Review: Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus stake their claims on pop stardom, again
Miley Cyrus plays a pop star in an upcoming episode of the sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” Set in the near future, the dystopian drama looks as creepy as usual — but it’s also a little quaint, since it suggests Cyrus will still be the type for that job in 10 or 20 years.
Music has moved quickly in the streaming era beyond the models that flourished in the 2000s and early 2010s. Not so long ago, Post Malone and Cardi B were redefining how idols emerge (and what their music sounds like); then Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X showed up and threatened to somehow make Post and Cardi feel like the establishment.
Yet the old stars haven’t disappeared. Taylor Swift recently dropped her single “Me!”; Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber teamed this month for “I Don’t Care.” (Both songs have been blocked from the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 by Lil Nas X’s viral country-trap smash, “Old Town Road.”) Now Cyrus and Katy Perry, both of whom have been with us for well over a decade, are back with new music that came out Friday.
Tellingly, each project symbolizes something of a reset. Cyrus’ “She Is Coming” — a six-song EP the singer says will be the first of three such releases in 2019 — finds her dabbling in hip-hop again after she turned away from it for 2017’s self-consciously rustic “Younger Now.” Perry’s “Never Really Over,” meanwhile, does essentially the opposite: It’s a touchy-feely electro-pop jam meant to wipe memories of the garish Migos collaboration that helped sink Perry’s 2017 album, “Witness.”
It should surprise nobody, of course, that Cyrus, 26, has re-embraced the genre she infamously disparaged while talking up “Younger Now,” which went on to be all but ignored. Show-biz opportunism is such a strong Cyrus family tradition that Miley’s own dad, Billy Ray, beat her to the punch with his stunt cameo on the “Old Town Road” remix.
But if “She Is Coming” was clearly devised as a means of keeping up with the kids — there’s even a line where Cyrus pledges allegiance to Cardi B over the relatively ancient Nicki Minaj — the EP has a daffy energy that reminds you why it was fun to pay attention to Cyrus in the first place.
On the throbbing “Mother’s Daughter” she’s a “freak” warning folks from messing with her “freedom”; on “Cattitude” she and RuPaul trade unprintable rhymes about their bodies over an amped-up marching-band beat. “Unholy” and “D.R.E.A.M.” — the latter stands for “drugs rule everything around me” — are woozier and more melancholy; “Party Up the Street,” with Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, hints at the light reggaeton groove that’s proved inescapable on Top 40 radio since “Despacito.”
Yet Cyrus closes “She Is Coming” with that most old-fashioned of pop-star moves: a power ballad, “The Most,” dedicated to someone whose “tender touch is the healing that I seek.”
“Never Really Over,” which presumably heralds the arrival of Perry’s fifth studio album, has healing in mind as well; its video follows Perry as she checks into a rehab facility for people with broken hearts.
And like Cyrus, Perry is borrowing sounds from today’s young hitmakers — in this case the close-miked ASMR finger-snaps that figure so prominently in Eilish’s music. (Zedd co-produced “Never Really Over,” his second collaboration with Perry following the recent “365.”)
But Perry seems uninterested in projecting the kind of rough edges that have come to define pop stardom in the years since she was regularly topping charts. At 34, maybe she views that position as being out of reach; perhaps her prime-time gig on “American Idol” makes edge a liability rather than an asset. Either way, she still believes in the idea of the untouchable persona, which aligns “Never Really Over,” with its willfully imprecise lyrics and its carefully reverbed vocals, with “Me!” by her old frenemy Swift.
For Swift, that approach hasn’t yet fended off the newcomers eager to take her place in the near future. Despite her single’s charms, Perry is probably no better protected.
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