The “Backyard Sessions” video of Miley Cyrus covering Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” seems to go viral at least once a year. And every time it does, the response is always the same: “Wow, she can really sing!” This is obvious to anyone who’s seen Miley live, as I did during the first weekend of ACL Festival 2021 in Austin, Texas. Over the course of a 90-minute headlining set, she showed why she’s a welcome addition to any festival lineup.
Cyrus kicked things off with a medley of her own “We Can’t Stop” and “Where is My Mind” by Pixies, setting the “pop hits mixed with rock classics” tone for the rest of the set. She looked like Debbie Harry after a long weekend spent on the Vegas strip (she even covered “Heart Of Glass,” along with Janis Joplin and Cher), and strutted the stage with the confidence of someone who’s seen it all.
And she has: from starring in a TV show before she could drive, to going on tour as her pop star alter ego, to the Robin Thicke incident, to making an album with the Flaming Lips literally called Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, to accusations of cultural appropriation, to clickbait timelines of the famous people she’s dated, Miley Cyrus has been a near-constant presence in our lives for 15 years. And she’s provided some of the most enduring pop songs in that time, too. Miley’s not a nostalgia act, but when she played “Party In The U.S.A.,” I found myself fondly recalling my summer as a camp counselor listening to the song during free swim. For my teenage half-brother who also attended ACL, it was hearing “23” at a middle school dance. For both of us, and the thousands of others in the trampled Zilker Park field, it was feeling chills during a power ballad version of “The Climb” and giving into the exuberance of “See You Again.”
One person who literally doesn’t know a life without Miley Cyrus is Billie Eilish (she is, famously, a Belieber, but I’m sure she listened to “7 Things” on Radio Disney at least once). The umpteen-time Grammy winner was the Saturday night headliner for both weekends — I caught her during weekend two, a week after Miley and a few days after No Time To Die was released into theaters. Eilish didn’t perform “No Time to Die,” the second-best Bond theme of the Daniel Craig-era (“Skyfall” is untouchable), but she did provide the most memorable performance of the entire festival.
Eilish has called “Happier Than Ever,” the title track from her sophomore album, the “most therapeutic song I’ve ever written or recorded, like ever, ever, ever, ’cause I just screamed my lungs out and could barely talk afterwards… I had wanted to get those screams out for a very long time and it was very nice too.” After ACL was canceled in 2020 for obvious reasons, the 2021 crowd got their very long, very nice screams out, too. Happier Than Ever, the album, is a hushed, moody, occasionally jazzy mediation about what it’s like to be one of the world’s most famous musicians — if not people — before you can legally take a sip of alcohol. But “Happier Than Ever,” the song, is an opportunity to wave the proverbial — or perhaps literal — middle finger to every shitty ex- you’ve had the unfortunate experience of dating (you know what they say about ex’s in Texas…). It starts slowly before roaring to a fuzzed-out, scream-along finish.
“When I’m away from you, I’m happier than ever,” Eilish sings before the cathartic heavy metal finish, but she didn’t mean it about the festival crowd. The mood during the set closer was more akin to Miley’s final song: it was a party in the A.C.L.