In Their Feelings

If you’re looking to the stars—and why wouldn’t you be?—you’ll know that Saturn has entered the sign of Pisces. It happened in early March: Shaggy old Saturn, god of constriction and mortality, lowered his iron haunches into the Piscean waters. He’ll be there until May 2025, an intractable lump in that wishy-washy element. Displacing it. Blocking it. Imposing his limits. Enough with the changeability, he says to dippy, fin-flashing Pisces. Enough with the half-assedness. Endless mutation is not possible. Now you’re going to face—and be stuck with—yourself.

Explore the April 2023 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find your next story to read.

View More

This will be a challenge, one senses, for artists in general. And for pop stars in particular. Who sheds selves, and invents selves, faster than a pop star? Who defies time and gravity with more desperation? Something else was augured for March: the release of new albums by two of our most continually expanding and dramatically evolving celestial bodies. I’m talking about Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey. Two emanations of the holy city of Los Angeles; two distinct transits across the firmament.

Cyrus, daughter of the country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was a Disney kid, the star of Hannah Montana, a highly processed pop prodigy who moved from Tennessee to L.A. (see: “Party in the U.S.A.”), broke out, and became a bong-brandishing hip-hop appropriator, twerk transgressor, sometime Flaming Lips collaborator, and pop/country/glam-rock anarchic aberration obsessed with freedom and nudity and Molly and “getting some,” chafing and rattling in her corporate cage, her magnificent voice growing steadily/unsteadily deeper and rougher and omnivorous, from a gurgling mezzo-soprano to an anthemic libertine roar to something like Metallica’s James Hetfield belching flames of pure estrogen, all the while achieving higher and higher levels of pop visibility until finally, in January, she smashed Spotify’s all-time weekly-song-streaming record (and took the top spot on the Billboard charts) with her post-breakup empowerment frolic “Flowers.” “I can buy myself flow-uuuuuuhs …” Is it her best song? Not even close. But her personality has achieved some kind of critical mass in the culture. Cyrus has lived several lifetimes, burned through several careers, made some beautiful music (“Adore You,” “High,” “Malibu”) and some not-so-beautiful music, and still—at age 30—gives the impression of not being able to manage, not quite, her freakish powers, like the pupils at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men, knocking down walls with their elbows and accidentally putting people in comas.

Del Rey, born Elizabeth Grant in New York, weathered a now-incomprehensible controversy about “authenticity” (a word that, to paraphrase Nabokov, should only ever be in quotes) upon the 2011 release of her swooning, doomy single “Video Games.” “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you / Everything I do …” Romanticism that smelled like nihilism, utterly convincing. Who could have doubted her? Who could have doubted Lana Del Rey? But they did. They arraigned her as the fabrication of (male) music-biz wizards: a fake, a thing of vapors. Only to watch her billow unstoppably outward, enveloping her helpless audience in a woozy fantasia of poetry, scandal, profanity, emotional purgation, street talk, and yellow-toothed pianos in decaying Hollywood mansions. Dark-blue Americana. A Doorsian West Coast trip. Tambourine-like flickerings of electricity on the horizon.

Her sonic environment is submarine, slow-blossoming, lavish with dream imagery and orchestral overkill. When she sang, with a kind of shimmering solemnity, “My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola” on 2012’s Paradise, it felt like a Frederick Seidel–esque provocation but also like Patti Smith singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Or like Sylvia Plath writing “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” In other words, it felt like a breakout, one of those lines that instantaneously, heretically, clears the ground in front of it and blasts the artist into free space. After a line like that, you can do what you want.

Is she a persona? A sequence of personas? It’s never clear. “All these bitches want something from me / Got me fucked up on LA money.” Cyrus, singing these lines in a demo version of “LA Money,” sounds genuinely disgruntled; if Del Rey sang them (as she might), hushing the consonants and dilating the vowels, they would be smoking with her special metallic irony. Then again, she can be utterly naked: “God damn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’ ” (Then again again, maybe that’s ironic too … See what I mean?)

People who make their living singing songs tend to have good voices. Cyrus and Del Rey have great voices. Extraordinary voices. Cyrus has made her voice a drama of experience: the ravagings of good times and bad times, the scraping-out of new depths, the attainment of raucous new heights. “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,” wrote the Catholic mystic Léon Bloy, “and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” Cyrus’s performance of her there-goes-my-marriage song, “Slide Away,” at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards had me reaching for the oxymorons: a rueful shout, a soaring growl, a rumble on wings of sorrow. Her voice can sound sore, split, like she’s an older, even more time-damaged pop star doing a guest spot on her own song. Or it can sound straight-up bacchanalian.

Out there in YouTube limbo, unreleased as of this writing, is a thundering Cyrus ballad called “Fucked Up Forever.” What a vocal performance this is: Cyrus’s age and youth, her tenderized understanding and her hooligan snarl, in perfect, momentary balance. “We’re holdin’ on the hands of Time / So baby put yours in mine / I’ll leave this place whenever / And run away together … Can’t stay fucked up forever!” And the oldest wolf in Yellowstone bursts into tears, and wild young couples across the nation drive straight into the flames of a better day.

Del Rey’s voice is more pastoral, woodwind to Cyrus’s pedal-stomping power chord: It floats, wafts, whispers, swells, flutters, dissociates, as if she’s always teetering, just teetering, at some grand balustrade of feeling. She can climb to rapture, as in the storming falsetto finale of “In My Feelings,” or add an exquisite detail: “We could get lost in the purple rain,” she sings in “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” and the little accent of transport she puts on rain turns it from a shopworn Prince reference to a … to a micro-ecstasy. She says things that a female rapper might say—“Who’s doper than this bitch?”—but slowly, through a mesh of glimmering reserve. Swagger, inverted. It’s really a unique psychic zone, her voice: One breath and we’re in it.

Their stars are crossing, these two, daughters equally in their art of heavy-metal Saturn and of dreamy, fleeting Pisces. They’ll ride the transition. The id of California—the id of America—is strong in both of them. Cyrus, in my imagination, will keep slinging TVs out the windows of Chateau Marmont while howling at the hills. Del Rey will drift angelically down Sunset Boulevard, singing drug lullabies and tapping dirty skateboarders with her wand. What a rare conjunction, and what a gift. They’re refining themselves, they’re exposing themselves, and they’re doing it all for us.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “In Their Feelings.”

The Atlantic