Journalism

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Riviera Theatre, Chicago
Featuring dildos, drag queens and someone dressed as a set of teeth, Miley Cyrus takes her stadium show and crams it into a small theatre, with chaotic results

MARK GUARINO Friday 20 November 2015 10.55 EST

Maybe it was when Miley Cyrus appeared onstage wearing a purple fright wig, a horse’s tail and a giant rubber strap-on dildo that her show turned from playful irony to painful overstatement.

No wait, that happened earlier. Like when she dressed like a human stick of butter to sing the song Slab of Butter. Or when she sang The Floyd Song (Sunrise) dressed as the sun. Then there was that time she sang a song (BB Talk) comprised primarily of X-rated baby blather dressed … as a baby.

At the Riviera Theatre on Thursday, Cyrus opened her eight-city Dead Petz tour featuring songs from an online album she released in September featuring the Flaming Lips, the veteran pop surrealists from Oklahoma City. Her label, RCA, doesn’t consider the free stream-only release an official album and you can see the logic: clocking in at over 90 minutes, the 23-track album has moments of greatness but only if you have patience. Petz is a dog needing a leash, or in this case an editor. Ambitious with musical ideas, it is more like a gratuitous vanity project than a fully formed piece of work.

No surprise, then, that this abbreviated theatre tour also operates on indulgence. Whereas many stadium artists turn to smaller venues when they want to express vulnerabilities, or just feel the need to recast their music in a more stripped-down setting, Cyrus simply brought the stadium with her and crammed it through the doors. Cannons plunged the audience in a downpour of confetti, dozens of balloons were dispatched over the bobbing heads of her fans, a colossal disco-ball descended from above, drag queens performed the splits, and minions padded behind the star attraction dressed as rainbows, animals, and even a set of teeth.

For a former child star, the funhouse environment is natural. The greater challenge was finding a purpose. The gorging of big-budget visuals didn’t complete any musical thought but seemed more intended for social media; each time Cyrus appeared onstage in a new contraption, you could almost hear Instagram groan under the weight of all those smartphone uploads.

Indeed, at times the lasers, fog or balloons covered the stage so completely that the performers themselves disappeared, masking deficiencies that became evident as the night grew long: the band itself felt unrehearsed, the costume changes forced awkward lulls between songs, and Cyrus herself forgot her lyrics, especially when sitting alone onstage at a piano playing simple chord changes. It was as if a magic wand had suddenly sent the middle school pageant to Broadway: so many of the gestures, as simple as they were, looked expensive but didn’t have much else going for them.

The show yielded moments like The Floyd Song (Sunrise) when, to express emotion, Cyrus sang to a bouquet of flowers. Then she threw them to the floor and stomped on them with her giant moon boots. Then she dropped to her knees and sang to their crushed petals. Then, to show she was sad about what just happened, she hugged a giant blue balloon. Andrew Lloyd Webber, are you taking notes?

Maybe the greatest mystery about this project is the involvement of the Flaming Lips. For decades, this respected – if not downright revered – band produced several albums considered psych-pop touchstones. Yet here was leader Wayne Coyne, 54, reduced to the role of his lead singer’s roadie, backup singer, and hype man. Besides a paycheque, it’s difficult to imagine what else he and partner-keyboardist Steven Drozd are getting out of this deal. Coyne doted on Cyrus like a handler while otherwise remaining in the background. He and his band recreated their signature sound of lush synths and electro-funk beats, but without the surrealist fantasies. It was like witnessing Salvador Dali agree to reproduce his former masters using paint by numbers.

There were times Cyrus and the Lips engaged. The pretty ballad Space Boots sounded like a outtake from the Lips’ celebrated Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots album; the electro rock of Bang Me Box briefly snapped the musicians together, and for Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz, she played a singing bowl while singing lovely wordless harmonies. But it was she who interrupted the potential of these songs. The gauzy folk-pop of Karen Don’t Be Sad is a highlight on the album, but while performing it live, Cyrus wanted all attention directed to that swinging dildo. It was strange how the one person pushing you away from one of the best songs of the night was the singer herself.

Then again, the twin musical themes of the two-hour, 15-minute show were getting baked and getting laid and no, they were not as provocative as intended. Cyrus, who turns 23 next week, rattled off her sexual complaints with partners in explicit detail and bragged about how many bowls she smokes. Yet for a performer so intent to show her raunchy bona fides, she appeared more like an ingenue hungry to shock and awe.

Cyrus is a pop star who is brave because she is willing to take on the world unvarnished. But this tour is further evidence that her carefully manicured transition from child star to adult mega-wonder is cumbersome because it is such an oversell. One day she may return to the small theatres to show an audience the things she hasn’t already. And despite the nipple-baring outfits, that’s a lot.

 

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