Miley Cyrus will turn 18 in November, though she’s been an adult for some time now. Ever since a suggestive 2008 Vanity Fair photo shoot thrust her out of the Disney cocoon into the mainstream consciousness, she’s been the subject of speculation, concern and fear. Ms. Cyrus, the chatterers argued, was in trouble but could still be saved.
And yet innocence has never been the core of Ms. Cyrus’s appeal. As the star of the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” series, she plays a knowing character — regular kid by day, pop star by night — who understands the duality of celebrity. Being famous is work, and not always of the glamorous kind.
A similar duality is now beginning to undo Ms. Cyrus in real life, where she’s still tied inextricably to her Disney identity but looking for a safe landing spot. As surely as the teen idol is a part of pop culture, so is the molting of her shiny veneer.
Last week Ms. Cyrus released “Can’t Be Tamed” (Hollywood), the first album that’s shown the frayed seams of her identity. But Ms. Cyrus’s metamorphosis isn’t nearly as radical as “Can’t Be Tamed” — the title track, the video, the title — would suggest. Rather, she’s evolving into something far less controversial: a pop star, confused like all the rest of them.
“Can’t Be Tamed” may be the least consistent of her several albums to date — the ones released under her name and the ones as Hannah Montana — but it’s also the most unexpectedly thrilling. There are phenomenal dance-pop songs but also stilted ballads and high-energy screamers. It continues the anchorlessness that’s been clear in Ms. Cyrus’s music the last year and a half. In that time she’s had two major hits: “The Climb,” a soaring, inspirational pop-country ballad from the soundtrack to “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” and “Party in the U.S.A.,” a saccharine, chirpy confection that’s almost the exact opposite (and, notably, does not appear on this album, or any other).
“Can’t Be Tamed” continues the chaos. The title track is Rebellion 101: “I want to be a part of something I don’t know/and if you try to hold me back, I might explode.” In the video she’s trapped in a cage, wearing wings, and teases her female backup dancers with near-kisses. As ever, on this song Ms. Cyrus displays a husky, distinctive voice that undermines any attempts at naïveté, but still, there’s no frisson to this attempt at rebirth.
Her lashing out is perfunctory too — “Can’t Be Tamed” is merely the song that gets her past the teen-pop ghetto and on to other choices. “Don’t live a lie/This is your one life,” she sings at the beginning of “Liberty Walk,” the album’s first song. But the lie might be that Ms. Cyrus has some core truth that she’s faithful to — on that song alone, she tries out four different vocal strategies, including rapping. Her greatest crime isn’t that she’s maturing too quickly: it’s that it’s unclear where she wants to go.
That’s most likely because Ms. Cyrus was formed in the cauldron of public scrutiny, but not in any particular music scene outside of kid-pop.
“I listen to zero pop music, which is really weird for someone who makes pop music,” Ms. Cyrus improbably told Billboard magazine last month.
If anything, songs like “The Climb” and “Party in the U.S.A.” were scrubbed far cleaner than her Hannah Montana material, which often had a sassy, aggressive edge to it, a mood that’s barely touched on “Can’t Be Tamed.”
Instead, the most exciting songs on this album are club-oriented dance-pop, a genre Ms. Cyrus hasn’t previously shown any affinity for and may never again. Still, it’s a timely and sharp sound. “Who Owns My Heart” — produced, like many of the album’s best tracks, by the pop impresarios Rock Mafia — is full of rubbery synths and swooning choruses in the vein of Cascada.
On “Two More Lonely People,” bright acoustic guitars slash hard against bouncy synthesizers, suggesting, of all things, vintage Debbie Gibson. And at the bridge, there’s a faint echo of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
On “Permanent December,” written with Claude Kelly — who also helped write “Party in the U.S.A.” — Ms. Cyrus tries out a sneering type of sing-rapping, à la Fergie: “Don’t call me a Lolita/’Cause I don’t let ’em through.”
On a more coherent album, that idea would be explored further. But the fact that Ms. Cyrus feels little need to assert her sexuality, or lack thereof, is consistent with her rejection of a single new identity in favor of a cluster of experiments. Perhaps she hasn’t had time to think it through, or maybe she’s realized that evading the subject for now is a more flexible strategy than tackling it head-on.
Still, she may not have those options much longer. “Hannah Montana” will end this summer after its fourth season, bringing the dual identity portion of Ms. Cyrus’s career to a close. At that point, untethered to any old modes, she may in fact look back with some envy on the time in her life when her choices were as simple as either/or.
Source: NY Times