SNL: Miley Once Again Demands Our Collective Attention With Impressive Hosting Double Duty

In the span of less than a week, Miley Cyrus got into a cyber fight with Sinead O’Connor, was the subject of a New York Times piece defending her against critics, and pulled double duty hosting and musical-guesting on SNL. Everyone seems to be joining forces to put Miley through Olympian-level trials while staring so hard at her that anyone else would spontaneously combust under such scrutiny.

At times it feels deliberate, as though we’re trying to edge Miley closer to what haters are predicting will be an inevitable train wreck. She lobbed some insensitive tweets at O’Connor, referencing via screengrab and the text “Before there was Amanda Bynes” a public meltdown the Irish musician had in 2012, with which she drew criticism from pretty much everyone, not least of whom was O’Connor herself; still, Cyrus offered (OK, somewhat cheekily) to meet up with O’Connor to talk in person. Amanda Palmer got involved, as did Simon Cowell, if only by proxy. It was a train wreck, for sure, but Miley seemed to duck out before she could incur too much damage. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on introspection. She’s too busy. And anyway, too much introspection is dangerous for a performer who’s running his or her own game: Miley’s dancing on the edge, so she knows better than to look down.

There’s something unnaturally seasoned about Miley. I gave Justin Bieber a lot of credit for dual-hosting SNL last February, credit that I still think was due (and he hadn’t yet been carried up the Great Wall of China, so all of my respect for him hadn’t yet been thrown into a garbage disposal and pulsed into a formless jelly), but Miley’s hosting gig threw Bieber’s act under a very harsh light. I guess there really is a gender maturity gap.

What perhaps sometimes gets Miley into trouble is that she takes for granted that everyone else has as much of a sense of humor about themselves as she does; no excuses, but Miley is too immature (because she’s 20!) to be able to understand that laughing at yourself is tough when you’re dealing with a much larger problem than public scrutiny over grinding on a foam finger. O’Connor’s cries for help were sad, as was Bynes’s breakdown, and a lack of sensitivity for how bleak life can be — and how that bleakness is off-limits in certain ways for bystanders — isn’t easy to incorporate into a friendly brand of celebrity. Yet Miley’s willingness to access her personal life for performance’s sake is exactly what distinguished her as a host: Nothing was off-limits.

In a welcome break from the C-SPAN political openers, Cyrus appeared in the cold open alongside Vanessa Bayer, whose impression she has encountered before on the “Miley Cyrus Show” skit (with Miley playing Bieber). Framed by Kenan Thompson and Noël Wells as a pair of bench-sitting hobos discussing the end of civilization in 2045 (don’t blame the government shutdown; it was a twerkpocalypse), Bayer, as Miley’s innocent persona Old Miley, handed Miley an American Girl doll — Molly, because that’s who she’s “always singing about.” Miley was in full VMAs regalia, wearing her bear unitard and “little creature” buns, and there was something kind of deep about just how unfazed she was by a sketch that was touching on such a loud public outcry against the person she’s become. This was some confronting-your-double shit! It was philosophical! Taran Killam waltzed in as Robin Thicke, asking if Miley was ready to “start grabbing my junk while I half-sing,” and then Thompson Moynihan appeared as one of Miley’s reluctant dancing teddy bears (“We shouldn’t be doing this!”). And though we’ve since debunked the GIF of Will Smith and family’s reaction to Miley’s portion of the VMAs as myth (their expressions were actually cued by Lady Gaga’s performance), Jay Pharoah couldn’t pass up a cameo as the patriarch who desperately wants his precocious children shielded from the wanton onesie woman who yearns to do to them what spring does to the cherry trees.

I like workaholics, so I praise Miley’s appearance in the opener despite the fact that she had to sneak peeks at the cue cards. She was dealt a lot of script and brought the kind of energy that’s often lacking in the political-themed openers. Maybe because of her role in the first sketch, her monologue was brief, with a midriff-baring, houndstooth-suit-wearing Miley working toward the punchline of a nude Bobby Moynihan riding a wrecking ball. The host also closed the chapter for anyone who was wondering what happened to that sweet young lady, Hannah Montana: She was murdered. OK! Forward march!

If I fault Miley for anything — and, actually, there will be two things, though one wasn’t her fault (oof, last sketch, you made me squirm) — it’s her Scarlett Johansson impression. The Fifty Shades of Grey screen test skit was one of those catch-alls for celebrity impressions, which, as it turns out in this case, aren’t Miley’s strong suit. To be fair, this was one of the weaker installments of the impressions quickies, though Kate McKinnon’s Jane Lynch, newbie Beck Bennett’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Killam’s Christoph Waltz were standouts (and I always have a soft spot for Thompson’s Steve Harvey). I was very primed for Aidy Bryant’s Rebel Wilson, but, mysteriously, she was never allowed to speak. What was up with that? Miley, in a wig and red pout, delivered her lines as ScarJo to the unreceptive audience in an ultra-low register, as if she were trying to squeeze her cleavage out by plunging her voice into the deep end of the pool. It was weird (also weird was Pharoah’s Shaq being so grotesquely cross-eyed).

But then we were redeemed, because this was followed by the best installment of “Girlfriends Talk Show” to date. Miley brought energy to her role as Strong’s new BFF, Lil’ Teeny, a swaggy-swaggy hip-hop tween who basically just helped pave the way for Bryant to finally shine like we’ve always known she could. I used to have a problem with “Girlfriends Talk Show” being a little predictable in rhythm and generally thin, but this time it grew on me by expanding Bryant’s character, Morgan, into the focal point.

Now that she’s counseling her mother’s divorcée friend and penning “gorgeous” songs (“my mom took me to the grocery store and everything was candy corns”), telling us she just wants a guy who loves her confidence and takes her out for “hearty steak salads,” there’s more to talk about than just lanyards and weird boyfriends (you know, the kind who make you eat pizza on a stool while they watch via intercom in a panic room installed in a high-rise), there’s an anchor for this bit that we haven’t seen before, and it’s great. I’m guessing that Lil’ Teeny was a dig at yet another Miley scandal from this year, the debate over her twerk-born “ratchet white girl” image. I don’t think Miley nailing Lil’ Teeny, a.k.a. Tara Arnold, daughter of a Honda dealership owner, was the point. I think Miley being up for playing it was, and I give her a ton of credit for that.

The best sketch of the night was undeniably “We Did Stop (The Government),” the “We Can’t Stop” music video faithfully re-created to address the government shutdown. With emerging Killam (and his ass) as a grill-wearing John Boehner and Miley rocking a sexy pantsuit as Michele Bachmann, the spoof spared no Play-Doh elephant’s life, cutting the creatures up with scissors so that Pepto Bismol spilled out between clips of Uncle Sam’s (Brooks Whelan) crotch emitting a poof of smoke. “Too bad, astronauts,” Miley is the government now. This one straddled the line between silly parody and subtle think-piece, funny ha-ha and funny hmm. And you know what? I think the biggest laugh Pharoah’s Obama has gotten in two seasons is in this bit, staring through the window as the dismal-yet-debauched party unfolds, making the face we on the Internet call O__O.

(Speaking of that face, the Gap denim ads that peppered Saturday night’s broadcast are just begging for a parody. Can I please throw that into the suggestions heap? Wells as Alexa Ray Joel? They make me so uncomfortable, and the only relief is an SNL smackdown.)

Nasim Pedrad, who I fear is disappearing from the front lines, gifted us with her Arianna Huffington when she stopped by Piers Morgan’s (Killam; “I would be the voice of a fancy hedgehog” in a cartoon) desk to discuss the remaining prospects for a Hillary Clinton series. Though un-shipping Pedrad’s Huffington from Seth Meyers is painful and we must do it reluctantly, this was a solidly packed vehicle for various Hillaries (Bayer, McKinnon, and Miley) to exercise their ranges. Despite the red sequined jacket Bayer wore while destroying the Benghazi files in Fox’s “Hillary Clinton: Cold Mean Woman,” and despite the “saxabong” discovered by Bill in the process, my favorite was McKinnon in AMC’s Running Rodham (“I’m not Hillary anymore, I’m Heisenhower”). Miley was game to rock a royal blue, MTV-friendly top (under which, she revealed, was a “2016″ bandeau) for “H2O,” also starring Thompson’s beehive-hat-wearing veejay Sway as Obama.

Then it was time to return to the music. “Wrecking Ball” is a single that grows on you with each consecutive listen, and watching Miley in her giant jersey emblazoned with the word Poison — in my endless pursuit of trying to convince performers to cater only to me, I mentally Photoshopped a Drew Brees jersey on top of it — belting out her power ballad with some sweet harmonies was pretty much as good of a rendition as we were going to get. Was emotion summoned, was a memory of a dog who passed perhaps dragged back into the forefront of the mind? Oh yes. We were on the brink of mistiness together, trapped in mesh, under which was only a bikini and the rawness of humanity.

But we haven’t even gotten to “Weekend Update” yet. Cecily Strong, in her second showing at the “Update” desk, is coming into her own and shared a segment with Meyers detailing the winners and losers of the shutdown. Among the dubious victors were the tea party (“congrats on soiling yourself into power”) and teenage hormones (with those government monuments closed, it sure is a great time to “[go] to town on each other” during field trips). McKinnon dropped by as a Connecticut mother of three who had found herself unapologetically addicted to Grand Theft Auto, and for whatever reason she was placed on what was basically a subterranean chair, which added extra comedy to her shtick about “eat[ing] cocaine for breakfast” while shooting strippers “in the boob, for sport.” Pharoah reprised his role as Shannon Sharpe, which continues to be at once a dead-on impersonation and one that goes over a lot of the audiences’ heads. Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy (Bayer) visited, wearing a Yankees yarmulke, and endured a service interruption when Strong, the new interloper, pointed out that he’d used a joke twice. It was nice, as it was in “Girlfriends Talk Show,” to see a sketch that’s well worn but somewhat beloved evolve beyond its initial constraints. I like frazzled Jacob! Just don’t plague him too much with talk of Israel — he still has “nightmayers” about it.

Next was a 10-to-one shoved into an earlier slot: cheerleaders, led by Miley, whose practice was interrupted by an alien (Thompson) who planned to steal Earth’s moon. Besides the fact that Miley’s character had two names, Amber and Dina, there were a number of issues with this sketch, including a visible crew member harnessing Pedrad in advance of her levitation to outer space, and meandering cameras and lights. Miley brought it as a hard-core motivational cheer captain, and I always love a hat tip to a Gliese planet (so … that’s how you pronounce it), but watching the team flap around while announcing their names (McKinnon explained that she was Dakota Flanning, not Dakota Fanning) was sort of like watching your fresh catch flop around before you rip its gills out. You just wanted it to die painlessly. I never fault these kinds of efforts because I’m a “Danielle: A Free European Woman” fan, but occasionally they must fail, as this one did.

Let’s skip ahead to “Mornin’ Miami,” a sketch in which a peeved-looking group of anchors (Moynihan, McKinnon, and Miley) turn it on to log a week’s worth of promos. Basically a series of one-liners punctuated by silences of varying awkwardness (McKinnon picking her nose in a single violent thrust was a standout, as were Moynihan’s angrily flared nostrils), this skit was an excuse to drop gems like “Are ghosts real? Turns out no. Here to talk about it is actor Topher Grace,” and “Racist Foley artist Bill Spinks is here to make some funny sounds and some awful comments.” And when the anchors finally heeded their cues to reveal their full names, Bitch Fantastic (Moynihan) took it home.

For her second musical performance, Miley delivered a stripped-down, acoustic rendition of “We Can’t Stop.” She had exchanged her Poison jersey for a white mesh top over a bikini (or lingerie — I defer to you, ladies-undergarment detectives), and, looking like a little elf with tremendous eyelashes, she flashed her smile at various audience segments while talking about her girlfriend with the big butt. It was hard to tell how warm the studio was to Miley, but if it wasn’t warm enough, she was undeterred. The camera got close when she sang about trying to get a line in the bathroom, as if that were your reward for staying up late or a big middle finger to the PTC. It was, actually, awesome: talent and effort merging to become some meta-professionalism, a reminder that portraying Scarlett Johansson was not something Miley ever claimed to be able to do. The promise that she has implicitly made, and that her performance this past weekend fulfilled, is that she’s a powerful singer with a great capacity for manipulating her own celebrity to fit the need. If you had any doubt that Miley was steering her own ship, her musical performances erased it: owning songs she didn’t write as if they were ripped from her diary, objectifying herself cleverly and for her own means.

Next up was another opportunity for Bayer to strut her stuff, channeling David Brent into the body of a substitute poetry teacher for a high school class inclined to write about missing bags of weed. Bayer’s Ms. Meadows was all unbridled enthusiasm, stumbling over herself with ums and yeahs and y’know-what-I’m-sayings, and though she intends to nurture the urban creative processes of her pupils (she’s “curious where the main character finds his weed” — yeah, so is the student), she’s thrown off by Miley’s character’s ode to her beauty (“a flower bloomed in school today / a blonde flower that made my heart stop”). When Cyrus starts schnoodling Bayer’s neck, she flies out the door followed by a klutzy parade of her own vowels. I was mesmerized by Bayer’s perfect, juice-can-molded bangs, but also because I took a poetry class in college that was taught by a woman who had married poetry in a backyard ceremony and this is, admittedly, my weak spot.

So, I had been laughing, and all was well, and then it was time for the show to close. There was one final sketch, and much fertile territory left unexplored. Perhaps Miley would play Bieber, speeding through Calabasas, as she had on seasons past, or perhaps Nelly was in the studio, ready to skewer crossing genres. But no: Instead, we got a sketch in which Kyle Mooney, a new cast member, was stuck with the task of playing Miley’s best friend who was forced to contemplate having sex with her. Maybe on paper this seemed brave, but there was something problematic in the execution. Actually, there were many problems, namely the reinforcement of Miley’s age (20), which as always is at odds with her precociousness and level of celebrity, and the setup of Miley in underwear, which is only worth it if it reaps actual laughs.

It wasn’t Miley’s fault that this didn’t work — she was the punchline, and she committed to it with her whole, tender, can’t-legally-have-a-beer-aged heart. Why exactly doesn’t Kyle want to bone Miley, other than that she’s been sweet and trusting enough to give him tickets to all of the shows in the world (not just her own) and packs his office with his favorite things (balloons, a trampoline, his older brother Ricky, with whom Miley later makes out)? She’s “like 100 years old,” and despite being much younger than his friends Moynihan and Bennett (500-600 years old), that makes Kyle immune to her charms.

O’Connor accused Miley of “pimping” herself, or possibly allowing herself to be pimped by the music business. What’s curious is Miley’s authority over her own image, one that’s been co-opted by a deafening media voice in the past few months. It remains separate from Miley herself, I think, because she lends it to anyone who asks, at times almost ethereally. It looks just like a real person and it sounds just like a real person, so much so that we have no choice but to accept it as a real person. But it isn’t: A real person, entirely vulnerable and naively exposed, just can’t dive into as deep and wide a pool as Miley’s SNL show presented her with, and she cannonballed. It necessitated a protective armor that isn’t at all inherent, one that allows for flaws and limitations because some master behind the metal has an eye on the spotlight’s stopwatch.

Whether or not it will show eventual cracks isn’t the issue, nor is projecting our concerns onto the fate of whoever’s inside. At a certain point, you have to step back and accept the empire and what built it, separate from the performer. You’d have gladly stopped talking about Miley a few weeks ago, happily traded her headlines for someone else’s, but here we are again. Her grip is too tight, and, prodigy-like, she’s strategically placing herself in the spotlight just as it drifts away, delivering each time with a pro’s conviction you can’t easily ignore.

Filed Under: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Saturday Night Live, SNL

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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