With the cycles of pop-culture shape-shifting being what they are, the normalization of Miley Cyrus is long overdue. We get it in “Malibu,” a new single and video that allow Miley to frolic in fields of tall grass for the first time since 2009’s “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” She may be one of the few people on the planet whose re-embrace of conventional softness will launch a thousand think-pieces, but this new move can best be summed up in two words: No tongue.
It’s not the first time since she entered the realm of ex-Disney girls gone wild that Cyrus has reminded us that she has a softer side. But if her acoustic covers of Dylan and Dolly seemed like one-offs in the “Bangerz” era, “Malibu” seems designed to convince us she’s grown out of shock value and into a more conscious version of the girl-next-door she once seemed. (Next door if you live just off the Pacific Coast Highway, anyway.) Instead of furries, in this video, there are collies.
As much as it seems like a deliberate swing of the “Wrecking Ball” pendulum, it’s clearly not just a marketing move but an earnest public mash note to on-again fiancé Liam Hemsworth, whose Malibu compound she recently announced she’s moved into. The lyrics allude to their 2013 breakup — “I never would’ve believed you if three years ago you told me I’d be here writing this song” — and reunion with a beau she believes is “there to save me/ And I wanna thank you with all of my heart/ It’s a brand new start/ A dream come true/ In Malibu.” She is solo in the video (dog cameos notwithstanding), but the presence of a phantom leading man is very much felt.
Sweet and deeply felt as all this is, there are any number of clunker lines that might’ve best been left locked in the diary. Possibly not since Alan Jackson admitted in song that he did not know the difference between Iraq and Iran has anyone baited doubters with an admission of naiveté quite like “I never went boatin’, don’t get how they are floatin’” or “You would explain the current, as I try to smile.” She also delves deep into the world of non sequiturs with “Do we even exist?/ That’s when I make the wish/ To swim away with the fish/ Is it supposed to be this hot all summer long?”
But linearity was never a requirement of the summer single, right? Even if she’s not going to go down as one of the great confessional writers of our time, there’s a winning guilelessness to Cyrus — whether she’s twerking, trying to get her avant-guard on with the Flaming Lips, or turning back into America’s sweetheart — that makes cynicism hard to uphold.
And the tune’s gentle thinness gets enjoyably beefed up via the production of Oren Yoel, who gives the chorus some winning dynamics, dropping out the beat in favor of handclaps before returning with an arpeggiated guitar lick that really does make you feel, for a few seconds, like “birds catching the wind” over the Pacific. It’s no wrecking ball of a return single, but Seals & Crofts — auteurs of the early ‘70s soft-rock hit “Summer Breeze” — would probably be proud.