Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus is a pretty big deal to pre-teen girls. Parents resort to anything short of murder – that we know of – to get their spoiled brats tickets to her concerts. She stars on the Disney channel show Hannah Montana, which sounds like it should be about a drugged out stripper, but sadly is not – the Disney channel affiliation should have been a tipoff. Annie Liebovitz snapped some supposedly racy photos of her which ended up being about as shocking as an Amish sleepover. That about fully encompassed all my knowledge of Miley Cyrus up to about a week ago when on the first day of my vacation to New York City I walked through my aunt’s front door to find myself face to face with the tween phenom.* Well, actually it was just a life-sized Hannah Montana – still not a stripper – cardboard cutout belonging to my two young cousins. It was still quite a shock. It’s creepy to enter a home to the lifeless, fake, smiling visage of young America. It was even creepier after I discovered someone had place scotch tape X’s over her eyes and mouth as though to restrain her from waking in the night and feasting on the souls of the slumbering family. Being first truly introduced to Miley in cardboard form is also apropos in the clichéd sense that I later discovered her entire image is empty and shallow, all surface with no underlying substance.

Of course, this is to be expected from teen idols. Pop stars aimed at pre-teen audiences are not exactly famous for their depth. They usually get by on flash, winning smiles, and whatever pop smarts their handlers may possess. The truly shocking thing about Miley Cyrus is how, even by the low standards of teen idoldom, she seems under qualified. Honestly, Miley does not exactly blow you away with talent. Listen to one of her songs. Go ahead.

She does not even have a particularly strong voice. Actually, she has a weak voice. She doesn’t exactly belt knock the ol’ roof off. She just kind of mumbles along in tune in a kind of low whispery sing speak full of more air than voice. Her whole tone is almost apologetic. As though on a subconscious level she is saying “I am so sorry you are not listening to a better singer right now. But my daddy’s famous.” From a performance standpoint she does not even hold a candle to pre-teen idols of the past – New Kids on the Block, New Edition, Tiffany, N*Sync, Manudo, others I am almost too embarrassed to admit I am familiar with. She is certainly not on the same performance level of the ultimate teen idol: Ricky Nelson – who gets a lifetime pass simply for being in Rio Bravo with The Duke and Dino.

I was shocked to hear my seven-year-old cousin sing along with a Miley’s songs. My cousin blew Miley away vocally. Plain and simple. At seven my cousin can out sing one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Now, as much as I would like to say this is due to some great talent in my little cousin, I fear it points more to the total lack of talent in the pop star. Now, I have never watched American Idol, but I feel confident in saying Miley would even make it onto the show. She may not even make it past the tryouts. She has a mildly pleasant, unexpressive voice capable of staying in tune within a limited range. Not exactly high praise.

Miley is not even up to normal teen idol standards in looks. I know this can come off as creepy when discussing a young teenager, but I feel it’s pertinent. She’s kind of odd looking with a big smile with an unfortunate amount of gum in it. She has a vacant look about her – not really uncommon in young stars. Now think about it. Have you ever heard anyone make creepy, pedophile jokes about Miley Cyrus? I can honestly say I have not, and I have friends who make this kind of joke practically every day – Hi Joe. Remember when the Olsen twins were Miley’s age? How often did you hear statutory rape jokes made at their expense? About ten times a day? No one is making these jokes about Miley. She looks like any other 15-year-old you find walking around any suburban mall in America.

Miley Cyrus is marginally talented and marginally attractive. She may be a fine actress. I have only seen maybe a minute of Hannah Montana – enough to discover it was not about a stripper – and do not remember being particularly impressed. At most she holds her own against other young basic cable actresses. So what’s the hook? What is it that draws young girls to this cipher? Is she the biggest marketing success in American history? Can it really be all marketing savvy and promotion? Of course it may be the very aspects of her I complain about which draws the youth of America. She is not particularly talented or attractive, but she is a big star. The implicit message to young girls is you can do this too – assuming of course your dad is already in the industry. You do not need to be the most attractive girl in your school. You do not have to win all the solos at your choir concerts. You can be completely, absolutely unexceptional and still be the biggest star in the world. This is an attractive prospect to your average 11-year-old girl.

Of course, a lot of this is built into the Hannah Montana character. The show – while still not about a stripper – is centered on an average teenage girl who has a secret life as a pop star with a stripper name. The concept, while patently ridiculous (no one notices they look alike? Really?), is also powerful to pre-teen girls. It holds the same basic draw as superhero narratives hold for young boys. Sure, Peter Parker is a powerless nobody, but Spiderman kicks all kinds of ass. The draw of Hannah Montana is not that the character is a great singer and performer. It is that she is a star while still being a regular girl. This is exactly the appeal Miley Cyrus is trading on. Of course, as she grows further away from the Hannah Montana persona and tries to trade more on her own name and merits she is sure to become less successful. Not only will her own deficiencies be put in greater relief, but her audience will grow older and move on to other idols and maybe even to some true artists. You know, people with real talent.


* This vacation also accounts for not posting at all last week.