The whole affair started out normally, at least by Miley Cyrus standards. She emerged from the mouth of a giant on-screen replica of her own head and reached the stage via a long, curling tongue slide. "SMS" played, a track more spoken than sung. It didn't become apparent something was terribly wrong until the second song.
Miley marched into the stage located in the center of the auditorium while singing "4x4," completely stopped singing as her backing track played on, and sobbed. Not trusting my own eyes, I asked the person next to me if he'd seen the same thing.
An explanation came shortly after the initial breakdown, given it wasn't an isolated incident. Cyrus' Twitter followers were already aware that her beloved canine passed away the day prior. Pop stars rarely show more than an accidental glimpse of vulnerability, but she was as exposed as they come. Adoring fans screamed encouragement and waved "Always by Your Side" posters while Miley thanked them, apologetically explaining the situation. Cyrus called the performance the "hardest day" of her life and dedicated the night to her "best friend, Floyd." The comments on losing Floyd resonated even more strongly as her family instability has been public for years. Cyrus said cancelling the show wasn't an option. She'd already been prevented from performing a scheduled show in Boston last year and wanted her fans to know they were loved. She talked about Floyd, occasionally indirectly, during every break, repeatedly thanking the crowd for being supportive while crying through almost the entire set.
The most excruciating moment of the night occurred toward the beginning of "Can't Be Tamed." An enormous inflatable dog resembling Floyd emerged center stage. Miley ran up to it, wrapped her arms around the leg, and completely lost it. Within moments, she was essentially on the floor while a dancer rushed the stage to comfort her. It was a surreal spectacle to witness during a big-budget pop show in which so much as an unplanned stumble make headlines. After getting it together only a bit, Cyrus acknowledged with embarrassed humor that the "fucking dog" was beyond her ability to handle at the moment. Cyrus also reminded the crowd that, despite the expectations of culture at large, she's a normal human being.
Despite the uncomfortable nature of the whole affair, the Bangerz Tour itself is a delightful, off-the-wall experience. Cyrus is among pop's most underrated vocalists and travels with an engaging live band. The staging and design is inventive, occasionally flat-out hilarious. An hour and a half inside this cartoon world feels like being transported into the imagination of a creative, rambunctious adolescent. Did I mention wildly inappropriate? Half-naked writhing, overtly sexualized choreography, and on-screen nipple-tape punctuated the night. The dad overheard complaining about a "swearing" opening act was surely apoplectic. But Cyrus never seems desperate. One gets the idea she's still just, well, being Miley.
The acoustic section during the latter portion showed off her solid, well-trained vocals. Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," also dedicated to Floyd, was probably the highlight, even as she cried through it. A surprising rendition of Coldplay's "The Scientist" was also included, along with "Jolene," her staple Dolly Parton cover. Cyrus' sister, Noah ran on-stage to hug her during soundcheck for the acoustic segment. But being hugged by Team Miley was a theme of the show itself as they routinely held her mid-song. Even a dancer or two was seen wiping away tears.
Cyrus managed to perform the entire set, albeit with intermittently singing, including the encore. A stirring rendition of "Wrecking Ball" followed by "Party in the U.S.A.," the best crowd sing-along in recent memory, closed out the night. Her raw, unconfined emotions struck a chord with Millennial kids used to slick, sterilized pop entertainment. Near the end, a fan handed Miley a hand-drawn picture of her and Floyd, which she held onto like a treasured family heirloom.
The sincerity of it all couldn't have been any more disparate from Icona Pop's preceding set. They come across like cold, industry-fueled propaganda for "fun" at its most vapid. "Do you guys like to make out?" was only one of the seemingly serious utterances that emanated from the duo (supported by a peppy DJ). Imagine LMFAO if they hadn't a clue what they were doing was ridiculous. Show opener Sky Ferreira, a still-green performer but obviously gifted artist, should have been given a longer set. Nevertheless, the emotional roller coaster of Miley Cyrus completely overwhelmed the night.
"That's the most amazing thing I've ever seen," was the way the teenage girl behind me summed up the concert. No one seemed concerned Miley couldn't pull it together. In an era of Instagrammed selfies, forced irony and cyber-distance, a room full of screaming teens got to form an in-person connection with a humanized pop star responding to real life death the way every last one of them would. And Cyrus managed to make them all feel a part of the healing process. How do you put a grade on that?