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…