Here’s the thing about “Party in the U.S.A.,” Miley Cyrus’ plasticized ode to, well, partying in the USA: It is exceedingly patriotic, but it is not a great party song.
This has less to do with the tune itself — which is actually pretty good, thanks to Dr. Luke’s whooshing production, Cyrus’ salty-yet-sweet robo-vocals and the hyper-literal lyrics (Miley listens to Jay-Z and Britney, goes to a club and likes to wear a cardigan when she’s flying cross-country) — than it does with its sentiment. That’s because great party songs are never actually about partying. Shoot, the best ones never even mention it. They don’t have to.
This is because talking about partying is completely antithetical to actually partying.
Think of every great party you’ve ever been to — the ones where you wake up with a fat lip and someone’s undergarments on your head. Did you ever have to convince anyone who was there that it was, in fact, a great party? Did you ever have to utter the phrase “That was fun!” Of course not. Because, if you did, it wouldn’t have been a great party and you wouldn’t have ended up with underwear in your hair. The great ones leave no doubt in your mind — they don’t require convincing and they don’t need validation.
And the same logic also applies to great party songs — they must be organic, they must be chaotic, and they must come stumbling out of the cold, slurring and sidewinding and slurping (this is basically Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money”). They’re not eager to get a party started, because they know the best parties don’t just start, they happen. They’re not going to try to make you dance because, well, you should just want to dance. (Otherwise, why are you even at the party?) They are full of unspoken truths, sexy subtleties. They don’t want to party with you — you want to party with them.
In other words, great party songs don’t give a f— about the actual party. And as soon as you pepper the chorus of your tune with the P-word — like Miley has done — you’ve violated this cardinal rule. You’ve forced the issue, you’ve stated the obvious and you’ve made the musical equivalent of a party at your parents’ house, with mom and dad manning the keg. It’s sad and it’s just too eager.
And using the word “Party” in the title of your song is possibly the worst violation of all, because it makes the tune — as my editor April Richardson put it — “like the guy trying to start the wave.” And who wants to party with him?
(Of course, there are some exceptions: super-pumped-about-life Andrew W.K. gets a lifetime pass, because flossing his teeth is a “party” to that guy. DMX’s “Party Up” gets a pass because it’s not really about partying … well, unless your idea of “partying” is robbing banks, in which case you and DMX have a lot in common, according to the video. Ween’s “Your Party” is OK because David Sanborn plays on it. Black Flag’s “TV Party” gets by because it’s a piss-take. Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullsh–” is party-approved because it has curse words in it. Party songs are not an exact science, after all.)
While untold thousands of Miley fans might disagree with me, basically you just know a good party song as soon as you hear it — you don’t have to be told you’re listening to one. The writers of the great ones already know this, and it’s probably a good thing that 16-year-old Miley doesn’t yet. She’s got lots of time to work on her party presentation.
Questions? Concerns? Thesis you’ve written in defense of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time”? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.