For some, the name Miley Cyrus has become something of a trigger as the result of last year, inspiring wild and terrible visions of naked wrecking ball romps, sledgehammer licking, giant cat memes, aggressive hip bones, Terry Richardson and that fucking tongue.
But with her Unplugged special, which aired last night — a lost relic of MTV’s early programming — Miley did exactly what Miley needed to do in 2014: Bring it back to the music.
Not that she didn’t have herself a lil’ fun first: The stage, one major “Yeehaw!“, brought out the true Southern belle in Miley, as she gleefully skipped onto the stage in cowboy boots and a Dolly Parton-lite get-up (complete with a purse, even!) amidst hay bales and wagon wheels.
The first few performances were spent funneling her 2013 antics into one lively mini-spectacle, twerking up against a human-made horse and a requisite little person hypewoman, to twangy acoustic Bangerz renditions, from “4X4” to “Do My Thang” to “#getitright.”
Infinitely better, though, was when Miley came out decked out in a bedazzled, be-tattered denim two piece and a bikini to belt out some of the more heartfelt tracks from the record, including “Adore You,” “Rooting For My Baby,” a cover of Dolly Parton‘s “Jolene” (which she nailed years ago during her Backyard Sessions) and my personal favorite, “Drive” — all of which showcased her genuinely impressive live vocal ability.
Her confident swagger and warm interactions with the audience kept what could have otherwise been a dull hour long set feeling consistently special and intimate, as she cracked self-deprecating jokes and remained entirely aware of the Buzzfeed listicle-generating, attention-seeking antics that propelled her to mainstream ubiquity in 2013. But as we, The Lovers Of Pop Music, have known for ages now, Miley’s got a great voice — in fact, she’s one of the best pop performers of the new school.
At the end of the night, Miley suddenly burst into a Madonna‘s “Don’t Tell Me,” for the night’s not-so-secret surprise: the Queen of Pop herself, arising from the audience in all her Music-era cowgirl glory. Riding high off of co-hosting a LGBT-friendly mass-marriage at the Grammys, the industry titan sauntered her way onstage for a quick do-si-do with Miley.
It was a fleetingly joyous, somewhat embarrassing exchange, as Miley largely played the aggressor and wrapped her arms around Madonna, bump ‘n grinding with all the fumbling awkwardness of a teenaged boy at a middle school dance. Still, Madonna was a more than willing participant, belting out lines from Miley’s own fuck-off anthem, “We Can’t Stop.” And with a quick dual tongue lash to the crowd, it was over just like that.
If Madonna’s appearance last night served any purpose, it wasn’t really to further her own agenda (although having a whole generation of tweens hear “Don’t Tell Me” for the first time was no doubt a win), but rather as a gesture of approval. Much as her 2003 tango with Britney and Christina at the VMAs symbolically knighted the two as the reigning Pop Princesses, her appearance during Miley’s set last night 10 years later seemed to acknowledge Miley’s first baby steps toward the throne. (Also, let’s keep it 100%: Of all the newer girls, Miley’s the one who’s emotive ability and ballsy attitude most closely recalls the Material Girl’s own.)
But beyond her killer vocals, Miley’s Unplugged set did something even better than proving that there’s talent behind the twerking: It brought us back to a time when artists were simply performing on television — for long stretches of time, at that! — without relying largely on multi-million dollar theatrics, dancers and pyrotechnics to carry the performance.
Last night’s show was no doubt still an expensive endeavor, but for the first time in a long time (or maybe ever?), the pop-loving Tumblr generation was exposed a full set of intimate televised music-making with very limited on-stage diversion. And for the first time in a long time, MTV felt like Music Television again.
Brava, Mileybird. You done good.