By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
March 8, 2014 1:40 a.m.
She straddled the flying wiener.
Oh, and was strapped in by a guy dressed as a yellow mustard bottle.
Could this be secret code for some kind of Illuminati conspiracy? Or maybe a piece of German expressionist theater critiquing the cruel annihilation of animals for purposes of globalized food production and consumption?
No, Miley Cyrus straddled a flying wiener at the Allstate Arena Friday, and was strapped into the device by a guy dressed as mustard. The visual was one of 100 minutes worth in a show that starred Cyrus in her current hot moment as bratty provocateur and pop art tart. Here was spectacle run wild: Cyrus and creative director Diane Martel front-loaded the show with gobs of animated theater, live and on video, that served for no other purpose but to reinforce, not expand, the narrative Cyrus established last year, the one about the former Disney singer entering womanhood as a hyper-sexualized twerk-bot with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
About that tongue: Now one of the most iconic anatomical props in pop music history, along with Mick Jagger’s lips, Tina Turner’s legs, and, well, Gene Simmons’ tongue, the Cyrus tongue wagged profusely inside the Rosemont arena; in fact, the mouth organ made its debut at the start of the show represented as a giant inflatable slide on which Cyrus made her entrance, coasting down to the stage.
Yes, you may say that seemed somewhat over the top, but it was soon forgettable compared to the cavalcade of carnival curiosities that came next: Dancers dressed as plush animals, a neon orange creature operated by two puppeteers that stalked Cyrus, a trio of women who proved they could be the Olympian gold medalists of twerking, a super-sized bobble version of Big Sean, costumed extras dressed as giant foam fingers, a prop bed that produced dancers from under its sheets, an inflatable wolf that towered to the rafters, and so on.
There was also music, but let’s not rush things. There has not been a show in recent memory that appeared to be designed, not for the star, but for the smartphone cradled in the palm of every person in attendance, singer included. Selfies ruled — Every colossal absurdity meant more cues to the audience to snap snaps. Even during “Adore You,” when Cyrus obviously needed time for a breather, she borrowed a familiar White Sox routine and cued the audience to kiss on camera, which she broadcast on the big screen while she sang. (In-between lyrics, she complained the Chicago audience was too reserved and coached couples within her eyesight to start locking lips.) Then came her own selfie segment, when she performed a string of cover songs with microphone in one hand and yellow smartphone in the other, arm extended, screen turned to face.
All this hyper interaction between tiny and jumbo screens, on the stage and in the seats, felt perfectly natural for a performer whose post-Disney debut album, “Bangerz” (RCA), is intentionally brash and self-obsessed. That the audience consisted primarily of both young girls and women laid to rest claims her twerking burlesque was meant to titillate; the evening’s proceedings were presented, and received, as party-fueled empowerment. Artifice drove the show, which rarely paused to allow Cyrus to step into a more natural role. Instead, she presented herself as hardened, sneering, swaggering, all harsh qualities that far felt beyond her 21 years.
Yet amid the steel-plated veneer was a 7-member band that, unlike most stadium presentations by marquee stars, did not huddle in the shadows, but remained fully visible, ripe and engaged. The presence of two female backup singers often meant Cyrus sang accompanied with live reinforcement. There was also the unexpected: a banjo player who stepped out during “Do My Thang” to provide some country twang.
Late in the show, both band and star reappeared at the opposite end of the arena for an acoustic segment reminiscent of their recent “MTV Unplugged” set. Here was the moment where artist aptitude and audience apathy intersected. While Cyrus has chosen to lead her audience to both her back end and her tongue, her secret weapon remains her strengths as a live vocalist. During this moment, she sang a series of songs — Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness” — with breezy confidence and raw power.
Cyrus has what it takes to whip her audience into a frenzy during hip-hop workouts like Mike WiLL’s “23,” but the show reflected where there might be more to come: For her power ballad hit “Wrecking Ball,” she stood alone onstage to impressively belt to the rafters; the same during the introspective, and more subdued, “My Darlin’.”
Then came the surprise: her version of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” most certainly the only performance of the song by a singer wearing matching glitterball bra and hot pants. Even with a large segment of the audience taking the song as a cue to settle into their seats and check texts — Dylan who? — Cyrus showed that, if there is indeed a way forward, it might be as a straightforward singer who actually delivers songs without needing to book a ride on the flying wiener.