Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pop Radio '08

I recently spent a week at the beach with my family, which meant that I would have to take a vacation from the knobby indie rock and post-punk music that generally dominates my playlist for a brief jaunt into the world of corporate radio.  Full disclosure: I do enjoy a brief trip right of the dial every summer, if only to see what kind of music major record labels believe humans should go apeshit over.  As my taste in overproduced radio music veers more to top 40 than the boring and misogynistic post-grunge cock rock that populates guitar stations, I became familiar with a number of the hits of Party Summer '08.  These ranged from pleasantly forgettable (Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl") to abominably horrible (Jesse McCartney's "Leavin'").  One song, however, stuck out from the rest: "See You Again" by barely pubescent media juggernaut Miley Cyrus.

Up until two weeks ago, I was largely ignorant to the Miley Cyrus phenomenon.  I had a vague notion that she was some sort of double-life leading middle schooler from a Disney Channel show and I heard there were some borderline creepy pictures of her on the internet with her dad, the world's most famous punchline, Billy Ray Cyrus.  Still, in spite of her supposed ubiquity, I had never seen an episode of her TV show (still haven't, though the premise has been explained to me) or heard any of her songs (even now, only just the one).  Now though, I'm starting to see what the big deal is.

As it happens, "See You Again" is one of the most baffling mixtures of the elevated and the banal that I've ever heard.  Here, for the benefit of the reader, is a breakdown of the song's lyrics, with commentary.

"I've got my sights set on you and I'm ready to aim."

Okay, perfectly normal.  Girl likes boy.  Although it is odd that she simultaneously has her sights set and is also ready to aim.  Hmm...

"I have a heart that will never be tamed."

Holy cow!  What the hell?  Where did this come from?  If a girl said this to me when I was 15, I'm pretty sure I would have soiled myself.  In fact, I'm not convinced I wouldn't react the same way now.  Perhaps it's for a more mature audience?

"I knew you were somethin' special when you spoke my name/ now I can't wait to see you again."

Okay, again--normal.  A standard pop song trope, the "When can I see you again?" angle.  

"I've got a way of knowing when something is right"


"I feel like I must have known you in another life"

What?!  Most 15-year olds aren't even conscious that they're living this life, let alone reaching out to loves from past incarnations.  And what high school romance has the depth of a love for the ages?

"'cause I felt this deep connection when you looked in my eyes/ now I can't wait to see you again."  

Deep connection...okay, makes sense and another repeat of the song title.  Now, to the chorus, where the listener discovers exactly why she wants to see him again:

"The last time I freaked out, I just kept lookin' down,/ I st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I'm thinkin' 'bout"

Makes sense.  Everyone--particularly teens--makes a jackass out of themselves in front of a crush at least once.  Woody Allen has made a career out of it.  I do find it odd, though, that the girl with the un-tameable heart can't summon the courage to speak to some pasty nimrod who runs the popcorn machine at the local multiplex.  Also, the st-st-stuttering is a nice, if somewhat theatrical little trick for a pop song.

"Felt like I couldn't breathe, you asked what's wrong with me/ my best friend Leslie said, 'Oh, she's just being Miley.'"

Another head scratcher--does this not seem to be a legitimate medical concern?  Altered speech, shortness of breath?  Is she having a stroke?  And why is the best friend character okay with all this?

"The next time we hang out, I will redeem myself/ My heart can't rest 'til then/ Oh-whoa-whoa, I--I can't wait to see you again."

Curiouser and curiouser!  Redemption?  Another reference to her heart's restlessness?  Most people would hope never to see the other person again--maybe she really does possess a heart that will never be tamed.  An odd juxtaposition with the reference to "hanging out."  

"I got this crazy feeling deep inside/ when you called and asked to see me tomorrow night"

Another normal thing for a 15-year old girl to say.  I find it odd that he would want to see her again, though, after her poor showing on their last encounter.  As someone who feels profoundly embarrassed for other people, I certainly wouldn't put myself through something like that.  Apparently, that "deep connection" she talked about earlier is pretty profound.

"I'm not a mind reader, but I'm readin' the signs/ that you can't wait to see me again"


From that point, the song just repeats lines until its conclusion.  Sonically, it's in the propulsive tradition of a dancefloor single, with a heavy beat and the quiet-loud-quiet arrangement.  It's fun, yeah, in the boring way that radio dance music often is, but the lyrics are endlessly engaging.

A large amount of the criticism directed at Miley Cyrus revolves around her status as a role model for young girls.  Particularly in the flap over her Vanity Fair spread, critics accused her of being too sexualized at too young an age.  Apparently, these people are afraid that seeing Hannah Montana's back in a fashion magazine will lead to an army of preteen sluts engaging in rampant sexual acts with total abandon.  While this would be a negative (as far as I can tell, the age of consent is pretty accurately set) but it seems to be the wrong concern to me.  What strikes me as more troubling is her emotional maturity.

Ultimately, parents could censor their daughters' abilities to see the Vanity Fair spread.  VF isn't pumped into every facet of a girl's life the same way that pop singles are.  And while those pictures were creepy and probably not the best image, songs like this encourage something even worse.

Although a large part of "Hannah Montana" deals with MC trying to conceal her celebrity identity so that she can experience a normal childhood, the girl herself has no such luxury.  No normal girl has top 40 hits, makes movies and plays to sold out audiences in giant arenas.  Face facts: Miley Cyrus is a celebrity and is, therefore, beholden to a different set of concerns and priorities than the rest of humanity.  That's just the way our celebrity obsessed culture works.  And as much as people like to bitch about it, they're all a part of the problem when they pay for those Hannah Montana notebooks, movie tickets and that Disney Channel subscription.  Love the world you find, I guess.

Anyway, unless someone's daughter is dangerously psychotic, she's not going to actually believe that she is Miley Cyrus.  Outside of idle fantasy, I would wager most girls don't think of themselves in Miley's sneakers.  We've bred too strong a visual culture for that.  Musically, on the other hand, I imagine that almost everyone--preteen girls and their dads alike--cast themselves as the singer in any given song they hear.  And there's the problem.

"See You Again" is a really mature song.  And not mature in the way that a peep show is mature--mature as in grown-up.  It deals with the notion of love in a way that is simultaneously over-romanticized, totally abstract and yet grounded in some form of relatable reality.  It arms the preteens of America with the idea that they, too, could immediately find their true love, some Prince Charming from a past life re-incarnated as the worthless gadabouts their fathers lie awake worrying about.  (See my cynical characterization of the song's male hero above.)  

Yes, Miley Cyrus might totally flip out someday like Britney or Lindsey.  Yes, she might go on to become a symbol of all society's negative projections of "sluttiness."  But let's remember what happened with both Brit and Lindz when they started sleeping around and stopped wearing underwear: the media turned on them, revoked their good girl cards and slapped an NC-17 rating on everything they did.  Just because Miley Cyrus got her start on the Disney Channel doesn't mean that she herself is a more insidious Trojan horse of pre-pubescent hypersexuality.  If she were to start showing her nether regions to photographers her Disney roots would disappear just as fast as her predecessors.  Let us not forget--Americans love smut, trash and garbage as much as anyone else in the world, but insist on pretending to be morally superior whenever possible.

The horrible, banal truth is that she is selling--directly over the airwaves and right into the hands of elementary school girls--an idea of love that may be even more damaging.  After all, girls already mature more quickly than boys--remember the freshman/senior hookups from high school?  Do we really need to give this shark a gun?    


JMH said...


Annie said...

My cousin slept with My Best Friend Leslie.

That's all.