THERE IS NOTHING our nation loves more than the spectacle of celebrity self-destruction. We want to watch our biggest stars go supernova and explode dazzlingly into nothingness. We like to lay them at the altar, burnt offerings to our dark gods. And if they are young women, Lohans and Spearses and Byneses, so much the better. There’s something Old Testament about virgin sacrifice, and in America, we also love our Bible.
If you could somehow gamble on Next Young Female Celebrity to Bottom Out, conventional wisdom says the smart money’s on Miley Cyrus. For one thing, she makes the cover of the tabloids with alarming frequency. For another, at the moment, she looks like a comic book character come to life, one of the lesser X-Men crossed with something from Tolkien. Will she wind up with distended Botox lips, devoid of the spark that made her special once, like another SNL favorite, Lindsay Lohan? Will she publicly lose her shit, like another Disney-manufactured pop star, Britney Spears? The haters and the fans both can see her going there. There are warning signs. The humiliating breakup with her coattail-riding fiancé, the salacious appearance at the VMAs, the Aquaman haircut. Today she’s humping a wrecking ball and fellating a sledgehammer, tomorrow she’ll be shaved bald, flailing at paparazzi with a folded-up umbrella. And a Britney song was on, and a Britney song was on, and a Britney song was on…
But is Miley really in trouble? Or is all of her recent behavior just part of a talented child star’s transition to adulthood, a quest for legitimacy?
“Who would have thought,” Miley sings in “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Hannah Montana opening-credits song, “that a girl like me could double as a superstar?” It’s a fair question. Certainly the studio execs who greenlighted the show had high hopes for its success, but I don’t know that anyone could have foreseen that the toothy daughter of a mulleted one-hit wonder would blossom into the hottest property the Disney Channel would ever know.
Hannah Montana concerns the double life led by its main character, who is both the eponymous pop superstar and a regular tweenager named Miley Stewart. Only a handful of close family and friends know the secret. As Clark Kent’s glasses throw off any- and everyone who might otherwise make him as the Man of Steel, so Hannah’s blonde wig preserves Miley Stewart’s other persona from general discovery. The ridiculous power of that blonde wig is played to great comic effect at many points during the show’s four seasons. One of the pleasures of the show, for parents of young girls who stream it on Netflix for hours at a stretch (cough, cough), lies in its metatextuality. The writers have a field day with this. Miley Stewart’s father on the show is Robby Ray Stewart, a minor country music star played charmingly if woodenly by Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley’s real-life dad. In one episode, he struggles to pen the lyrics for “Achy-Breaky Heart,” suggesting a slew of weaker alternatives before landing on the money phrase (which lyric, in real life, he did not write!).
When Hannah Montana aired, Billy Ray was still the most famous Cyrus, but within a few episodes of the maiden season, Miley had already supplanted him—just as Hannah Montana does to Robby Ray. In this 2006 appearance on Ellen, Miley lets her father do the heavy lifting. She appears somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention:
This won’t last. Two years later, she handles Ellen with aplomb, and without a chaperone:
The meteoric success of Hannah Montana is, in retrospect, no great shock. The “secret life” storyline is enormously appealing. Girls can watch the show and imagine they are Hannah Montana, who is not some dopey submissive royal but a bona fide pop star (although, like a princess, she remains walled off in her vast domain, surrounded by ladies in waiting and gorgeous shoes). The supporting actors are uniformly good, particularly Jason Earles as Miley’s lollygagging brother, Jackson, and the songs are solid. Most of all, Miley Cyrus is terrific. She’s a fantastic singer, her comic timing is spot-on, and while she’s not the greatest actress in the Disney stable (I’d vote for Good Luck Charlie‘s Bridget Mendler), she’s certainly not the worst (that would be Skai Jackson, who plays spoiled brat Zuri on Jessie, clips of which are reportedly showed to prisoners at Gitmo).
By the end of the show’s run, she had outgrown Hannah Montana as surely as George Clooney did E.R. In effect, Miley Cyrus had become even bigger than Hannah Montana. She was ready for the next phase of her career. But what was the next phase, and how would she get there?
Start here: Miley Cyrus is a better singer than any of the clutch of twentysomething1 female pop stars who are her cohorts: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga. Only Rihanna has superior pipes2. Also: “Party in the USA” is a better pop song than anything anyone else just mentioned has produced (although I could hear arguments for “Bad Romance”), and Bangerz, her new album, is flat-out fantastic. The point is, she’s not a curiosity or a deformed product of nepotism. She’s a legitimate talent. If she were not, Sinead O’Connor would not have written her that famous letter, Dolly Parton (who plays her grandmother on Hannah Montana) would not do duets with her, and she would not be asked to pop in for surprise appearances on SNL. With the possible exception of Swift, I don’t know that any of her cohorts have the flexibility or the inclination to do something like this:
But being a young female pop star is about more than talent. It’s also about sex—or, more accurately, how sex is wielded. If we watch a bunch of videos by that cohort, we see that the ages-old virgin/whore dialectic is, unfortunately, alive and well in 2014 America. Each artist toes the line between “playful cute girl” and “sexy vixen woman.” Taylor Swift errs on the side of playful cuteness. In the (excellent) video for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” she appears in dorky glasses and oversized pajamas, surrounded by teddy bears. Indeed, the members of her band are dressed as stuffed animals. Pretty though she is, she does not present herself as a an object of desire. On the other end of the spectrum is the unabashed Katy Perry, whose lyrics make fathers of seven-year-old girls uncomfortable (which is, of course, the point), and whose videos use comically overt sexual imagery (e.g., the whipped cream canisters spurting from her boobs). Rihanna is on Team Perry (viz, “S&M”), as is Gaga, although she’s more artful about it. Ke$ha is the most adept at balancing the two extremes; she manages to project a playful innocence even when singing about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack.
Miley’s been playfully cute for years now—not by choice, as with Swift, but by contractual obligation. When we think of Miley Cyrus, we think of Miley Stewart, and Miley Stewart is not sexy, no matter what Maxim magazine decrees. The way to change the public perception of her, to nudge it closer to a Katy Perry R or at least a Ke$ha PG-13, is to lick a lot of sledgehammers, to twerk with Santa, and to otherwise demonstrate to the world that this former Disney property has a nasty side. (As the sage Lily Allen puts it in “The Fear”: I’ll take my clothes off / And it will be shameless / Cuz everyone knows ‘ That’s how you get famous.) The objective is to annihilate the Hannah Montana image from the collective consciousness. If that’s the plan, and I say it is, mission accomplished.
Hannah Montana concerns, among other things, how a teenage girl should handle fame and fortune and success and enormous popularity without losing her soul. The lessons Miley Cyrus needed to learn about responsible celebrity—be humble, keep your family and friends close, don’t throw over your BFFs for some boy, be careful what you say lest it’s reported hither and yon by the likes of Jay Leno, etc.—she’s already learned from Miley Stewart, who by the end of the final season has mastered them.
Speaking of the final season, in the last episode of Hannah Montana, Miley Stewart chooses to attend Stanford with her BFF Lilly (played by Emily Osment, sister of the Sixth Sense actor) instead of go to Paris as a pop star. Miley Cyrus turned 21 in November. Her alter ego is a junior at Stanford right now. She’s doing what college students do: having fun, experimenting, finding herself, and otherwise reveling in her youth. As Whitney Collins wrote on the subject in her own open letter on these pages, “Soon enough, your tits will look like something on the IHOP menu and, if you’re like me, you’ll wish you had more pictures of you arching your back and fewer of you in a Kurt Cobain flannel looking like Gunnar Nelson.” Why not have some fun? It’s her party, she can do what she wants.
And what of that future? Where does the former Destiny Hope Cyrus3 go from here?
Miley is hardly the first child actor to make the leap to pop star. Before Alanis Morissette was Alanis Morissette, she was a bit player on the Nickelodeon show You Can’t Do That On Television. Jenny Lewis had amassed an impressive acting CV before trying her hand at music. As Stacy Ferguson, Fergie starred in Kids Incorporated prior to hitting it big with the Black Eyed Peas. And both Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears began their careers as Mouseketeers.
But the best analog for Miley is not her “SMS (Bangerz)” collaborator Spears, but Brit’s erstwhile boyfriend and fellow Disney alumnus, Justin Timberlake. Both Mily and JT came up under the watchful eye of Mickey Mouse. Both were the centerpiece of a successful prefab entertainment product. Both are really good singers. Both dabble in acting but are better when they play themselves. Both kill on Saturday Night Live. Both crave legitimacy. And then there’s the kicker: both are extremely likable. As Matt Norman—or, rather, Matt Norman’s wife—remarked on these pages on the subject of JT: “Everybody likes Justin Timberlake.” I don’t want to like the guy, I want very badly to punch him in the face, and yet I can’t help but like him. Miley has the same quality. She is well-regarded by, in no particular order: Sinead O’Connor, Sufjan Stevens, Dolly Parton, Ellen DeGeneres, Lorne Michaels and the rest of the folks at SNL, Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls, my daughter and countless other little girls the wold over, and Dan Ozzi, the punk editor of Noisey, who proclaims that “Miley is punk as fuck. More punk rock than all the mascara-wearing dorks playing the Warped Tour, more punk rock than old-ass bands on their third reunion tours, more punk rock than you or me.” Read those names again. A disparate slice of humanity, that! Moreover, there is an army of girls (and boys) who grew up on Hannah Montana and will love her no matter how many wrecking balls she dry-humps.
Finally, for all of the hoopla concerning Miley’s outrageous behavior, what has she really done that’s so terrible? Gotten a bad haircut? Smoked pot? Sung about dancing with Molly? Been jilted by Liam Hemsworth? She hasn’t been arrested, hasn’t checked into rehab, hasn’t crashed her car into a telephone pole. Mostly she’s stuck out her tongue a lot. The haters have mostly criticized the lewdness of her videos and her live performances, but are they really any lewder than, say, “California Gurls”? If Miley Cyrus was never on Hannah Montana, and thus not the presumed role model for untold numbers of little girls, my own daughter included, would the outcry be the same? If Katy Perry were the one offering her ass to Robin Thicke at the VMAs, would Sinead O’Connor write the same open letter? The reality is, Miley’s provocative string of recent performances is far less embarrassing than Carrie Underwood’s “acting” in The Sound of Music Live!
In short, all this outrage is misplaced. Miley Cyrus is not in trouble. She knows exactly what she’s doing, even if what she’s doing is figuring it all out.
That’s not a wrecking ball in the video. It’s the world. And she’s on top of it.
- Kelly Clarkson is in her thirties now, so not eligible ↩
- Rihanna has superior everything. I’m pretty sure she’s a Cylon, or else a space alien beamed here from Planet Awesome ↩
- Her parents called her Smiley because of her big grin; the nickname stuck, although somewhere along the line, the S was dropped ↩