No star in the tween universe these days is burning more brightly than Miley Cyrus. The precocious, multitalented 15-year-old daughter of '90s country singer Billy Ray Cyrus is Disney's latest "quintuple threat," dominating her young demographic on the small screen, on the album charts, on tour and now on the big screen as well. Oh, and she's even got a video game.
Ferocious demand for tickets to the young singer/actress's live 69-city tour in 2007 grabbed headlines. Venues sold out in minutes, with desperate parents reportedly driving resale prices of tickets as high as $7,200 in expensive attempts not to disappoint young fans. "We knew it was hot, but we had no idea it was this crazy," said Debra Rathwell, vice president of AEG Live, which managed Cyrus' tour. "It's like the Beatles."
The marketing geniuses at Disney, for their part, know a red-hot moneymaker when they see one. So, realizing there was still unmet demand for the show, the savvy brand architects captured Miley's über-high-energy concert—in 3-D. For a mere $15, all those fans who couldn't get through to Ticketmaster when Miley came to town the first time can now catch the filmed version.
Girl Power + Sass = Miley Cyrus
Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert mimics the premise of the Disney Channel's hit Hannah Montana. On cable, Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, a bit of a wallflower by day but a blond-wigged rock star by night. Accordingly, the concert is split between these two personas. The first half stars the star, Hannah Montana. The second half features Miley as herself. Note to parents: The only way you'll be able to tell the difference is the color of her hair. Hannah is blond; Miley is brunette.
What's constant is Miley's boundless energy. She's irrepressibly likeable, and she exhibits poise and confidence that belie her tender years. Seven cameras capture her antics onstage as she and her team of backup dancers bounce through songs evenly split between girl-power admonitions, puppy love and odes to having fun. (Paging Cyndi Lauper!) The whole thing feels like a mash-up of High School Musical, early Avril Lavigne and "Lucky Star"-era Madonna.
Woven throughout the concert, and indeed the entire Hannah Montana mystique, is a very familiar message. It's the tried-and-true "when you wish upon a star" Disney fantasy: Even ordinary girls can become extraordinary—or at the very least live in extraordinary surroundings. In her song "Just Like You," Miley croons, "I'm a lucky girl whose dreams came true/But underneath it all, I'm just like you." Obviously, that sentiment sells.
Sense and (a Bit of) Sensuality
Disney's female singers have, virtually without exception, started off pretty clean-cut and then eventually veered in a racier direction. At the moment, Miley is still squarely in the former category. Variety writer Peter Debruge notes, "Unlike ex-Mouseketeers-gone-bad Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Cyrus still projects a chaste, wholesome image of teenage fun, and she performs without all the trampy, sexualized theatrics, making her a less toxic role model for all those screaming teens."
True enough. Still, while Miley's attire could never be labeled risqué, neither is it entirely modest. She mostly wears white tank tops or tunic dresses combined with plaid, sequined or leather skirts/pants/accessories. (Her dancers follow her lead.) Sometimes her short skirts are paired with leggings. Other times shorts can be seen underneath as she moves.
There's nothing worn here that'd get a teenager kicked out of a mall. But that doesn't mean there's nothing for parents to talk about with the millions of adoring little girls screaming in the audience—and then begging for clothes like Miley's on the way home from the show.
Similarly, Miley's dancing never crosses over into overtly sexual territory. But some of her moves do, um, skirt its outer edges. There's no shortage of shimmying, shaking and other moves that leave little doubt that Miley is growing up—and her choreographers know it.
Associated Press reviewer Christy Lemire wrote, "As an adult sitting through the 3-D Hannah Montana concert film, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed—but not by the piercing screech of thousands of 9-year-olds, the crisp digital imagery or the catchiness of the Disney star's peppy tunes. Rather, the sensation is one of longing: You wish desperately for Miley Cyrus, the singing, dancing, songwriting, trendsetting dynamo, to avoid turning into Britney Spears."
Half Full or Half Empty?
Now, I've been to a lot of concerts. But I've never before been to one that was so completely saturated with girls ages 6 to 10. And that observation colors the way I found myself responding to both the music and the visuals.
By today's often R-rated standards, this is arguably about as good and clean as it gets. Who's going to complain about an energetic 15-year-old encouraging throngs of adoring fans her age and younger to be confident and secure in who they are? Even if you're put off by the constant refrain of Let's Rock! Let's Party! Let's Dance! you still have to remember what the popular alternatives are. And yet ...
Watching a segment of the movie that showed Miley's young fans singing her songs, I was powerfully reminded of how kids identify with their idols at a very deep level. And in this instance, when they do that, they'll experience—at a very deep level—nothing of substance at all. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Rock and roll may never die, but you know it's been eaten by the consumer culture when you see Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert."
Simply put, this is the latest, greatest manifestation of youth culture. And youth culture isn't about teens anymore. It's about 7-year-olds. It is, then, most certainly worth asking at this point whether or not your average 7-year-old really needs the sugary, ever-so-slightly sensual syrup that Miley and Disney are serving.
I confess it feels odd to sit here deconstructing the wardrobe choices and choreography of a teenage girl. She's a 15-year-old phenom who's obviously just having fun. What Miley energetically offers is most certainly—relatively—benign. We might think of it like cotton candy: colorful, airy, sweet and tasty. Eat too much of the zero-nutrient fluff, though, and it'll give you a whopper of a stomachache.
In the end, this film says far more about Disney's marketing prowess than anything about Miss Miley Cyrus.
A postscript: Woven in between songs is backstage footage (which includes talk about Miley's quick wardrobe changes), shots of fans raving about Miley at a mall, some tender moments between Miley with her dad and mom, and a three-song interlude from Disney's rising boy band Jonas Brothers. Also, in either the hilarious or irresponsible category, depending on your perspective, desperate dads race in high heels to win concert tickets from a radio station for their obviously much-loved daughters. A couple of the men fall flat on their faces (hard). Miley gently crashes a spiffed-up golf cart.