NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Miley's back, y'all.
Miley Cyrus made her delayed-due-to-illness return to the town where she grew up Thursday night, bringing a flying hot dog, a dwarf dressed as the Liberty Bell, a dozen recognizable hits, a taunt to the girls who beat her up in school and a lot of inappropriate touching. Drawing a crowd of mostly young women — and a hefty number of moms — the show was a little bit pop concert, a little bit late-night pay cable and a little bit great.
In the audience: Two 20-something women with a gift for arts and crafts arrived at Cyrus' homecoming concert with identical bedazzled shirts that read, "R.I.P. Hannah Montana." Look no further than that for the official theme to Cyrus' Bangerz Tour, a pastiche of weird culture that plays a lot like a YouTube channel devoted to absurdist performance art.
The surprising thing, after the former teen television star raised such a lather last year with a highly memorable MTV Video Music Awards appearance, is how tame the show actually is.
It's true that Nashville is a pretty quiet town. And sure, Cyrus does simulate sex acts on stage during a few songs — Abe Lincoln has never seemed less presidential — and mentions drug use. But the woman whose twerking and foam finger started a national discussion balanced her naughty images and saucier choreography with messages espousing personal freedom and a few moments of pop perfection.
For the most part, the night — her fifth date since restarting a U.S. tour that was postponed for more than three months after an allergic reaction to antibiotics — was PG-13, filled with images that are unavoidable on the Internet where much of Cyrus' audience spends its time. The only thing pushing the show into truly R-rated territory was Cyrus' spirited use of the F-word.
The debate over Cyrus' transformation from wholesome teen to a young woman exploring her sexuality hovered around the sold-out show as mothers shepherded thousands of teenage girls into Bridgestone Arena, where the 21-year-old singer once attended shows as a teen herself. For some she was a guilty pleasure, and the presence of rolling papers, R-rated possibilities, booty shorts and inflatable bananas at the merch table only added to the feeling of things being taboo.
Inside the arena, the crowd was all in as Cyrus gave something of a history lesson in over-the-top moments in pop music. For all the guff Cyrus has gotten, she's not covering unfamiliar territory. Touching your special parts (Michael Jackson), well-endowed dancers expert in the butterfly (2 Live Crew), uncovered rear ends (David Lee Roth) are milestones passed decades ago.
And to be clear, there were a lot of these things — a whole lot — during Cyrus' 2 1/2-hour, 20-plus song set, along with flying kittens, inflatable dogs three stories tall, plushy dancers, giant tongues and even a simulated orgy. But there were also a lot of impressive moments where Cyrus showed her growing prowess as an entertainer. She pushed her voice to the edge at times while holding the attention of 16,000 people with just a microphone, and had moms and daughters singing every word with the same gusto on major hits like "Wrecking Ball" and "Party in the USA."
Those were the moments that provided the real spectacle.