Recently, I’ve been at odds with how to cover the unending headline grabbing antics of Miley Cyrus. For the better part of this year, she has been all over the place, due to her highly sexualized new image and full throated embrace of “ratchet” culture. There are some who think these are the hallmarks of someone who is “out of control”, but my years of music industry knowledge tell me something different is at work here.
First, let’s see what all the fuss was about: Her new album, Bangerz.
On Bangerz, Cyrus has succeeded in crafting a more mature album than her previous work, only in that she now tackles the adult territory occupied by Rhianna and Britney Spears (who makes an uninspiring cameo on “SMS”). There are a lot of solid tracks on the album, “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” being some of the standouts. The main problem with the album is in the mixing of Cyrus’ country style and the hip-hop infused cuts, which are perfectly suited at times, such as on “Someone Else” and “4×4”, but on most of the other tracks feels like a shotgun wedding. (“FU” with French Montana? Really?)
The truth is, if Miley only had “We Can’t Stop” and “Someone Else” buoyed by the power ballads like “Wrecking Ball”, we might be talking about more than her tongue wagging, faux twerking, and promotion of drug use. So why all the hype around this ultimately mediocre and mis-matched album?
Because Miley Cyrus – and her team – had a problem.
See, for all the talk of her image being the result some type of downward spiral, this was in fact a plan by a savvy young woman who was smart enough to see the writing on the wall: That, unless she did something drastic, her career would follow the path of her former label mate and prototype, Hillary Duff.
Miley Cyrus and Hillary Duff were, career wise, nearly mirror images of one another. Miley was Hannah Montana, Hillary was Lizzie McGuire. After becoming Disney Channel’s biggest stars, both went on to moderate success at the box office, and both released massively successful debut albums on Disney’s Hollywood Records label, to the tune of 3 million copies sold.
The career parallels don’t stop there, unfortunately. Both artists would be subject to the law of diminishing returns, with both film and music projects gradually declining in success over time. Their fourth albums – Miley’s Can’t Be Tamed and Hillary’s Dignity, respectively, shed their previous images for more adult ones, and neither broke gold in the US.
It was in this space that Miley found herself – unable to connect with a grown-up audience, and increasingly alienating her core fan base of tweens and adolescents. And even if she wanted to go home again, it was too late – she had already been replaced.
Miley had to do something drastic, something to make sure people wouldn’t stop talking about her. So she did what any sensible person would do – namely, she got up on stage with at the VMAs and twerked it for all it was worth – which wasn’t much, considering she has no ass.
The calculation worked, because today’s culture loves nothing better than covering a train wreck in progress, and Miley Cyrus was the most talked about performance of the night. Add the controversial video for “We Can’t Stop” and the naked swinging and hammer fellating antics of “Wrecking Ball”, and Cyrus becomes the biggest thing in America – or so the media would have you believe.
While her album debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard chart with 270,000 copies sold in its first week, there are parallels to be drawn here – namely, the fact that this is only marginally better than her fourth album (only 170,000 more, to be exact), as well as the fact that Taylor Swift’s Red sold almost 5 times that, with 1.2 million copies sold in her first week.
There’s also the fact that, in her second week, those sales slipped down 73 percent, to only 72,000 units sold. It’s proof positive that controversy can’t replace talent and songs people actually like as vehicles for success, although the rise of Adele should have taught people that a while ago.
There is another hidden cost to consider when looking at Cyrus’ calculation that “growing up” means getting naked, shaking your ass (or bones in this case) and “dancing with Molly”. I don’t want to come off as a morality policeman, but Cyrus is only 2 years removed from the finale of her hit show. The 11 and 12 year olds that grew up with Hannah Montana posters on their walls? They are 13 and 14 now, and to them, Cyrus is still the coolest thing ever – especially considering the onslaught of media attention now being lavished on her post Disney career.
And you can be damned sure that a lot of them have helped propel this album to the number 1 spot. Miley Cyrus might not wanna be a role model, but that doesn’t change the fact that pre-teen and teenage girls look to her as one.
That should be enough to get anyone to stop.