By Yi Wu
Miley Cyrus’ 2017 song “Malibu” generated shockwaves throughout the commentariat, not for its bold display of sexuality or drug use, but rather for its perceived blunting of all of the edges on the Cyrus they once knew in her “We Can’t Stop” days. Jake Boyer of Highsnobiety was particularly acerbic, “[‘Malibu’ is] so inoffensive that it carries a negative sum of offensiveness … as stale and worn as the dentures of a nursing home resident.” New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich was likewise unforgiving, “‘Malibu’ is such a vigorous left turn that it casts her prior experimentalism … in an ugly light … she has scrubbed … any hints of the hip-hop and R&B she once lauded and imitated makes her previous embrace … disingenuous, if not sinister.” We can justifiably discuss cultural appropriation in which Cyrus might have engaged. Yet, I argue Boyer and Petrusich’s suggestions that Cyrus had jettisoned rebellion in a “sharp about-face”, “lost all sense of her own character”, “embracing antiquated notions of femininity and propriety”, may be incorrect, by presenting my novel interpretation of “Malibu”.
Cyrus simply chose, this time, to place her subversive content between the lines. It is what philosopher Leo Strauss termed the “esoteric” way. Strauss’ theories are for discovering the esoteric from “exoteric” discourse in Greek texts, not pop songs, but we don’t need academics’ pontification to know how easy meaning can be hidden in poetry or lyrics. In our age of information-overload where our attention span is so short, concealing the true message to be uncovered by select diligent fans only is an art of experimentation.
The opening lines, “I never came to the beach or stood by the ocean / I never sat by the shore under the sun with my feet in the sand / But you brought me …” are, to me, a not-so-subtle invitation to read “Malibu” with a grain of satirical salt. As a well-to-do artist, it’s more likely than not Cyrus has been to beaches, therefore “never … you did” instead indicates “you” is creating a false savior/white knight narrative to the speaker, instilling an ersatz perception of innovation. Sounds familiar to a current powerful man who likes to claim he’s the first one to do whatever he does?
The following lines, “… I get so scared of what I can’t understand / But here … next to you / The sky is more blue … I’d spend the rest of my life … here … You would explain the current, as I just smile” reads equally like infatuation and eerily, a mixture of mansplaining, gaslighting and false promises. The “you” seems to be an all-powerful figure who is capable of wantonly altering the narrator’s sensory perception and then explain about it in the “rest of [the narrator’s] life”. Pretty scary, right?
The narrator takes a step further, pondering about the factuality of her own existence, when she sings “Do we even exist?” The intensity of this psychological manipulation and control reaches its zenith.
What is in the final stanza “Malibu”, “I feel like I’m drowning and you’re there to save me”, is the nail in the coffin. Here what the song is really about becomes apparent to me. The narrator “feels” like she is between life and death and the “you” is there to “save”! This is in no way an equal relationship between two loving souls, but rather all-encompassing power of one, the false savior, the false prophet, over the other, whose being is always at the verge of becoming nothing.
On occasion, the speaker does scream faintly her desire for freedom. Just after she says she wants her lover to “explain the currents”, she suddenly “make[s] the wish / To swim away with the fish”. Note the absence of “us” or “together” here in this wish.
Now, we can start to see “Malibu”, on its surface is a simple song seen as within our societal norms to a fault, in a different light: a close reading can infuse these same words a much more subversive meaning with references to effects of mind control techniques. Cyrus must be proud for having fooled many critics with her song’s exoteric layer.
One, like the contributors of the Genius annotation to “Malibu”, can retort my argument by citing the Billboard interview, where Cyrus stated “I’m from Nashville. I never really went to the beach” in a lengthy explanation. While I admit the possibility that she was truthful, I cannot but wonder why she made this point in a seemingly unprompted yet emphatic manner. From the video no one asked Cyrus whether the lyrics are true. It smells rather like an unnecessary attempt at cover-up. Many people in the world live in landlocked regions and have their first-time visits to the beach, yet their excitement on such visits would appear more natural than how Cyrus showed it, without the contradiction between yearning for freedom and total dependence on another person who made the sky bluer. And they would not need to be like, “I really, really have not been here before, totally”.
This thought reminded me of the well-known Chinese adage, yu gai mi zhang, with its dictionary definition “The more one tries to hide, the more is exposed.”
Note that the infinite openness of the ocean stands in stark contrast with the speaker’s inability to break free of her lover’s mind control. Despite her desire to “swim away with the fish”, she still feels like “drowning” and in need of being “saved” by the lover. What is the cause of this dilemma? It is precisely the kind of “antiquated notions of femininity and propriety” Petrusich refers to, and Cyrus can be read as critiquing, rather than “embracing”, these notions in light of the above.
Ordinary listeners are not be held blameworthy for not exploring into deeper layers of a Cyrus song. A more careful commentator should know better than this taking-songs-literally approach, lest s/he accuses Johnny Cash of, or of promoting, the sundry violent crimes depicted in his lyrics. Boyer and Petrusich’s observations are based on a superficial, exoteric reading of “Malibu” while neglecting what Cyrus wrote between the lines, the esoteric.
A few months after Cyrus’ “Malibu” was released, Chelsea Wolfe’s “Hiss Spun” arrived to the scene with much fanfare also. While it is unlikely for Cyrus and Wolfe, two artists whose genres seldom overlap, to have collaborated or coordinated behind their song-writing, I believe the opening song for Hiss Spun, “Spun”, uncovers what “Malibu” conceals with unadulterated honesty and laser-like precision.
While I thought I had recognized the subtle discussion on the effects of psychological manipulation and control, I would only have a very inchoate, amorphous image of it. With “Spun”, where Wolfe delivers her lyrical whirlwinds with jarring, doom-filled music in the background, every aspect that compose the entirety of the intense trauma and distortion that must have been suffered by the speaker in “Malibu” is laid bare, out to the open. The bandage is removed.
In “Spun”, the extreme emotional attachment between the narrator and the lover is depicted as “Heavy love /Coiled and spun“, which left her “restless”, “hung” and “sick”. It is a spiraling chain, an addiction that looks hopeless and inescapable, as she sings, “I destroy myself and then I want it again”.
Whereas “Malibu” shows the falsification of senses in a seemingly positive light where “sky is more blue”, Wolfe is explicit and strident and the result is the rapid-fire volley of mind-altering phenomena, one after another “The hyperosmia and the base sense / The prodrome and the aura / The shadows and the sleep deprivation / The trichomes and the deliriants”, pushing consciousness to its limits.
Unlike Cyrus in “Malibu”, Wolfe proffers a resolution as to how to break through the precarious situation of the narrators in her and Cyrus’ songs: to promptly “cut through the fear conditioning / To finally understand / It was all and everything or nothing”.
“It was all and everything or nothing”, which is repeated again and again at the end of “Spun”, can be understood in two ways. It harkens to the metaphor of drowning in “Malibu” and illustrates how, when having her mind locked in the coiled shackles, the narrator’s existence is seen as constantly in danger and in need of rescue and maintenance by the manipulative lover. In addition, it also stresses on the urgency of “cutting through”, that the mind must be freed so the narrator can recover the self and assertive existence that rightfully belongs to her.
That torrential undercurrent of emotions, a vortex originated from imbalance and manipulation that were just dripping to the outside world like a slow, G-rated love tale as told by Cyrus has now flooded the well-paved streets of seaside California from the lyrical and musical spigot that Wolfe unleashed. In this sense, “Spun” is the perfect companion song to “Malibu”. In today’s post-truth world, Cyrus is your friendly neighbor who smiles and tells loudly that all is fine and good, while whispering at your ear “things are not what they seem to be”, and Wolfe is the stern-faced swordswoman who comes to warn you, “we are surrounded by deceivers, get out now.”
To “cut through the fear conditioning” is how the speaker in “Malibu” can become free and “swim away” by fully accepting the openness conveyed by the ocean metaphor. When Cyrus sings “I get so scared of what I can’t understand”, Wolfe’s answers with an orotund voice and steely determination, “Cut through the fear conditioning to finally understand!”
Yi Wu is a Chinese-born, New York-based writer and poet. His work has appeared on Uppagus, New Verse News, Occasional Roughage by Other Rooms Press, indefinite space, among others, and his poetry collection A Fistful of Moss and Poppy Seeds was released in 2016.