We Do Not Hate This Miley Cyrus Cover Of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Come At Us Bro!
So Miley Cyrus performed on MTV Unplugged on Wednesday. Rather than any of the reworked tracks from Bangerz, the clip that’s making its way around the internet at lightning speed is Miley singing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Cue 1000 uninformed arglebargles about how dare she do such an iconic song and what makes her think and so on and so on. Let’s dispel some of that yelling and give some context to the cover, shall we?
First off, this isn’t the first time or the second time or the probably even the hundredth time Cyrus has sung “Jolene,” since it is a song she likely learned at Dolly’s knee. (Parton is Cyrus’s godmother.) She recorded it the first time as part of a stripped down backyard session recording she did back in 2012.
In both performances, Cyrus acquits herself nicely. You’re just going to have to deal with that fact. You can hate her for being a crotch-grabbing faux-twerking little twerp if that’s how you roll. (Happy’s official editorial stance is pro-crotch-grabbing faux-twerking, but anti-that outfit. See? Nuance!) But she does not fuck it up. If there’s a problem with her version of the song, it’s that Cyrus’ country roots are firmly in the slick modern country era, and while her voice and brassiness is an asset there, it’s a liability with “Jolene,” which is, at root, a song about being vulnerable, about begging.
Parton explained the origins of the song in a 2008 NPR interview.
VITALE: Parton says she got the story for her song from another redhead in her life at the time, a bank teller who was giving Dolly’s new husband a little more interest than he had coming.
Ms. PARTON: She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kind of like a running joke between us when I was saying, hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank. I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money. So it’s really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one.
Isn’t that one of the best descriptions of a song you have ever read? Innocent, but dreadful. A song with an origin in a lighthearted running joke that, through Parton’s delivery, turned into one of the all-time great songs about desperation and vulnerability. In Parton’s original, she quavers, she begs, she pleads, she worries. She’s an open-hearted mess.
Part of why that comes easy to Parton, besides the fact that she’s one of the most underrated songwriters of the last 50 years and knew how to turn a simple little bit of pleading into a song for the ages, is that Parton has that perfect high thin bluegrass voice. It’s instantaneously exposed, naked-sounding.
Cyrus doesn’t have that voice, and she doesn’t have the fear that drives the song either. Maybe she never will grow up into the kind of person for whom “Jolene” is both an explosion and a whimper of pleading, but she might. She’s 21 years old and has been trained to be a big bright brassy star since she was a little kid. Her sense of love and loss is not yet fully formed, much as neither yours nor mine was at that age. So give the kid a chance to grow into herself, and the song.