Instagram Has No Terroir

Miley Cyrus’s “Malibu” versus Hole’s “Malibu”

I woke up this morning and saw that Miley Cyrus had just issued a new song called “Malibu.” I was a little taken aback. Hole, the ’90s/2000 band fronted by Courtney Love, already has a song called “Malibu,” from the 1998 album Celebrity Skin.

I wasn’t exactly mad — like “I won’t have some whippersnapper writing songs with the same title as a song written by an icon of my generation, widow of The Icon of my generation.” I mean, no one owns Malibu. Plus, I like Miley Cyrus. I like Wrecking Ball. I enjoy sobbing to “The Climb” in the car. I interviewed Miley Cyrus in 2011 and she told me she liked my necklace and we had an interesting conversation about candles. Miley Cyrus is a good listener. I was skeptical of her writing a song called Malibu, but I wanted to give it a chance.

Cyrus’s Malibu has a sort of Laurel Canyon-y sound, but not ’70s music Laurel Canyon so much as Lisa Cholodenko’s 2002 movie, Laurel Canyon. It has the same dreamy, blooming openness as the Mercury Rev song that plays over Laurel Canyon’s opening credits, and there’s a similar aesthetic feel too, of pretty colors behind haze. This is really what LA feels like, so, I mean, it’s not like anyone is copying anyone. They’re just reacting to the feeling of living in LA, which is the feeling that makes you want to stare at bougainvillea all day until someone miraculously appears with a large check and a drink and fucks you by a pool.

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Cyrus’s video opens with a shot of balloons, then quickly takes a turn, a left turn, up the 101 towards Malibu Country Mart. Malibu Country Mart is a luxury mall “nestled against the majestic mountains and just a stone’s throw from the beach,” at which Cyrus seemed to have purchased her wardrobe for this video. There are white gauze pants gathered at the ankle and a white bikini top, there’s a whole bikini, by itself, there’s an unstructured midriff-baring turtleneck, some gypsy-influenced white dresses. The turtleneck at one point gets playfully/cozily pulled down over her knees, a sort of whole-body version of that thing women do when they snuggle into their sweater cuffs to indicate vulnerability/low body weight/happiness.

I think all the clothes come from one store called Calypso St. Barth, but I am not sure.

You are supposed to walk away from the experience of this song and video saying to yourself “This is what it would feel like to be young and beautiful and fully outfitted by Calypso St. Barth at the Malibu Country Mart and in love.” The lyrics are said to be about Cyrus’s fiancé, one of the Hemsworths. (I know the Hemsworths each have their own identities and I respect that that means something to some people, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, so please respect that.) Cyrus flashes an engagement ring several times. She thanks her fiancé for convincing her to go in the ocean, because she used to be afraid. (Adorable as this is, I don’t buy it.) There’s lots of pirouetting and self-amazed widening of eyes. She lolls around sexily in fields of lupin and makes that face where you can tell she’s thinking about someone else thinking about how pretty she is.

Cyrus repeats the line “Next to you, in Malibu,” maybe 30 times. Cyrus said that she wrote this song in an Uber and that would be easy enough to make fun of except there’s nothing about writing a song quickly that means it’s bad — “Yesterday” was written in less than 30 minutes. So was “Seven Nation Army.” So was “Rocky Top.” There’s also nothing about writing a song fast that means it’s good. Cyrus’s “Malibu” is a steadily whatever song. It is a song that keeps at it. Steady indie pop/indie folk, west coast, post-Coachella vibes coming at you with the exact same amount of twang that remains in Cyrus’s Tennessee voice after many years of life in Los Angeles, for a little over three minutes. A job not necessarily well done, but done nonetheless.

Sometimes, in the video, Miley exchanges the white unstructured midriff-baring turtleneck for a white sweater that’s not a turtleneck. She is equally interested in tugging suggestively at both garments.

“Ahhhhhhhaaaaa” she sings, just like they sing in the Mercury Rev song, in thrall to the flowers and the ocean and the grass. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhaaa” she sings again, still in thrall, still sunlit, still wildflowered. There’s a dog in the video which makes it through the video without chewing on anything. I only mention this because the same can not be said about Cyrus — in one of the last shots she sexily gnaws away at one of her tops — forgive me for not knowing which one.

There are many things about being 23 I don’t remember but I must tell you I would be quite astonished to discover I ever chewed on my sweater hem.

Courtney Love may have, but only if she was coming down from something.

Hole’s “Malibu” is both dark and easy and open and a little sad. It sounds a little like the 1984 Smiths song “The Queen is Dead” played three-quarters as fast. It also sounds a lot like R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Losing My Religion” — Michael Stipe was a friend of Love’s, so, this isn’t surprising — in a different key. Cyrus’s “Malibu” is a place where you ooh and ah and coo at A Hemsworth, with whom you once sadly broke up and with whom you’re now blissfully reunited. Hole’s Malibu is a place surrounded by burning palm trees that is unwilling to forget it’s at least half parking lot. The lyrics seems to be about remembering a dead person. You can’t get back together with a dead person. You can’t have snuggly makeup sex in a field of lavender with a dead person. This is sad Malibu. The sun’s out, but it’s still sad.

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Hole’s guitarist, Eric Erlandson (who used to date Drew Barrymore, a founder of Millennial Femininity, though not herself a millennial) wears dark eye makeup and carries a surfboard. The makeup is no doubt a signifier of heavier drugs, the surfboard suggests mere marijuana use, each, one imagines, is there to throw us off the scent of the other. There are no literal drugs in Hole’s “Malibu” but there are vintage trailers and a weight bench. I don’t know why you’d have a weight bench outside a vintage trailer unless you were planning on getting so amped up (or at least stoned) in the trailer you’d want a weigh bench close by (a stone’s throw!) for blowing off all that druggie steam once you ventured out.

Love does cast a lot of come hithery glances at the camera, but it is further away than it is for Cyrus and this makes them more tolerable and less Disney coy. She wears a see-through slip and she has a fantastic body. Hole’s “Malibu” is not necessarily less about Love’s body than Cyrus’s “Malibu” is about hers. Both videos would be nothing without the female flesh of its artist. Cyrus, however, doesn’t do anything with her body that’s not cute. Love doesn’t do anything with her body that is cute, unless you call sitting on the steps of a trailer holding a Coke bottle between your spread legs cute.

Cyrus’ voice can get throaty, but it’s still pretty. I’m not going to say Courtney Love isn’t a particularly good singer, because it doesn’t matter. Also, there’s something about her drifting atonality that is evocative of — drifting atonality? Still, just because Miley Cyrus chews on her sweater and just because Courtney Love can’t really carry a tone doesn’t make Love some kind of a genius. She wrote her “Malibu” with Erlander and the Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan, whom Love dated. No Uber back then, but they still might have written the song “über”-fast — like, say, over two drinks (each!) and one (shared) pack of cigarettes and whatever else. “Cry to the angels,” Love sings in the song’s chorus, one of the song’s vaguely edgy but not deeply considered lyrics. She continues: “Help me please/burn the sorrow from your eyes/Oh come on be alive again/don’t lay down and die again/hey hey/ you know what to do/baby drive away/ to Malibu.” Later: “We’re all watching you/Oh, baby, fly away to Malibu.”

Cyrus rhymes YOU with Malibu; Hole rhymes do and you with Malibu. There’s no saint in pop. The difference is in the sounds, neither of which are terribly inventive. So we move to context: Courtney Love did drugs when she was pregnant. Cyrus is child star hoping that some PG-13 nudity and a pot habit will make us forget that she’s a child star. No one will ever forget. If you google famous quotes from Cyrus you get, “If you believe in yourself anything is possible.” Google famous quotes from Love and you get, “There are a million things to eat that are not cheese.” The videos are direct reflections of these sentiments.

In a 1998 New Yorker article about Love, Daphne Merkin said, more or less, that Love was an example of a new kind of a “less exalted and more sullied” female icon. (She went on to say that this Love, Celebrity Skin–love, had cleaned herself up — I would argue that she had done nothing of the sort, but that’s another conversation.) It’s really hard to say what’s great about or important about Love, but Merkin does get at something. Most people have to resort to things other than complete goodness to survive. This includes women. Love seemed to remind us of this, and she also just had that great fucking body, which looked even better playing guitar. It was a powerful combination.

Love’s not around much herself these days, but I see her everywhere in our culture. Hillary Clinton owes her sunglasses and Blackberry comeback to Love — even if it ultimately didn’t work. This week, Jill Soloway, unrepentant patriarchy-basher and creator of “Transparent” and “I Love Dick,” said of Donald Trump, “I want all the little girls of the world to dream of one day growing up and being an awful president. We shouldn’t just have to want to be president. We should want to be a disgusting president.” That’s Love’s legacy, 100 percent.

God, the last part of the bridge in Hole’s “Malibu” is graceless and hacky: “And I knew/love would tear you apart/Oh and I knew/The darkest secret of your heart.” But sung in Love’s not-so-good voice, while she was dressed in essentially expensive rags, surrounded by burning palm trees, it sounds so good.

Hole’s “Malibu” sounds like a song from 1998. It sounds like it came out the year that Matthew Shepard was murdered, the year Bill Clinton got in trouble with Monica Lewinsky, the year Animal Kingdom opened at Disney World. 1998 felt like all those things, and it also felt a lot like this video, and like Courtney Love. 2017 doesn’t feel like Cyrus’s video at all or like flowers or white bikinis or like her. It feels like dread and nervous laughter and Mark Zuckerberg’s grey T-shirt sweat smell after he bros down with Donald Trump — where is the pop song about that? Hole’s “Malibu” isn’t the best song ever but it has something essential that Cyrus’s “Malibu” doesn’t have. It has terroir.


Instagram Has No Terroir was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.