HOLLYWOOD - Say one thing about Miley Cyrus: The girl can sing.
And that, fundamentally, was the point of the singer's MTV Unplugged show, which taped Tuesday on a soundstage in the shadows of the fabled Hollywood sign and airs at 9 pm tonight.
Striding onto a stripped-down stage with country touches - hay bales, wooden risers and a giant wagon wheel looming overhead - Cyrus pounded through 10 songs that showcased her prodigious pipes and ended with a pop-culture bang.
Madonna, dressed like a glittering mash-up between a gun slinger and a swashbuckler from Pirates of the Caribbean, joined Cyrus to bump and grind through Madge's infectious Don't Tell Me. Those in the studio audience got a bonus; Cyrus forgot to wear her white cowboy hat to contrast with Madonna's black one, so the two went at it again.
There is an obvious message to be read into a moment that finds these two mavericks singing in unison, "Please don't tell me to stop."
Madonna was twerking before Cyrus was a gleam in Billy Ray's eye, and pointedly ignored all the finger-wagging that her jaw-dropping antics inspired back in the day. (Sex the coffee-table book anyone?) Cyrus is likely intent on the doing the same.
But not without reminding people that inside the Disney-raised phenom lurks a bona fide singing talent. When she belted out Adore You off her oft-sampled Bangerz album, Cyrus imparted a passion, clarity and sensitivity that stands in stark contrast to eye-rolling foam-finger antics.
The same can be said for her powerful rendition of Jolene, "written by my Aunt Dolly (Parton)," in which Cyrus demonstrated not only her country roots but also a deep respect for the musicianship that accompanies the genre.
Steering cultural attention away from a Robin Thicke moment with an MTV Unplugged appearance was an inspired move, whether it was Cyrus' or her savvy manager Larry Rudolph, who most recently goosed Britney Spears' career with a ticket-selling residency in Las Vegas.
After all, you can't pull off Unplugged without actual chops. Eric Clapton has never sounded better than in this forum, while Nirvana, so easily dismissed by non-fans as perhaps all sound and fury, showed their hypnotic power with but a minimum of electricity. Likewise, Cyrus, backed by only acoustic guitar, piano, bass, drums and a banjo, couldn't hide behind theatrics - and she didn't need to.
That's not to say Cyrus wasn't up to a little delightful no-good; this is Miley, after all. The opening number said it all, with country-clad musicians hammering out 4x4 while Cyrus, tongue lolling out of her mouth, conjured up a demented hoedown complete with giants, little people and a two-man twerking fabric horse straight out of a Hee Haw from hell.
Look away, if you dare. Truth is, you won't.
(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)