Last night’s inaugural episode of Maya & Marty, NBC’s delightful new variety show starring Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, featured a performance by musical guest Miley Cyrus. Dressed in a sequined tuxedo and top hat, Cyrus sang Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” before tearing off her clothes and switching into Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman.” Several of my friends wrote to offer their condolences; Cyrus, they said, was a pop princess who had no business dabbling in the gospel of St. Leonard, singing songs far too deep for her to comprehend.
Cyrus, like all interesting artists, is always a work in progress. Sometimes, her efforts lead her into the ridiculous; more often, however, she ascends to the sublime. Listen to the darkness throbbing beneath every beat of “We Can’t Stop,” or to the magical way “Wrecking Ball” manages to simultaneously feel like workout music, makeout soundtrack, and nervous breakdown, and you begin to understand her true value: Whereas most of her contemporaries offer music that’s designed to deliver, like a cheap over-the-counter drug, instant relief from minor irritations, Cyrus explores more profound pains and yearns for more perfect remedies. She knows, to borrow a few choice lines from Rabbi Cohen, that there’s a crack in everything, which is how the light gets in. Taking on “I’m Your Man” last night, then, she joined a very small group of Cohen interpreters—John Cale, Nick Cave, Suzanne Vega—capable of containing both the sensual and the sacred, and interested not in pretty pop but in a beautiful and broken hallelujah.
Talking about I’m Your Man, the 1988 album from which the title song was taken, Cohen, naturally, captured this state of mind perfectly. “You really don’t command the enterprise,” he said. “Sometimes, when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, you know, expecting victory after victory, and you understand deeply that this is not paradise, somehow, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this vale of tears is perfectible, that you’re going to get it all straight. I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.” Amen to that, and God bless Miley Cyrus for keeping this spirit—so Jewish, so true, so un-American—alive.