Strolling down on a walkway Sunday night at Rupp Arena to sing a fairly unadorned ballad called These Four Walls, Miley Cyrus appeared considerably older than her 16 years. Decked out in short black shorts and scratching a head full of thick brown locks, the still reigning teen pop queen looked as if she had already had a hard night.
In a way she had. With 18,000 fans screaming her on — at least, initially — Cyrus had, in the first half-hour of a 90-minute performance, bounced between massive scaffolds that a team of 10 dancers dragged around the stage (during the show-opening Breakout), fell backward into a centerstage pit (only to return aquatically on a video screen during Bottom of the Ocean) and soared on wires near the arena roof (for Fly on the Wall).
Shoot, a night like that would wear anyone out. But such theatrics didn't really spell out the stylistic shift Cyrus seems to be in the midst of. This was not the bright eyed Hannah Montana of just a year or two ago in many ways. Much of the evening revolved around guitar-saturated tunes that Cyrus simply didn't have the vocal pipes for. Her singing, noticeably lower and coarser than we've come to expect, sounded like a young but still smoky Stevie Nicks.
But here's the thing. Imperfect as her voice was, at least she was indeed singing. This wasn't some push-button show with body mics and lip synchs substituting for an actual voice or even a production where vocals were little more than window dressing for dance moves. Sure, the show was heavily choreographed, from the grand piano that rose out of the pit to the mid-air motorcycle Cyrus took for a spin during a cover of the Joan Jett anthem I Love Rock and Roll. But the singing, warts and all, was very real.
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The impression Cyrus' production left, though, was curious. Its amped-up, rock-savvy and overall assertive tone certainly befits her age. But in looking around the arena Sunday night, her audience, if anything has decreased in age. The number of girls age 10 and under was high. So was a noticeable level of disconnect that appeared as the show progressed. When I Love Rock and Roll rolled around, Cyrus might as well have been singing in Portuguese. The kids sitting around me appeared taken briefly by the sight of a flying motor bike, but found little connection with the song itself. After Cyrus rode by, they turned their attention to playing with a pair of blue glow sticks. Now that's entertainment.
It's not like the audience was bored by any of this. The youthful crowd of 18,000 (minus the 30 percent or so where were parents) still made a mighty shriek when the lights fell. They also came alive when the radio hit Party in the U.S.A. was uncorked late into the show.
But one — namely me, an elder by any standard in last night's crowd — was left with the notion that this very youngish crowd wasn't always on the same page as Cyrus. Maybe they expected more of a cheery dance party. Maybe they planned on more of a safe pop exercise. Bits of both were on display, but mostly what was promoted were the growing pains and celebration of a teen idol on the path to moving on.
The singer's older, more liberally tattooed and Ashland-raised sibling, Trace Cyrus, opened the evening with his Los Angeles band Metro Station. Its half-hour set went heavy on more expected dance pop fare like Seventeen Forever and Shake. If anything, Brother Cyrus overplayed the role of rock star to the point of sounding almost desperate when attempting to engage the crowd.
"I want everyone to bounce on this one," he said. "C'mon. I'm serious."