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There are many Cyruses in the world.
There is Billy Ray Cyrus, the Cyrus Prime, Acher of Breaky Hearts, Businessman of the Front and Partier of the Back.
There is Miley Ray Cyrus, the Cyrus That Was Promised, goddaughter of Dolly Parton and owner of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating celebrity stories. She’s been a megawatt child star, a fascinating pop culture provocateur, a welcome odd-duck vocalist in our musical canon, a friend of Bill Murray and a pretty dang good “Saturday Night Live” host.
There is Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian ruler.
There is Trace Cyrus, who has tattoos and a MySpace account.
And then there is Noah Cyrus, an 18-year-old pop upstart who came to South by Southwest with the kind of name recognition that makes you go “Oh, maybe I should check that out.” So, I checked that out for a few songs at a very-late-and-running-later showcase at Empire Garage.
Known until recently for child acting roles, Cyrus has released a string of buzzy singles leading up to a debut album expected this year, and she’s also opened up for Katy Perry on tour. (That puts her in the fine company of pop artists like Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen, for those seeking candy-coated context.) Cyrus’s trend-channeling pop is for parties and playlists and product placements. Songs like “Again” and “We Are…” are tight and glossy, sewing swatches of hip-hop and EDM sound into the canvas liberally, because that’s what the kids want, probably.
Played to the SXSW stage with enough bombastic guitar to soundtrack a montage from “Point Break,” Cyrus emerged at Empire Garage with a game face and a Bebe Neuwirth ‘do. She instantly played her own hype-woman, gamely working up the bleary-eyed crowd for “Nothing Lasts Forever.” In between sprints of rap-singing (it’s a family affair), Cyrus intoned “Wouldn’t it be nice to stay together for the night?” on the chorus. One of those naughty schoolyard chants about drinking and carousing, the kind of song you’ve heard on the radio and in mayonnaise commercials.
By the time we got to “My Way,” a turn-up that surprisingly doesn’t mention “Ibiza” even once, I noticed Cyrus’ calibrated efficiency as a stage performer. The choreographer’s flowchart was right there in plain sight, each movement across the space a tick on a checkbox. Up on the speaker. To the lip of the stage. Back to the mic stand. The singer’s face was tabula rasa from point to point, from note to note.
You’re supposed to do a cover at a festival these days, so Cyrus furnished “Feel It Still,” Alaska indie band Portugal. The Man’s big pop crossover success story. Cyrus’ vocals sounded technically superb — perhaps the strongest of her musical family — coming out of the sound system unblemished by little things like grit or breath or a sense of place. In between songs, Cyrus pitched hurried banter about being stubborn and about people being drunk. You love being drunk, remember?
Noah Cyrus, slick like the bumper for an MTV reality show set on one of America’s many scenic beaches, undeniably has the right stuff. She’s using that stuff to make capital-P Popular Music. Or at least, populist music.
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