When Miley Cyrus started hanging around with the Flaming Lips a few months back, the obvious reaction among Lips fans – myself included – was one that poured disbelief into a cocktail of incredulity and added a dose of disgust, before shaking vigorously.
Why? Why would one of the finest modern psychedelic pop bands, one that had been offering a healthy alternative to the mainstream, run-of-the-mill dross that has become pop culture’s stock-in-trade of late, invite the enemy inside the gates of the Technicolor palace?
Were the Lips selling out? Were they simply grabbing the coattails of a controversial pop star of the moment, hoping to grab of few of Cyrus’ 15 minutes of fame for themselves? Reasonable questions all, and many people were asking them.
However, I find myself in the unexpected position of scribbling a defense of the Cyrus/Flaming Lips mutual admiration society. It feels very strange.
Part of the reason for this has to do with the Billboard Music Awards, which aired Sunday evening. This annual joke of a self-congratulatory music industry hoedown has never been something to take particularly seriously. It’s several notches below the Grammys on the credibility scale, and when you consider the fact that the Grammys have bartered away the majority of their own credibility in an embarrassing race to convince the masses that they actually have a finger on the pulse... well, you get the picture.
During the show, a satellite broadcast had the Lips and Cyrus on stage in Manchester, England. Cyrus flanked Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, and both were dressed in what appeared to be large Afghan coats made out of glittery tinsel. The group dove into a take on the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” as I sat back in my angry chair, prepared to curse this unholy union.
And then something completely unexpected happened. I found myself digging it. Cyrus sounded quite good. The arrangement of the Beatles’ gem was brave, luxuriating as it did in a beautifully gauzy psychedelia. This was not irony, not tongue-in-cheek, not some sort of post-modern deconstruction of the Fabs. It was just highly creative jubilation.
I went back and read all of the available media literature on Cyrus’ Flaming Lips obsession with fresh eyes. And what I found was a young woman looking to expand her musical horizons far beyond the throwaway pop music she had previously traded in. Somehow, Cyrus had heard the Lips, and fallen deeply in love with their music. Interestingly, the Lips’ music reached Cyrus at a significant junction point in her life.
According to Coyne, the pairing is not as odd as it might first have appeared.
“Our shows are very childlike, like kids on acid, and hers are too,” he told Rolling Stone. “We’re so much alike in believing art is supposed to be fun. She’s just a freak. I love her to death.”
Now, the Lips have crafted their own version of the entire Beatles’ classic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” due in October. And guess who is featured prominently on the record? Yup. The girl who, a mere few months ago, was more famous for twerking than for anything else.
What I read in this story is the belief that young people who might be on a well-kept highway to a cultural nowhere can be deeply touched, affected and perhaps even transformed by music that puts art ahead of commerce. If Cyrus can leave the dark with an eye on the brighter side of the rainbow, who’s to say a Justin Beiber can’t?
Perhaps that seems like a bit of a stretch. But there is something genuinely touching at the heart of this unexpected generation-jumping union. It’s a case of good art and the open-minded artists who make that art choosing to act upon the often overlooked imperative to provide mentorship and guidance to younger generations. It’s fitting the music of the Beatles provided the common ground for this union. That music has been providing a shared meeting ground for artists of various ages – and for parents and their children, too – for decades. Now, it seems to have worked its magic once again.
Singing with the Flaming Lips hasn’t somehow transformed Miley Cyrus from a pop tart into Joni Mitchell overnight, mind you. But she’s on a new road, now. And it’s a road with possibility around every curve.