Three years before "Bangerz," the pop star tried to distance herself from her Hannah Montana image. Inside the false start of Miley's adult career.
Miley Cyrus has done a pretty good job of shocking people recently. First, there was her comeback single "We Can't Stop" and its accompanying video, replete with hip-hop slang (and the game's hottest hip-hop producer), winking drug references and a forced introduction to the word "twerk" for anyone who missed it during Lil Jon and the Ying Yang Twins' rise to power a decade ago. For those who remained oblivious to "We Can't Stop" and its video, there was then the MTV Video Music Awards performance, in which Miley dressed scantily, grinded with a backup dancer and Robin Thicke, and generally made a whole lot of adults uncomfortable with its aggressive sexuality. And then finally, there was the "Wrecking Ball" video, a Terry Richardson-helmed clip that featured a thoroughly nude Miley riding the titular object, a clip so widely circulated that it helped the song top the streaming charts and reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart.
For those who still remember Miley Cyrus as the sweet, Southern girl-next-door who became the nation's teenage sweetheart as Disney's Hannah Montana, this was all a whole lot to digest. However, for those who have been paying attention for what Cyrus has been up to since her Disney show folded, none of this is all that new.
There was the video on TMZ in 2010, in which Miley celebrated her 18th birthday by taking hits of salvia from a bong, and the pic the site posted in 2012, in which Cyrus mocked licking a cake shaped like a penis at her then-boyfriend Liam Hemsworth's birthday. There was the movie "LOL," in which Cyrus starred as a high school student who engages in drinking, drugs and sex, often to her mother's consternation. And there was Miley's truly bizarre performance of Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" on "VH1 Divas," in which the singer, debuting her new pixie-short haircut, dressed in heavily studded leather and grabbed her crotch repeatedly. Miley's "bad" behavior the last few months is nothing new, and in fact, was something Cyrus had been trying to get across since her previous album.
"Can't Be Tamed" was released in June 2010, ostensibly at Cyrus's then-highest point of popularity. She was coming off the biggest hit of her pop carer, 2009's "Party in the U.S.A.," and she had just wrapped filming on the final season of "Hannah Montana," the show that made her a superstar. She was still a kid, not to turn 18 until year's end, and most of her fan base was still teenage or younger. But there were already signs of burgeoning sexuality and adulthood -- most controversially, her performance of "Party" at the Teen Choice Awards from on top of an ice cream cart, which leaned a little too close to pole-dancing for some, and even earlier than that, a Vanity Fair spread in which the 15-year-old posed topless (albeit with a sheet clearly covering her front) and in a familiar pose with her father Billy Ray, both of which made fans of the then-15-year-old star ill at ease.
The video for the title track and first single off "Can't Be Tamed" seemed at the time to be the culmination of all this for Miley, her official break away from her squeaky-clean teen image and attempt to be taken seriously as an adult pop artist. The clip, featuring a caged Miley under display at an art museum, was like a PG-13 cross between Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," with Miley dressed in black underwear (and in some shots, some sort of shell corset), dancing provocatively with backup dancers of both gender, and literally sprouting wings to try to escape the cage she's been put in.
The video was surprising, but maybe just short of shocking. Cyrus seemed to be in a taboo-breaking mold in the video, but she doesn't quite have the courage of her convictions yet. The headline-grabbing moments are presented in quick cuts that fail to make an impression, and Miley, still baby-faced and somewhat insecure in her image -- the dark-haired, heavily made-up Miley of the "Can't Be Tamed" video is virtually unrecognizable as either the teen heartthrob of her early pop years or the college-age temptress of recent days -- seems to want to rebel without quite knowing what she's rebelling for, or who she's rebelling against. The video's murky museum imagery, including its introduction of Miley as the species "Avis Cyrus," seems pointed, but ultimately ends up incoherent, too muddled to make any strong sort of statement.
The "Can't Be Tamed" album finds itself in a similar kind of limbo, in which Cyrus clearly wants to disassociate herself from Hannah Montana but doesn't seem to have a strong idea of where to go next. She tries on different peer identities--opening track "Liberty Walk" attempts an early Gaga-type strut, while the snotty, auto-tuned sing-rapping of "Permanent December" is almost comically Ke$hian -- but doesn't quite seem at home in any of them. Meanwhile, her attempts at being a more mature singer and/or songwriter -- empathetic love anthems "Forgiveness and Love" and "My Heart Beats for Love," the latter supposedly inspired by Miley's hairdresser, or her cover of Poison's classic power ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" -- fall flat, like any number of songs by teenagers whose artistic reaches temporarily exceed their grasps.
Then there was the title track itself, which, like its video, seemed like a game-changer at first, but ultimately proved hollow in its provocations. Listening to it today, the song sounds more odd than anything else, a shuffling electro stomper in the vein of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" or Britney Spears' "Womanizer," but slowed down to a near-plod, with an almost unintelligible chorus and an extremely brief runtime of 2:48. Lyrics about Miley "go[ing] through guys like money flyin' out the hands" and "get[ting] my way 24 hours a day 'coz I'm hot like that" land with dull thuds, too vague and clumsily stated to really jar with their sentiment. In the end, the song is no more shocking a statement of independence than Cyrus' prior title track "Breakout," and a whole lot less catchy.
A more noteworthy plea for escape on "Can't Be Tamed" than the title cut might have been "Robot," found buried deep within the album's second half. One of the album's many cuts to be given a MOR synth-pop whitewash by writer/poducer John Shanks, the song still pierces through with its chorus cries of "Stop trying to live my life for me / I need to breathe, I'm not your robot / Stop telling me I'm part of the big machine / I'm breaking free, can't you see?" This time, the rebellion feels purposeful, and verse lyrics like "Stand here, sell this and hit your mark" and "I've been taught to think that what I feel doesn't matter at all" make the pent-up frustration after a half-decade of being at the center of the Disney TV empire stunningly clear. It doesn't aim for salaciousness like "Can't Be Tamed" did, but it feels far more genuine.
That Miley would decide to take a break from music after "Can't Be Tamed," which has sold only 348,000 copies to date according to Nielsen SoundScan, came as no real surprise. In a late 2009 interview with MTV, she referred to the upcoming "Tamed" as her "last pop record," saying, "I kind of want this to be my last record for a little while and be able to take a break and just get all the types of music that I really love... in a few years, as I grow up, so will my fans, and I won't have to focus on that as much." A few months later, she even elaborated on her future hiatus by explaining that she wasn't really feeling the music on "Tamed," saying, "the more I make music that doesn't truly inspire me, the more I feel like I'm blending in with everyone else."
Ultimately, this is the main difference between "Can't Be Tamed" and "We Can't Stop," between 2010 Miley and 2013 Miley. Three years ago, she wanted us to know that she was breaking free of her former image, but she had no true backup plan yet -- just a cobbled-together bunch of image and music signifiers borrowed from her pop predecessors. Now, with "We Can't Stop," "Wrecking Ball" and everything else that's been part of the recent Miley Cyrus experience, she's being similarly rebellious, but now feels firmly in control of her music and her image, representing herself in a way that feels unique to her, and only vaguely related to any of her peers. You may not agree with where she's going, but she at least seems to know how to get there, and she'll continue to comfortably spread her (now solely metaphorical) wings with or without your approval.