm in the mood, "We Can't Stop" is a summer party anthem I can sway and shimmy with. And at other times, it's the most depressing thing I've listened to the entire year.

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