[First Things; February 5, 2008]
Even if you go around with one or several fingers stuffed into each ear, you will not be able to exclude the words “Hannah Montana” from your field of consciousness. No American citizen is permitted to be unfamiliar with the words “Hannah Montana.” What you are permitted is to be uncertain of what the words mean. Unless you made the decision to have a seven-year-old granddaughter about now, without taking sufficient forethought for the consequences.
I’ve resisted learning about the Hannah Montana industry until recently, despite the acquisition of my own seven-year-old granddaughter, herself a Hannah. It turns out that the Hannah Montana brand represents a curious phenomenon. It seems that country music semi-star Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy Breaky Heart”—I’m sorry, did that make your head hurt?) has a 15-year-old daughter named Miley. Her original name, the story goes, was Destiny Hope Cyrus, but Miley is a childlike version of her babyhood nickname, Smiley. Last week she officially changed her name to Miley Ray Cyrus.
Got it so far? You only think you do. Miley is the star of a wildly-popular TV show, “Hannah Montana,” which debuted on the Disney Channel in March 2006. The premiere drew 5.4 million viewers, which a Disney official described as “beyond our wildest expectations.”
The story concerns a likeable young teen named Miley Stewart. She has a dad named Robby Ray Stewart. They have moved from their home in Tennessee to Malibu (the Cyruses likewise moved from Nashville to Hollywood; Disney asked Miley to lose, and then to recover, her southern accent), because Miley has a secret: she is a pop-star sensation who goes by the stage name of Hannah Montana. It’s something like the “Superman” story: by day, Miley is a mild-mannered tween with homework, school friends, and incipient crushes. By night, Hannah Montana puts on her streaky blonde wig and shoulders her way through some powerhouse vocals, while the crowd goes wild. Miley’s afraid her buddies would treat her differently if they knew about her secret life; she wants to have as normal a childhood as she can. So only her dad and brother, and her two best friends, know her secret. That’s what the TV show is about. Miley Cyrus’ actual life, of course, has been diligently going the opposite, fame-seeking, direction most of her life. Her first movie role was in “Big Fish” (2003), and she initially auditioned for this Disney show at age 12.
My daughter, Megan, tells me that as much as she hates to admit it, the show is unobjectionable and even pretty good. It’s the oversaturation, the inescapability, that rub her the wrong way. Nevertheless, Hannah Montana makes Hannah Parker very happy, so when an opportunity arose to go to a Hannah Montana concert, Megan paid the big bucks for tickets for Hannah and her friend Nikki.
(By the way, when Hannah’s great-grandmother Nana was visiting, it was possible to say, “Hannah and Nana are watching ‘Hannah Montana’ and eating a banana.” Well, maybe you had to be there.)
Now, Miley Cyrus actually is quite a performer. She plays guitar and sings with gusto, and her stage presence has been compared to Shania Twain. You can see her here strutting in a way that seems a little brassy for a 15-year-old, but she sure does sing her heart out.
Till recently, Miley Cyrus’s work has been in character—she recorded an album and performed in concert as Hannah Montana. She even gave a “backstage interview” in character as Hannah Montana for a Disney Channel promotion, which verges on eerie.
Cyrus’ first album, composed of soundtrack selections from the TV show, came out in October 2006. Last June, just eight months later, her second album was released, but there was a change in the air. Two disks: the first a new soundtrack compilation of recordings by “Hannah Montana”, and the second a debut album of songs performed (and mostly written by) Miley Cyrus. The title is “Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus.” Apparently the Hannah Montana fad is offering a coattail for the career of the real Miley Cyrus. Or should it be “Miley Cyrus”? Both girls appear on posters for the “Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds” concert tour. Hannah is in the foreground, Miley in the back, in less eyeshadow and with barely-streaked hair, but it’s clear she’s glad to have her celebrity friend Hannah give her a boost. Isn’t all this taking on a “man looking at a picture of a man” quality?
The “Best of Both Worlds” concerts featured a set by Hannah Montana, a quick costume change, and a set by Miley Cyrus. As soon as it was announced, the tour was wildly popular, and 14 additional dates were added to bring it to 69 shows in all. Everywhere tickets sold out, sometimes within minutes of availability, a level of popularity previously known by only folks like the Beatles. Many of those same tickets turned up for online sale at a thousand dollars or so, a situation that frustrates many performers. Disney had an original way of dealing with it, though. They decided to tape one of the concerts and then sell tickets to one-time-only showings of the movie in 3-D—in essence, a virtual concert.
That’s what my daughter bought tickets to, the 3-D showing of a concert movie featuring Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. This morning she sent this:
“Last night I took Hannah and her best friend Nikki to the Hannah Montana movie. To combat ticket sell-outs and scalpers, they made a movie of her concert in 3D so you can pretend that you got tickets and are actually attending the concert. Boy, is it a bizarre experience. Just like the live concerts, the movie was sold out way in advance and there were scalpers working the door. Just like the live concerts, the concertgoers waited in long lines to get their seats, many of the girls wearing the trademark wigs and carrying glow-sticks.
“It all raises the question - if you make a movie nearly identical to a concert experience in every sensory way, will people act like they are at a concert?
“The answer is yes. Bizarrely, people in the audience were screaming (as if Hannah-Miley would enjoy their enthusiasm); they were singing along, dancing, waving their arms, their glow-sticks, and even lifting cell phones toward the stage, I mean screen. Everyone seemed to truly think they were at a concert. How very strange. And how hard to resist. After awhile, Hannah and I got into it too. Little reserved Nikki just sat still and smiled.”
I sent the email to my friend Rod Dreher and asked his thoughts. He reminded me that a few years back there had been a hubbub about performers lip-synching and using recorded music in concert. The surprising thing was that audiences didn’t much care. In fact, they seemed to appreciate the performance matching their memory in every tiny detail (I guess like little kids who demand that the fairy tale be recited in exactly the same words every time). Rod pointed out that this changes the concept of a “concert” from one in which the point is hearing a true live performance, to one in which the point is being in the same room as a celebrity.
That jogged my memory of a speech by John Updike a couple of years ago, in which he was complaining that writers aren’t much esteemed for their writing any more; the internet has made writing cheap. He predicted that what will be valued is not the writer’s craft but his personal presence, the one thing the internet can’t provide. But the Hannah-Miley phenomenon means you don’t even have to have the celebrity present; it’s thrilling just to be in the presence of a virtual celebrity event. I asked Megan if that seemed true last night, and she replied:
“Yes, yes. And, to make it even stranger, what Hannah Montana is selling is that she’s not a celebrity. Miley Cyrus is the brown-haired girl next door, and any ordinary person could turn out to be Hannah Montana, the sequined pop star. So by participating in the concert you can imagine that you are Hannah Montana too. It’s genius marketing. Frighteningly genius.”
Frightening, too, to imagine how the ability to stimulate such effusive mass enthusiasm might be misused in the hands of an entity less benevolent than Disney (and that’s saying something). But there doesn’t seem to be any reason to fear about Miley Cyrus herself, that iron-lunged stage presence. “It’s a crazy life, but I’m all right,” she sings, “I got everything I ever wanted.” She doesn’t have much of a normal teen-hood it seems, but unlike the fictitious Miley Stewart, that was not one of the things she ever wanted. Megan says, “Here’s hoping she’s not just another Britney waiting to explode.”