A giant neon wagon wheel, hay bales and blindingly rhinestoned nudie suits? It's "Miley Cyrus: Unplugged" y'all! Despite the franchise's reputation for calming acoustic sets, Miley didn't calm it down one bit. One hundred or so fans, friends and press gathered at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood on Tuesday night to watch the Queen of Obscene. She brought her usual posse with her, in addition to none other than the former Queen of Obscene, Madonna. It was a true passing of the torch, if you could pass a torch with a butt grab. But more on that later.
As 'smilers' sat glued to the television for the airing of her performance Wednesday night, they enjoyed a little trip to Cyrus's home in Nashville, Tennessee with the Western hoedown-themed set. Miley's partners joined her on stage: Amazon Ashley (her 6'7'' twerk teacher) in red gingham Western wear, one of her little person back-up dancers in a matching gingham jumpsuit and pointy boobs worthy of Madonna, and a two male dancers in a classic horse costume.
When Cyrus kicked off the show, she was hoofing it like Yosemite Sam in her own skin-tight red gingham jumpsuit decked out with rhinestones-a-plenty, a little grey Chanel purse, a blonde bob wig, topped off with a white rhinestoned cowboy hat that was a personal gift from Madonna. Country shuffles, banjo ditties and her even more pronounced Southern accent highlighted the first few songs. But she didn't let the hoedown theme stop her from grinding on that horse, grabbing her chest and sticking her butt in every direction.
If there's anything Cyrus kept from her Disney days, it's her ability to ham it up harder than a pig farm.
She later changed into an oversized, shredded denim jacket, jeans and bikini top that was even more bedazzled and sequined than the last. Between songs she complained of sweating, prompting a cameraman to sigh to himself, "Then take your sweater off, girl." Unaware of the comment, she didn't take off her jacket, saying, "I already tried that on MTV, didn't go so well. Actually it went really well... You can look at life one way or the other; half-naked or half-clothed."
Outfits and mayhem aside, Cyrus sang beautifully. She is often written off and scrutinized because of the reputation she has built for herself. But strip away the outrageous outfits and stage shows, and lovely voice with a charming country twang is what you're left with. For the show, her voice wasn't helped along at all, and the audience couldn't even really hear the back-up singers. It's strong, consistent and hits the mark, bouyed with emotion and style. In person it was fantastic and effortless. Even her ballad "Wrecking Ball" came off gloriously, despite it being a fairly difficult song. One take was all Cyrus needed.
Now let's get down to what you didn't see:
1. Applause, cheering and even laughter was pre-recorded. Sure there was real cheering immediately after songs when the show aired, but the stage manager had the crowd cheer, clap and laugh at different levels, and took reaction shots of audience members before anyone hit the stage. That laughter at one of Miley's so-so jokes? Could be padded. That girl's look of utter delight? Could be prompted.
2. Audience placement was heavily edited. Several production people were essentailly casting where people sat. It was almost as if each bench represented its own demographic. Rest assured, behind all those hip, young people were a bunch of tired, old men.
3. Miley's parents were in the audience, but not together. Tish sat in the front row with a gray T-shirt and messy blonde bun, while Billy Ray watched from in one of the elevated boxes behind the cameras. So when Miley was grinding on Madonna, talking about getting stoned and grabbing herself, her mom and dad were right there. Awkward! But Billy Ray had everyone in his section clapping along without stopping and gave only a few concerned dad faces when she was doing a sexy move. He was in absolute heaven when she performed her cover of "Aunt Dolly's" song "Jolene," which she slayed.
4. Madonna's audience seat mates were plants. For the "surprise" duet, Madonna got up from a seat in the audience to join Miley on stage. The people who sat beside the singer walked in with her when she was seated, and walked out when she left for both takes. They were probably assistants or studio team members coached to feign utter shock for the cameras and to provide a safety buffer for the pop icon.
5. The Miley-Madonna butt grab? That was choreographed. When Madonna hit the stage for their mashup of "Don't Tell Me"/"We Can't Stop," Miley gave Madonna's behind a good squeeze. They shot the duet twice and butt-grabbing was had at the exact same moment. Before the second take, Madonna called out, "We're just gonna have to be even nastier." And it was. The moment just might be this decade's version of the Britney-Madonna kiss.
6. The only solo song Miley performed a second time was her rap single "Bangerz." Her hair was sticking up in the back the first time, so that might be the reason for the do-over. When told to wear her cowboy hat for continuity, she wryly joked, "I was on a TV show for four years, I don't know anything about continuity."
7. While waiting for cameras to shift, Miley sang Spice Girls. She gave a little impromptu performance of the rap verse from the British girl group's song "Wannabe." She said MTV would never air that part, and rightly so, as licensing would be an expensive nightmare to pull off in a day.
8. Despite popular demand on Twitter, Miley decided not to perform "Someone Else" She made the decision when suffering from what she said was a norovirus. The singer had a huffy back and forth with her mom about how she was far too nervous to perform it. Oh, mom moments.
All in all, Cyrus turned "Unplugged" on its head. The show has historically served as a platform for artists to perform stripped-down versions of their songs in a setting that evokes a coffee shop open mic. The format has enabled artists to serve up the real meat of their music. Miley, an artist as pop as they come, and her "Unplugged" set couldn't have been any more different than those by the '90s artists who made the franchise what it was. She brought more garnish to the series that it's ever had.
But Cyrus is undeniably akin to those past "Unplugged" artists like Nirvana, Hole and Oasis in that like them (whether we like it or not), the singer is positioned to be the voice of this decade's youth. And it's a very good voice at that.