“We knew it was hot, but we had no idea it was this crazy,’’ an executive with national tour promoters AEG Live told the Associated Press in the midst of the controversy surrounding the Best of Both Worlds tour. “It’s like the Beatles!”
Sure, there’s some hyperbole in that statement: Even if we discount all that ’60s hoo-ha about a cultural revolution, there’s the simple fact that there were four Beatles and there’s only one Miley Cyrus — or maybe two, if you count her pop-star alter ego, Hannah Montana. But such logic will get you nowhere in a debate with any ’tween-age girl.
For her, Miley/Hannah is likely to be a lot more inspiring and heroic than that tired old Fab Four — or almost anyone on the current music scene. And if you examine the phenomenon from the perspective of an 11-year-old, you’ll understand why.
The middle of five children reared in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn., Destiny Hope Cyrus was born in 1992. She acquired her nickname the first time she was held by her dad, country star turned sitcom actor Billy Ray; according to Mr. “Achy Breaky Heart,” his infant daughter grinned, prompting the name “Miley” because it rhymes with “smiley.” She started acting at age 9, appearing in her father’s TV series “Doc” and Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” but her career really took off at age 13, when she began playing the central character in a new show on the Disney Channel.
“Hannah Montana” began airing several times a day in March 2006. Drawing 5.4 million viewers, it quickly became the highest-rated show in the cable channel’s history, as well as the second most popular show anywhere on television among kids ages 6 to 14, trailing only “American Idol.” Released in October 2006, “Hannah Montana” was the first TV soundtrack to enter the Billboard chart at No 1, with sales of 2.5 million to date; issued last June, the followup, “Hannah Montana 2,” has already been certified double platinum.
Since then, we’ve also seen Hannah Montana party goods, DVDs, video games, karaoke machines — you name it; a general product search on Amazon.com turns up more than 800 items. There’s definitely something insidious about the marketing: The TV show hypes the music; the music hypes the clothing line; the clothing ties into the cosmetics and jewelry, and so on and so on. As Ad Age admiringly cooed last year, “The synergistic approach ... boosts the channel’s ratings and the corporate bottom line.”
Of course, this is nothing new: Let’s not forget that the Beatles sold a lot of boots, wigs, lunch boxes, movie tickets and other paraphernalia while singing about how money can’t buy you love and love is all we need. Disney is simply taking things to a new level, building on its earlier success with Hilary Duff and the “Lizzie McGuire” show (which is now, like, so 2004). In fact, in an interview with the AP last year, Disney Channel executive Gary March said Cyrus was cast precisely because she mixed the “everyday relatability of Hilary Duff and the stage presence of Shania Twain.”
The mention of the sometimes vampy, leather-clad Twain implies a hint of the risque appeal of earlier Disney icons turned teen-pop phenoms such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but in concert or on television, Miley/Hannah is strictly rated “G.” Much has been made of the star’s good-girl lifestyle. “Faith is the main thing,” she told USA Today in January. “That’s kind of why I’m like here in Hollywood — to be like a light, a testimony to say God can take someone from Nashville and make me this, but it’s His will that made this happen.”
Rife with slapstick antics, bad puns and plot lines that were hoary by the time of “I Love Lucy,” the TV show finds Cyrus portraying Miley Stewart, a seemingly typical teen who lives with her dad (played by her real father) and brother (Jason Daniel Earles); their mom is dead because, from “Bambi” through “Finding Nemo,” rare is the Disney mom that isn’t. Typical is the episode “Good Golly, Miss Dolly,” which finds Dolly Parton guesting as Miley’s godmother and helping her sneak into her high school at night to recover a videotape on which she confessed her crush on pretty boy Jake (Cody Linley).
As Miley, our heroine is awkward, insecure and riddled with self-doubt, just like most young girls. But unknown to most of her schoolmates, she also dons a blond wig to become a teen pop star named Hannah Montana, who is, needless to say, the epitome of cool, This brings us to the core message of the show and the root of its massive appeal: Week after week, “Hannah Montana” tells young girls that no matter how much they feel as if they don’t fit in and can’t do anything right, they have the power to become whatever and whoever they want to be.
Or, as Miley/Hannah sings in a tune called “Who Said,” which provides the climax to the Dolly Parton episode: “I’m individual/I’m not like anyone … Who said I can’t be Superman? I say that I know I can!/Who said I won’t be president?/I say you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
As other titles such as “Nobody’s Perfect,” “One in a Million,” “Life’s What You Make It” and “As I Am” indicate, the theme of believing in yourself runs through most of Miley/Hannah’s music, which is written and produced by some of the best hired guns in the biz, including Kara DioGuardi (Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, Ashlee Simpson) and Robbie Nevil (who penned three of the most popular tunes in “High School Musical”). Through it all, the hooks are solid and memorable, if not particularly original; the grooves are gently propulsive in a mildly rocking, subtly danceable or occasionally twangy way, and if the singing is cheerleader-enthusiastic at best — with the star clearly benefitting from auto-tuning technology — that just underscores the Every Girl aspect of it all, since, let’s face it, most ’tween girls can’t sing in key.
How much of Cyrus is Miley and how much is Hannah? How much of it all is a corporate contrivance and how much is a reflection of the genuine performer? “I’m definitely more like the normal girl,” the now 15-year-old star told the Washington Post. “I always want to stress to everyone who watches the show that I’m there to be like a friend and someone to help them through their lives.”
This may or may not be the case; we won’t really know until a few years down the road, when we find out if Miley/Hannah is still honing to the relatively straight and narrow, like Hilary Duff, of if she’s run right off the rails, like infamous Disney disasters Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. In the mean time, there are plenty of worse prefab pop princesses that ’tweens could be excited about — and much worse that their parents might have to endure as the eagerly anticipated tour arrives in Chicago this weekend.