It’s a Bird! It’s GaGa! It’s…Miley?

May 7, 2010
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Earlier this week, E! Online unveiled the video for Miley Cyrus’ new single, “Can’t Be Tamed,” a track from her upcoming album Robot. In it, as a rare breed of something called an Aves Cyrus (which E! explains as a “sexy dancing pop star bird”), Miley spreads her wings and steps out of her cage, proclaiming she can’t be tamed.  For the 17-year-old Disney Channel star, the metaphor couldn’t be more obvious – or strategic.

The fourth and final season of her hit show Hannah Montana is set to air later this year, and after the season three finale, “Is Miley Saying Goodbye?” the transition out of her role as childish tween star has been on its way for some time. After several Hannah Montana soundtracks, Cyrus released a cross-over pop album, aptly titled Breakout, under her own name on Disney’s Hollywood Records in 2008 and starred in the feature film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ love story, The Last Song (from Disney’s Touchstone) in March of this year. But despite the conglomerate’s best efforts at built-in transitions (ahem, the Best of Both Worlds), the move away from her kid TV moniker hasn’t been easy. Between candid photos of her exposed bra, news of her 20-year-old underwear model boyfriend moving in with her family, and the outcry over her photos in Vanity Fair, Cyrus’ star image signals just how much American culture values the discursive construct of childhood innocence and the denial of young female sexuality. Her Disney Channel show, Hannah Montana, may be a prime example of “girl power” pop feminism or Angela McRobbie’s concept of post-feminist masquerade (as Morgan Blue has insightfully written about), but Cyrus’ own struggles to be taken seriously as something other than young innocent girl signals the complexities of such configurations. She at once upholds the good girl/bad girl binary while also trying desperately to negotiate beyond it.

“Can’t Be Tamed,” then, is a significant rhetorical contribution to Cyrus’ cross-over star persona. As part Lady Gaga meets Night at the Museum, part “the Couple in the Cage” meets Britney Spears’ Circus, the video uses extensive costuming, make-up, and metaphor to add another angle to Cyrus’ image. And it seems to be working (for the most part) as a transitioning mechanism. Entertainment Weekly hails the video as the official “death to Hannah Montana,” reminding readers that Cyrus is, in fact, almost 18 years old;  AOL’s entertainment blog PopEater sums it up as a “move that she had to make,” and even Perez Hilton, who frequently refers to her with the nickname “Slutty Cyrus,” seems to like the video, saying that it “screams Britney circa her golden years, and we’re not mad! …It’s hot, hot, hot.” Directed by Robert Hales (who’s also worked with Nine Inch Nails, Gnarls Barkley, Janet Jackson, and of course, Britney Spears), the video’s sets, costumes, and loads of eye-shadow certainly construct a vivid, contemporary aesthetic, but the actual song is mediocre, and even the best costumes can’t hide the fact that Miley can’t really dance that well.

What does Cyrus herself have to say about the video? She told Ryan Seacrest recently that “yes, it’s a sexy video. But it’s also about explaining the song and living the lyrics…it’s about I don’t want to be in a cage, I want to be free and do what I love…and make the movies or the music that I want.” But even if “Can’t Be Tamed” allows Cyrus to step outside the cage in which her star image was once contained and claim the performance of her sexuality, issues of agency and spectacle of course still remain. Many young (white) female stars go through similar moments of overt sexual performativity to transition from child/teen to adult star – Britney became a Slave, Christina Aguilera got “Dirrty,” Jessica Biel Gear-ed up, Elizabeth Berkley became a Showgirl … but while many young male stars experience hardships growing up in Hollywood, significantly fewer wrestle with having to at once claim ownership of and put on display their sexual identity (exceptions always exist, though. See: Daniel Radcliffe in Equus). To put it another way, regardless, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Jonas Brothers or Zac Efron don a $25,000 corset with giant black wings and sing about breaking out of a cage to advance their star image. Although that would be cool. I think.

One thing’s for sure, though – the music video is alive and well. Between E! Online, YouTube/Vevo, and being embedded in blogs like this one, “Can’t Be Tamed” is another  example of how music videos are continuing their relevance in pop culture discourses. With significant distribution and buzz building on the internet – like “Telephone” – “Can’t Be Tamed” puts Miley Cyrus in the same sentence with Lady Gaga, a surprising feat unto itself, and one that opens up a plethora of other issues, ones you’re welcome to bring up in the comments. Now, if only GaGa could make it onto the Disney Channel…

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8 Responses to “ It’s a Bird! It’s GaGa! It’s…Miley? ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on May 7, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    (first, a quick note on Daniel Radcliffe — cf. his appearance on Extras especially for play with this notion)

    I find it amusing how very, very easily one can read this video against its purposes. She sings that she can’t be tamed, yet the video ends with her still in a cage. In the meantime, we’re treated to the fantasy of a “breakout” (hmmm … anyone else think of Kelly Clarkson?), but even then, her “breakout” keeps her in the museum, suggesting she’s either too scared to leave the museum, or that she actually thinks this is freedom (like Truman voluntarily staying in his small town). She’s still so attached to being an object of the gaze, and this new life of hers may be in the black and blue hues of this video, rather than the bright, gaudy hues of Disney Channel, but even with wings, she never uses them, and instead stays grounded. Oh Miley, you make deconstruction too easy. :-)

    • Lindsay H. Garrison on May 7, 2010 at 9:07 AM

      I know, right? It’s so striking how the video ends with stark silence of her alone, in the cage, trying to look sultry, but really just looking lonely. I’ve watched this video a handful of times, and every time, it leaves me with a ping of sadness.

  2. Sharon Ross on May 7, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    This video so made me want to laugh and cry at the same time; for fun, I watched it with no sound since what I was hearing online (and in my classrooms) was that Miley had gone S&M. It kind of seemed like a teen girl’s IDEA of S&M to me, thus keeping Miley somewhat pathetically in tween mode/Disney mode–almost as if she can’t even imagine a world where she is free from the weight of what she rose to fame on in the first place. (This was exacerbated by the blatant theft of some Thriller video dance moves.)

    It is indeed a bit sad…there are so many tween starlets bred by Disney or Nickelodeon who have real talent, but the trappings of living in their bubbled corporate kingdoms seems to zap the creativity right out of most of them. Hw sad it is that we have all come to EXPECT the inevitable “gotta sex it up” video or performance as a necessary step towards adult creative expression…wouldn’t it be refreshing to just see someone skip that step and move on to a good CD/film/series/video on its own merits?

  3. Morgan on May 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM

    Great piece, Lindsay!

    This video is fascinating. In addition to the politics of young female desire and sexuality on display, it calls to mind the ways in which a girl can strategically produce or exhibit a kind of mature, sexual, “edge” in popular media. And the racial connotations of that “edge”, here exhibited by a privileged white pop star trying to “be free” while making spectacle of the cage and the museum. If only the video were able to critique the cage, the museum, the history of exotic “species” on display rather than embracing and sexualizing them, or, more accurately, using them to sexualize the star.

    Can’t wait to ruminate more on this…after the semester ends!

    • Mary Beltrán on May 8, 2010 at 8:26 AM

      Thanks, Lindsay, for such an interesting and insightful piece. I agree with your and Morgan’s comments regarding how strategic the video appears to be as an element of Cyrus’s growing-up-via-Disney star text and career; it would be interesting to watch this and Britney Spears’ music videos back to back. It’s a pretty amazing text, in terms of how it plays to different audiences as well. I actually thought it did critique the cage and even the sexualization and manipulation of teen girl stars to a small degree by “letting the camera roll” for those last seconds, as well as by including the cage in the storyline and leaving her in it. Have mainstream media critics commented on the concluding moments of the video?

  4. Will on May 7, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    I think there are some interesting and fairly recent further exceptions to that gendered trajectory of growing up and sexing up. Rupert Grint, Radcliffe’s co-star from Harry Potter, has just released the movie Cherrybomb, where he (apparently, I haven’t seen it) takes on more of a bad boy, drinking, drugging and sexing persona. Emma “Hermione” Watson, on the other hand, has as far as I know “grown up” publicly only in terms of modelling ballgowns, and hasn’t resorted to any candid bra-flashing (see also High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens).

    I don’t know enough about Justin Timberlake’s career, but he’s a Mickey Mouse Club alumnus, of the Christina and Britney generation, and I suspect his image also became more sexed-up and grown-up with his solo career (eg. the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction stunt).

    Miley’s video reminds me in its opening moments, above all, of King Kong. As has been noted, it’s pretty telling that she doesn’t actually choose to escape the cage. But much as I loved the mash-up of her Party in the USA with Biggie Smalls’ Party and Bullshit, this is the first Miley track I would listen to in public without shame. Ageing academics probably aren’t her target market, but as a Britney and Lady Gaga fan, I think she is hitting the right mark here.

  5. Lindsay H. Garrison on May 8, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Thanks everyone, for the thoughtful comments. Sharon – so interesting that you heard about the video as “Miley doing S&M.” I hadn’t heard that term/concept invoked in the buzz surrounding the video – you’re right in that it very much seems like a teen girl’s *idea* about what S&M might look like or be, but explorations of pleasure from playing with power in a sexual relationship aren’t totally divorced from the video or its discourses.There’s a lot to think about there. Also, exploring the different iterations of young stars who *don’t* necessarily sex it up as teens or young adults and still manage to have successful careers is something I think is important, as well, i.e. Jodie Foster, Molly Ringwald, Dakota Fanning, Natalie Portman, and arguably, Kirsten Dunst. What role does the medium and its associated logics play – is it different for young stars on television versus film? (I would say yes). What about their actual childhood breakout role itself? How do industry discourses and the associated star labor of promoting the film play into it? These are all questions I enjoy wrestling with, since of course, there’s no easy answer. That’s what my dissertation is for, though, right? :)

    Will, your comparison to King Kong is a great one – there’s certainly a lot going on here in terms of race and spectacle, something I’m glad Mary and Morgan brought up. Questions of display, exoticism, and exploitation are certainly swarming through this video, and I think both Mary and Morgan bring two key reading positions to light, in that in my opinion, the video in many ways both critiques the problems in histories of exoticized species while also using them to promote and further a dominant discourse of the white, middle-class. The video certainly says (literally and metaphorically) ‘cages and spectacle are bad; I’m not here only for you to look at me; you can’t control me.’ But of course, it’s a young white pop star at the middle of a multinational conglomerate, who is making such a statement in order to then continue a career reliant on spectacle and people looking at her, literally consuming her image and ‘celebrity commodity.’ It reminds me of something Jonathan (Gray) says in Watching with the Simpsons – that for subversive intertextuality to work, it has to at once uphold notions of the primary text (in this case, early racialized freakshows) to critique them. Just how many people, though, are actually reading race as an aspect of this critique though, is questionable. To answer your question, Mary, not too many of the articles/blogs/comments I’ve read in the popular media make any reference to the last few seconds of the video, when she’s in there alone, after the crowds have gone home.

    And Will, I also appreciate your comment on other young male stars. I hadn’t heard of Rupert Grint’s latest project – I will definitely have to check out Cherrybomb. Also, I love that you say this is the first Miley track that you would listed to in public without shame. I think that might be the case for a lot of people. There’s a lot to think about in just why that is. Is it temporal (i.e.she’s been trying to make the cross over for a while and we’re finally breaking down and accepting it)? Is it because the music is better? Is it because she’s channeling/aligning herself with more mainstream looks, sounds, and meanings (a la Britney, Gaga, etc.)?

    All fascinating stuff. THanks so much for bringing those ideas to Antenna, everyone!

    • Lindsay H. Garrison on May 8, 2010 at 12:07 PM

      WHOA. I did not realize I had typed such a massive amount of words. It could be its own Antenna post! Sorry if it gives you tired-head just looking at it, but your comments were great and gave me a lot to think about!