Amidst a storming array of percolating synths and stomping dance beats, Miley Cyrus’ third album under her own name opens with a declarative mantra: “Don’t live a lie!”
And just like that, Miley Cyrus is stepping away from the House of Mouse to become her own woman, free of the shackles of the corporate machine that manufactured that squeaky-clean image that made her so popular to begin with (further evidenced by the disc’s marginally-risqué cover shot). Apparently, she’s done with living the “lie” that was her career up to this point and has now come into her own—or, at least, that’s what she wants us to think. Still released on the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, Can’t Be Tamed is the sound of yet another Radio Disney pop starlet shedding off her family-friendly image to become a sexually-charged pin-up that’s ready to enter the fray against all of those mainstream pop divas that inspired her ‘lo those many years ago. Co-writing every track on here, it’s obvious that Cyrus’ frequent proclamations of independence means that she will not be revisiting her cutesy former persona anytime soon.
Unfortunately, history is not on Cyrus’ side, as the success rate of Mickey-approved pop icons suddenly going the “mature” route is marginal at best. When the music idol in question begins pushing towards a “dirtier” persona (see: Hilary Duff’s “Play With Fire” [which looks positively tame now], Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U”, the crotch shot-riddled video for Jesse McCartney’s “Leavin’”, Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”, etc.), the artist has suddenly cut themselves off from the tween fanbase that made their rise to stardom so meteoric in the first place. Though these artists may certainly have hits following said “mature” turns, their sales ultimately pale in comparison to that of their debuts, the most recent example being the “astonishing sales collapse” of Christina Aguilera’s libido-driven album Bionic, falling all the way down to #29 on the UK charts after holding pole position for a single week.
At first, however, it seemed like Cyrus would be able to handle the transition from Hannah Montana to professional diva quite well, with hits like “7 Things” and the too-catchy-for-its-own-good Dr. Luke production “Party in the U.S.A.” showcasing an appeal that extended a bit beyond that of her pre-teen fanbase. Unfortunately, Can’t Be Tamed doesn’t even come close to scraping those guilty-pleasure highs, instead falling back on tired hooks, worn lyrical clichés, and an unbelievable amount of emotional detachment that leaves the disc sounding flat and muted—adjectives that should never ever be used towards describing a dance-pop album.
The disc opens with “Liberty Walk”, a song that features one of the worst “do it on your own” metaphors ever set to paper, as instead of being independent, Cyrus is instead, um, liberated, and as such takes a ... “liberty walk” ... away from the “people who tied you up” (as in ... Disney? The people who financed this disc?). Even during her pseudo-rap verses, the hackneyed expressions simply pile up one after another (“We’re gonna get it / When we live it live it!”), leaving Cyrus’ search for a new identity rendering her as anonymous and generic-sounding as ever.
Yet generic-sounding is one thing; sounding like something you’re not is a whole different problem. On the sub-Britney title track, the 17-year-old Cyrus inexplicably claims that “I go through guys like money flying out they hands”, later clarifying that “I met a boy in every city / No one kept me amused / But don’t call me a lolita / ‘cos I don’t let ‘em through” on the peppy “Permanent December” (oi). Although these claims of vague promiscuity are already hard enough to buy as is, they’re still much more tolerable than some of the disc’s more over-the-top cutesy moments wherein she delivers sentiments so unbelievably saccharine that Hallmark would ultimately have to turn them down (the worst being “The only thing that / Our hearts are made of / Are the acts of forgiveness and love”—wow).
No “mature” pop album is complete, however, without the starlet in question desecrating some classic rock standard. Britney Spears watered down “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll”, Paris Hilton breathlessly cooed her way through Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, and Lindsay Lohan brought us an utterly pointless redo of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”, leaving Cyrus to bring us a vapid retread of Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”, replete with deep synth waves and reverb-heavy rap beats that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a mid-tempo crunk record. A good cover tends to offer us a new perspective or angle on what made the track so great to begin with; Cyrus, however, is perfectly content to keep every single aspect of the original the same save for the modern production techniques, a move which only makes lines like “every cowboy sings a sad sad song” sound remarkably detached from its source material.
The biggest problem with Can’t Be Tamed, however, lies entirely on Cyrus’ skills as a performer. Her voice was never great—it’s always been serviceable at best—but here, there is not a single ounce of emotion behind these tunes. She sings all the right notes at the right times, but her inflection and tone are devoid of any sort of sincerity. On the closing ballad “My Heart Beats for Love” for example, she gives herself some lines which, by themselves, amount to little more than bad high-school poetry (“I’ve been stranded on a lonely street / Got lost in the shadows / Fell hard in the battle / Heard cries in the suffering / Walked through the darkness / Looked broken and heartless”). Amidst melodramatic organ swells and an ‘80s drum-roll right into the chorus, however, Cyrus’ voice never once strays out of its comfort zone, staying right in the middle of her range without as much of a hint of thought having gone into the words that are actually coming out of her mouth. Hell, she sounded more engaged when doing her Twitter rap.
Yet even despite its forgettable ballads and downright embarrassing lyrical turns, perhaps it should come as a relief to some fans that there is at least one moment of carefree dance-pop joy on Can’t Be Tamed that sounds like it came right out of her Hannah Montana days (“Two More Lonely People”). With a simple melody, a breezy chorus, and Cyrus actually sounding like she’s having fun while singing it, it’s the hands-down highlight from an album that already tries too hard to showcase the many sides of Miley Cyrus’ personality when, in fact, there were never that many interesting facets to her persona to begin with.
She tries to step away from the people that are holding her down (Disney) despite the fact that she’s still on a Disney label. She wants to shake her old Hannah Montana character despite the fact that she’s still signed on for a fourth season next year. She manufactures claims about how she goes through guys like crazy, even though anyone who even remotely knows her name through the tabloids knows that stable boyfriend Liam Hemsworth would obviously have something to say about such behavior even if it remotely hovered near the truth. When you get right down to it, not only is Can’t Be Tamed a confused statement of a record, but it’s a pretty boring listen as well, as Cyrus hits on tired old pop trends (AutoTune? Really?) as a way to deliver her quasi-edgy new persona to a much more intelligent mainstream audience. On the disc’s second track, she ponders “Who owns my heart / Is it love or is it art?”, despite the fact that the answer is obvious to anyone who listens: it’s commerce that owns your heart, Miley, and it always has been.