Once upon a time in the Magic Kingdom, there was a modern-day Disney Princess by the name of Miley Cyrus. She grew up in the spotlight, as the media juggernaut that is Disney played up her wholesome image for maximum profitability. Little girls loved her character, Hannah Montana, and wanted to dress like her, sing like her, be like her. Her face was plastered on everything from backpacks to bedsheets; her concerts sold out in minutes. Nobody seems to remember that, even in the context of Miley’s incredibly successful Disney Channel show, Hannah Montana was utterly fictitious, an alter ego that could be trotted out for dramatic or comedic effect as suited the typical sitcom storylines of the series.
After the squeaky-clean show reached its finale a couple of years ago, nearly everything she did made headlines. Smoking a suspicious substance? Check. Getting tattooed? Check. High-profile dating/engagement/breakup? Check, check, and check. Lately the negative press has come to a head in the wake of Miley’s admittedly goofball performance at the VMA’s and the release of her latest video, “Wrecking Ball”, which features the now-20-year-old swinging on the titular object in the nude.
I can’t imagine what growing up in the stifling Disney environment was like. Actually, yes, I can, having spent my formative years under the strict eye of helicopter parents who felt it was their solemn duty to hold my hand crossing the street when I was as old as my early teens, who called me every night I was away at college making sure I wasn’t doing something autonomous and therefore sinful. That’s neither here nor there, since we’re not talking about Fluffy anyway, but I can totally relate to how constricting being Hannah must have been. Being part of The Disney Machine is like having helicopter parents to the infinite power, and being THE Hannah Montana has to have been like fifty million times worse than being the perfect daughter my parents expected me to be. So I can’t really go off on Miley for acting out– she never got to be a teen when she WAS a teen. She was on red carpets when other kids her age were at the prom. She missed out on a lot of the experimentation, the silliness, the out-and-out mistakes that come with being a high-school kid. Why? It would have been bad press. Once free of the Disney hold, she had a heck of a lot of catching up to do, and yeah, that can involve some craziness. I speak from experience.
When Miley’s single “We Can’t Stop” hit the airwaves earlier this year, it got a lot of radio play and caused relatively little furor, despite its slightly, um, esoteric video (dancers with giant teddy bears strapped to their backs, Miley kissing a Barbie doll in a pool). It was a mashup of silly and sexy, looking for all the world like one of those incriminating post-party Facebook albums that have you desperate to untag yourself (why did you friend your boss, anyway, ya suck-up?). Yes, twerking was involved, and a lot of goofy costumes, and some lingering shots that somehow channel “True Blue”-era Madonna. It’s not just the hair and the lipstick, either– it’s that sense of pushing the envelope, seeing just how much you can get away with. However, while that particular iteration of Madonna often came across as simply calculated to shock, especially in videos like “Open Your Heart” (in which a middle-school-aged boy got to watch her do a striptease), Miley infuses this video with an original sense of humor– yes, she’s shocking you, but she thinks it’s freaking hilarious. Sure, some of the elements don’t even make sense (what’s up with those bears? Seriously, are they like a subversion of a symbol of childhood? Or are they PedoBears? Damn, I’m probably reading too much into it– sometimes a dancing bear is just a dancing bear), and then there’s the whole tongue-face thing, but the real subtext of the whole video is that Miley is laughing at your reaction to it. It’s almost self-parody. And she’s just doing it to piss you off, because that crap is mad funny.
The proverbial doo-doo didn’t really hit the fan until Miley showed up at the VMA’s with her dancing PedoBears in tow. Her hair gathered into topknots that looked like devil horns, she stripped off her bear-printed fuzzy onesie to reveal what appeared to be a rubber bikini– flesh-toned, of course– and proceeded to get freaky with a foam finger, stick out her tongue a lot (I have to wonder if that creates a drooling hazard), and twerk all over Beetlejuice (oops, Robin Thicke– my bad). While the fashion cop in me also has to point out that neither costume fit her very well– the onesie was too loose, the bikini too tight, neither doing her any favors– the performance absolutely had the intended effect. The internet and the press blew up. Suddenly, Miley was America’s trainwreck du jour (Amanda Bynes is somewhere saying a prayer of thanksgiving). The public didn’t get the joke, but then again, she probably didn’t expect them to– she’s poking fun at the prudery of people who want her to be Hannah Montana forever.
The flap over the VMA’s barely had time to simmer down before the release of the “Wrecking Ball” video, which was excellent timing for maximum exposure– no pun intended. The video shattered viewing records (America loves their trainwrecks). If “We Can’t Stop” felt like a Madonna video, “Wrecking Ball” is an amalgam of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and a Lady Gaga piece. (The clip’s director, Terry Richardson, has worked with Gaga extensively.) Indeed, if this were a Gaga video, there probably wouldn’t be such a stink. It’s an art piece, one that explores themes of loss, vulnerability, and pain in a way that wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so overtly sexual. Opening to another human being isn’t always a sexual experience, but the subtext of the song addresses that aspect of it, and in context the nudity, and even the sledgehammer-licking, makes sense, speaking to the desolation and devastation that follows the collapse of such an intimate relationship. The clip opens with a tight shot of Miley weeping (parallels of “Nothing Compares 2 U”) and doesn’t get any happier, but it’s brutally effective, at times almost painful to watch, and Miley flat-out sells the hurt. It feels almost intrusive to watch it, like reading someone else’s diary. I haven’t seen a video this harsh since the late Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails– yes, the circumstances and the way the clips handle their respective subjects are very different, but they share a visceral openness that is like a knife to the gut, both beautiful and harrowing. Displaying such a powerful depth and range at such a young age can only reflect favorably of what the future could hold for Miley Cyrus if she continues to play her cards so well. And don’t be so quick to judge her– she’s only getting started.