On May 18, Miley Cyrus released a song called “Can’t Be Tamed,” the title track to her new album, out now. Cyrus, of course, is one of the Disney Channel’s recent brood of teenage multimedia moguls, the star of a sitcom called Hannah Montana, the plot of which is surprisingly complicated and will not be unpacked here. Suffice it to say that if you were an 11-year-old girl, your mother would not mind you watching this show, though she probably wouldn’t watch it with you. And you’d outgrow it quickly, even if you still sang the occasional Miley song into the occasional hairbrush.
Anyway, in “Can’t Be Tamed,” M.C. declares that 1) She always has to get her way, 2) This is because she is hot, 3) Said hotness ensures that she “always gets the 10s,” and, finally, 4) She can’t be tamed. Cyrus’s vocals are harsh and preeningly robotic in the rote code for Badass Chick—same goes for the squashed, menacing synth beat extracted from early Lady Gaga singles. (It’s not an imaginative song.) On June 3, Cyrus performed the song on Britain’s Got Talent and pretended to kiss a female backup singer. Several newspapers charitably announced that this had “shocked Britain.”
I would bet that you’re unmoved by all this. Not just because you probably suspect that Cyrus’s rebelliousness is just another stage in the marketing of a bloodlessly managed persona, but because you have seen this particular stage of persona-marketing about eight trillion times. It’s what Disney-affiliated pop stars do without fail when they hit about 18; it’s what Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake all did. Ashlee Simpson opened her debut album, Autobiography, maybe 2000s teen pop’s one stone classic, by claiming, “You think you know me,” even though this was her first album and most of us didn’t really think that. (She was rebelling not against her past but her antiseptic sister, Jessica, whom we did think we knew.)
We all know how this works. We know that to talk about these stars without using phrases like “market share” and “demographic management” is to be, on some important level, a dupe. We also know that the people buzzing thickly around the YouTube comment sections for Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” or Christina’s “Dirrty” or, indeed, “Can’t Be Tamed” are unanimously naïve: that the girls putting off their biology reports to type encomiums to Miley’s beauty and bravery, and the boys frothingly calling her a slut and a whore, are washing extreme emotion up against something no more emotional than a wire transfer.
OK, but let’s talk about Miley Cyrus. Who is, after all, a human girl not unlike one you may know or be. She’s 17—18 in November. From the age of 12, she has essentially been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, according to whose mores she has had to speak, sing, behave, and (you could argue if you wanted to get all Orwellian about it) think. For this, she’s been rewarded with adoration and money; you’d be hard-pressed to consider Cyrus “unfortunate” from any serious perspective. But you’d also be hard-pressed not to admit that right now, in her position, you would yourself really want to play down your relationship with an oversize anthropomorphic rodent.
Which is the source of everything good about this stuff. Albums like Can’t Be Tamed are on their surface selling authenticity, and it doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to see that the resulting product is ruinously tainted. But there’s pleasure and nourishment in the friction between real and fake, between desperate and calculated. So: When Britney gets on the dance floor and says she’s a slave 4 U, she’s shedding one kind of subservience for another—except her new slavery is strange and menacing and exciting and may last only as long as the song. And the old slavery hasn’t really gone away, which makes the song a little like Juliet’s balcony, a place to stuff yourself with greedy kisses before your nurse calls from offstage. This is richer and sexier and more interesting than simple teenage rebellion or corporate accounting.
So that’s how this stuff can work. Can’t Be Tamed mostly doesn’t. A lot of its songs are ballads that ooze sap like an abandoned sponge; the only one that stands out is the really terrible one that goes, “The only thing that/Our hearts are made of/Are the acts of forgiveness and love.” (There’s also a cover of Poison’s perennial “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which is itself stupidly sappy but really good at it, and just makes everything else here look worse.) The good stuff: There’s a song called “Two More Lonely People” that turns a second of country guitar into a dance-floor loop, which is cool in a New Order kind of way. There’s one called “Permanent December” with a part that makes good use of Miley’s freakishly mature sarcasm-voice. And there’s one called “Robot,” which is a good place to finish up.
“Robot” is co-written by John Shanks, who also co-wrote most of Simpson’s Autobiography, and there’s something of that album not only in the wailing, fuzzy chorus (which in Cyrus’s mouth blurs into noisy oblivion) but in the tense and brutal verses: “I mistake the game for being smart/Stand here/Sell this/And hit your mark,” and then, “There’s nothing left inside/Except rusted metal that was never even mine,” and then, “I would scream/But I’m just this hollow shell,” and I mean, Jesus. This turns out to be the only truly interesting moment on Can’t Be Tamed—the breaking-up-with-Mickey song to rule them all, more explicit and bitter about being a corporate instrument than anything else in its well-populated genre. It ends well, of course: Miley’s “not your robot/I’m just me.”
Which she is. But she’s also their robot. This is complicated, you see, even though it’s trivial, and I totally forgive you if you’d rather be thinking about something else. Don’t worry. The girls of the Mouse will still be down here, pacing a churned and muddy DMZ between feeling and marketing, between girlhood and the bottom line, hemmed in and doomed, singing into their hairbrushes.