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Miley both naughty and nice in return to Nashville

Friday, August 8, 2014 - 9:00 am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two 20-something women with a gift for arts and crafts arrived at Miley 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. With a flying hot dog, a dwarf dressed as the Liberty Bell, a dozen recognizable hits and a lot of inappropriate touching, Thursday's show was a little bit pop concert, a little bit late-night pay cable and a little bit great.

The surprising thing, after the former teen television star of "Hannah Montana" raised such a lather last year with a highly memorable MTV Video Music Awards appearance, is how tame the show actually is.

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 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 tour program, booty shorts and inflatable bananas at the merch table only added to the feeling of things being taboo. One mom with four teenage girls in tow sheepishly declined to give her name, "because I want everyone to think I'm a wholesome mother."

Others had no qualms about allowing their children to see the spectacle. Laurie Russell drove her daughter Hannah and two friends two hours from Paris, Tennessee, to Nashville for the show as a 15th birthday present.

She owned the decision.

"We all watched 'Hannah Montana' and my daughter absolutely loves Miley as an artist," Russell said. "She loves her voice. She defends her because she's an artist and she thinks she's got a great voice. She doesn't idolize her bad behavior, as long as they know they're not going to act like her. She can sing like her. I'd love for her to. It's OK."

Once inside, Hannah got the party she was hoping for and 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.