[31 July 2008]
The massive popular appeal of the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana dynamic isn’t actually a tough thing to comprehend, even if you happen to be well outside the Disney Channel’s intended demographic. It would help, first, if you rolled out of bed one Saturday morning and tuned into the hugely popular Hannah Montana TV show, which centers on Totally Average Girl Miley Stewart, who, with the invaluable aid of a blonde wig, secretly moonlights as Global Pop Sensation Hannah Montana.
It’s not necessarily an original formula, granted; essentially, it’s the superhero storyline for kids who’d rather be, or daydream about being, Rihanna than Bruce Wayne (hint: girls, largely though by no means exclusively). But—and this is where things get more complex, and more interesting—Hannah Montana isn’t a club-hopping, boy-eating good girl gone bad. Rather, she’s a squeaky clean cipher of mega stardom—a perfect dream of pop, if you will, as seemingly removed in lifestyle and behavior from real pop singers as, say, Batman or Superman are from your run-of-the-mill city cop.
This isn’t just a practical, parent-appeasing, brand-conscious move on Disney’s part either. It’s a canny aesthetic call that allows junior high schoolers everywhere to more easily imagine themselves slogging through that reading, writing, and arithmetic business by day and headlining a sellout set at the Staples Center by night.
The other catch is that the real-life Cyrus (age 15) has generated significantly more off-screen controversy than the riskier-on-record, 20-year-old Rihanna (or, really, any major current name in pop, save Britney, Amy Winehouse, and, if she counts, Lindsay Lohan). From her provocative, evidently Pops-approved Vanity Fair spread to the naughty shots she threw up herself on her MySpace page to the no-way-it’s-an-accident suggestiveness of her latest album cover, it’s pretty clear that Cyrus is growing up (too fast) into a media celebrity far more recognizable to us E! addicts than the impossibly wholesome Hannah Montana.
All of which (and plenty more besides) adds up to a pretty complex equation of life imitating art imitating life: An ordinary girl lives a double life as a pop star, which, in turn, allows the somewhat less ordinary girl who plays her the opportunity to likewise scale the heights of musical stardom, all the while coming awkwardly of age in a spotlight whose glare has never been harsher for young women.
You’d think, by now, there’d be countless critical think-pieces floating around the Interweb and print media word-scapes, tackling Cyrus/Hannah from any number of inspired angles and tossing around some culturally useful ideas—and yet, there really isn’t. Most of the articles I’ve come across to date have either dwelt upon those scandalous photographs (as if the author is using the space as an excuse to lecture their own precocious teenaged daughter), or they’re basically throwing their hands up in the air, perplexed by Miley/Montana’s stranglehold on the imaginations and allowance dollars of Kids Today.
Part of the problem is that, where past and present word-count generators like Lil Wayne and Britney and Eminem and Kurt Cobain have straddled the line between youth appeal and grown-up food-for-thought, Cyrus and the Hannah brand have heretofore seemed targeted exclusively at consumers too young to sit behind the wheel of a car (which, I’d argue in response, renders her cultural impact no less worthy of investigation).
At the same time, the actual music Cyrus has thus far released, aside from a few catchy tracks, hardly stands up too well on its own two legs—its appeal is almost inextricably tied to the Hannah Montana persona and the television program and the 3D concert film and the officially-licensed Wal-Mart-distributed merchandise. Britney, Em, and Co. made their respective names with bona fide hits, many of which were inescapable for anyone who occasionally tuned into Top 40 radio or MTV. Cyrus, by contrast, doesn’t have to, at least so long as she’s willing to let Hannah pay her bills.
Which leads us (finally) to Breakout, an album that might appropriately have been titled Crossroads, like that much-maligned big-screen Britney vehicle of the same name. On her record, not-a-girl not-yet-a-woman Miley ditches the Hannah moniker and, in promoting the disc, brags about penning all but two songs (as if that’s the point). She claims in interviews that songwriting is what she really wants to do with her life, and she needn’t finish that statement with “once Hannah Montana runs its multimedia course and/or the fans have moved on to more ostensibly adult fare”—it’s assumed. And she’s shrewdly pre-empting the transition by breaking out, or away, from her formidable Disney shadow.
The result is a just-okay teenpop record with audible suggestions of said singer-songwriter aspirations. To be sure, it’s a stronger collection of songs than Moms and Dads with upturned noses (and light wallets, from those scalped ticket prices for Cyrus’s recent live tour) would probably expect. Yet, evaluated as a self-contained product independent from its popcult context (since, you know, that’s how Miley would apparently prefer it), it’s pretty darn slight, neither as tuneful nor as ambitious as either long-player by Radio Disney comrades Aly and A.J.
Tellingly, the best song on the album is a rather half-assed remix of her hit, “See You Again”, a marvelous slice of teenaged life set to club rock beats. Cyrus sings, as if relaying the details of a scene that occurred just last weekend in front of the mall multiplex: “The last time I freaked out / I just kept looking down / I st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I’m thinking ‘bout / Felt like I couldn’t breathe / You asked what’s wrong with me / My best friend, Leslie said, ‘Oh, she’s just being Miley’.” Regardless of who wrote the thing (officially, it’s Cyrus, along with some folks named Antonina Armato and Tim James), it feels infinitely more genuine and thoughtful than, say, Breakout’s “Wake Up, America”, a lame, mildly didactic stab at social awareness better left to, I don’t know, John Mayer or Clay Aiken or someone like that. The small-time teen drama of “See You Again” really suits Cyrus’s pleasingly deep and edgy vocals. When she vows, “The next time we hang out / I will redeem myself / My heart won’t rest ‘til then”, it sounds far less ludicrously melodramatic than it might have delivered by less forceful pipes.
There are other keepers on Breakout—current single “7 Things” is appealing enough, the country rock-tinged “These Four Walls” is borderline gorgeous, and Cyrus’s cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is worth a spin, if mostly for the terrific irony in her delivery of the line “my father yells ‘what you gonna do with your life?’”—but nothing comes close to “See You Again”, remixed or otherwise. Not coincidentally, nothing else either makes such ideal use of her specific on-record talents. Instead, the album’s team of producers and engineers tend toward flattening Cyrus’s distinct vocal into something thinner and higher and, presumably, closer to that of your average 15-year-old girl.
It’s an unfortunate strategy that, in effect, brings us right back to our modest starting point (average-ness), and in the long run (if there’s a long run), is unlikely to do any of us—most of all Miley Cyrus—any good. My guess is that Breakout isn’t fun enough or accomplished enough to really excite any segment of her fan base; rather, it’s just enjoyable enough and shows just enough flashes of maturation and skill to halt doubts regarding Cyrus’s future in the entertainment industry. Of course, for now, its sales numbers probably won’t discourage anybody’s short-term hopes or stock investments.