Miley Cyrus is you.

At The Cadillac Ranch in Lawrence, Kansas, DJ Scott Simpson now posts a sign on his DJ booth every night:

“Miley will be played at midnight.”

He does this to avoid the requests, which otherwise would be coming every few minutes.

The Ranch is a grimy dance club that is technically a must-be-21-to-enter spot, but is practically more of a must-be-a-hot-girl-or-21-to-enter spot. On Thursday nights, it’s the most popular club in Lawrence, a town of about 100,000 when the University of Kansas is in session. The people come for the cheap drinks, and they come for the dance music.

It was here that Simpson first heard a request for Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” His first thought was dismissive.

“She’s 16 years old,” he said. “These people are not going to want to listen to that.”

But they did.

One request turned into four, which turned into eight. All different people. Demanding he play Miley Cyrus. So about 10 p.m., which is well before the place really hits its high notes, he plays “Party in the USA,” and the place flipped out. It was a rush to the dance floor. Girls, guys, everybody. Dudes were carrying other dudes on their shoulders. Everybody was singing. Simpson was kicking himself.

“I played it too early,” he said.

Simpson hates playing the same song twice in a night. But the requests kept piling on, so he posted a sign: “Miley will be played at 1 a.m.”

And at 1 a.m., Miley brought the roof down again. Simpson, a man whose job is literally to understand and play pop music, does not understand Miley Cyrus.

What’s obvious is that she is a cultural phenomenon. By that I mean she is not a singer who happened to make a hit song or two by using the same pop music recipe everyone else uses. There is a chance, for example, that someone like Katy Perry could have sung “Party in the USA” and made a hit out of it. The song is insanely catchy, and Perry is a semiproven pop star.

But this isn’t about the song. It’s about Cyrus herself, who is just like you in that she puts her pants on one leg at a time; it’s just that once her pants are on, she makes gold records.

Never question Bruce Dickinson.

The difference is that Bruce Dickinson makes gold records because he is not like you, and Miley Cyrus makes gold records because she is.

Here’s what I mean:

Cyrus has some flaws that would seem to disqualify her from the career she is in. For one thing, she is not a good singer. For another, she has some kind of speech problem that makes it sound like she’s wearing a retainer at all times. For a third, she is only marginally attractive.

Just take a look at this gratuitous visual comparison of teenage pop stars:

Britney Spears

Christina Aguilera

Katy Perry

Miley Cyrus

While she’s certainly not unattractive, if you’re a record company executive looking for your next just-add-Carson Daly pop star, you’re probably going to look elsewhere.

Which is precisely why Miley Cyrus is famous.

Her old Disney show, Hannah Montana, was about a girl who was a pop star, but managed to hide this fact from her friends in order to live a normal life. Author Chuck Klosterman wrote a brilliant piece for Esquire about how Hannah Montana is, metaphorically speaking, the Internet.

In addition to calling Billy Ray Cyrus a “country goofosaurus”, Klosterman writes this:

The narrative core of most Hannah Montana episodes is established by the show’s expository theme song, “The Best of Both Worlds.” The hook is supposed to be an obvious paradox — instead of working to achieve fame, Miley craves anonymity. When the show was created, I’m sure this reversal of desire was expected to serve as a novel twist on an old theme. It was supposed to operate as fantastical irony. But that is not what happened. Instead, Hannah Montana/Miley Stewart became a concept Web-obsessed teenagers could understand in a very tangible way: They all struggle to reconcile who they are with the quasi-real persona they consciously construct. Hannah Montana is the Internet.

But this only explains Cyrus’ rise to fame as a phenomenon among, and entertainer of, tweens. It does nothing to explain why Cyrus appeals to the kids at The Cadillac Ranch, who were in high school or older when Hannah Montana was Cyrus’ only real career. Most of them have never seen an episode of Hannah Montana.

Maybe it’s as simple as writing catchy pop songs. Cyrus has already had two major Top 40 hits, “The Climb” and “Party in the USA,” both of which she supposedly wrote, or partially wrote. But I don’t think it’s that basic, because it hasn’t seemed to matter what she does, it always succeeds.

I think there is an appeal to a person who refuses to acknowledge she doesn’t have any talent. There is an energy and an aggression to Cyrus that distracts you from what you should be noticing — that she isn’t a particularly good singer or actor. It’s unadulterated charisma, and it’s why people like John Calipari continue to get to do things like be the basketball coach at Kentucky.

But more importantly, Cyrus is the nadir of low culture. And I don’t mean that as an insult. The “Party in the USA” video is a fairly banal collage of Red State motifs. There is a dusty parking lot filled with classic cars*. There are cowboy boots. There is an American flag. Pickup trucks.

*Worth an average of $23,000 apiece, by my estimate.

If you drink Chimay and like to discuss the meaning of Radiohead albums, Miley doesn’t want you and doesn’t need you. As much as it pains some people, and as legitimate as those pains may be, American culture does not exist in art museums and jazz clubs and horse races. American culture exists on YouTube and at stock car races and in the pages of Rolling Stone. It is what high school kids talk about over Dr. Peppers at Applebee’s after their football games.

Most Americans do not live in Los Angeles or New York. They live in Kansas City, Tulsa, Des Moines, Wichita, Dodge City. Miley understands this.

Everybody’s lookin’ at me now, like who’s that chick that’s rocking kicks?

She’s gotta be from out of town.

So hard with my girls not around me. It’s definitely not a Nashville party.

Cause all I see are stilettos. I guess I never go the memo.

It’s a party in the USA, and Miley Cyrus is bringing it.

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18 thoughts on “Miley Cyrus is you.

  1. True story. In 2008, I walked into the Trinity high school locker room, otherwise known as a classroom, after a basketball game to do an interview. I heard some rather bland-but-upbeat pop music–usual tween girl stuff. It was blaring loud. I could barely hear to do the interview.
    “What is that?” I asked then-Trinity star Connor-somebody or another.
    “Hannah Montana,” he said with a sheepish grin. “We listen to it every game.”
    I knew then I did not understand Trinity’s basketball team. Not one bit.
    Also, they got upset early in the playoffs. I do not know if that is connected. Maybe someone forgot the CD player that game. It could happen.

  2. Yeah, they even play the freakin song on cowboy night(I was tricked into goin by a buddy one time, thats how I know). My guess is because shes “rockin kicks” in the video. And maybe the song does need more cowbell….

  3. People love Miley! Elvis was not a particularly good actor, yet his movies were often the biggest grossing films of the year. On the other hand, Lawrence Oliver had brutal critical reviews of his early acting, but grew to become an acclaimed actor. I think Miley is definitely smart enough to apply herself in her acting craft and become very good, or even great. And get ready to rock because that’s what comes next in her music!

  4. I’m going to have to disagree with your last point there, Tully. Most Americans *do* live in metropolitan areas. There are more people in LA than in all of Kansas, and New York has nearly 3 million more than KS and OK *combined*. What Cyrus (or, more accurately, her managers/agents/record companies/assorted others whose livelihoods are dependent on her success) has realized is that with modern technology and media, one can fit into a niche and market themself directly to said niche quite easily and, may it be said, quite lucratively.

  5. I don’t want to do all of the math here, but the total U.S. population is 304 million. If you subtract from that the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston, you’re left with more than 274 million people.

    I don’t know how many other cities would qualify as major metropolitan areas — 25 more, maybe? — but for the purposes of an essay on popular culture, I would posit that there isn’t a great deal of difference, culturally, between Kansas City and, say, Wichita or Tulsa or even possibly Salina.

    The point here is that American culture is not really found in Manhattan and Los Angeles.

  6. Bringing what exactly? A party? She is the new filler for a niche that reconfigures itself year after year with a new star. The people that listen to Miley Cyrus are the same people who listened to the pop stars in your photo collage before her. The reason that Miley Cyrus sells is because these people never grew up. So in my opinion, this really only proves that the further you distance yourself from where progress is being made in the realm of music (ie. the coasts, chicago, etc.) then you end up with the same garbage succeeding commercially.

    I really think this aspect of American culture will not last and human progress will nullify it eventually. Which is precisely why in 100 years from now, no one will be listening to this music or making broad comments on the importance of American culture that is associated with this kind of music. It has nothing more than mass commercial appeal to a segment of the population which will have no impact on the history of music as it is remembered long after we are dead and gone.

    Radiohead on the other hand…now that is some important shit to be sure.

    All that being said, I am almost at the point where I don’t even want to try to argue about this because Miley Cyrus’ success doesn’t really have anything to do with music. Pop music doesn’t really have anything to do with music. It’s a formula that has been created and is being sold successfully to a bunch of dupes who can’t tell the difference between one female pop star and the next.

    What should be considered, however, is the giant laugh that the record executives are having while they continue to rake in insane amounts of dough of these pop stars. They are sitting at the NYC/LA jazz club, drinking Chimay, and getting a huge kick over how everyone that likes this music keeps falling for the next version of the same fucking thing.

  7. Trim,

    I can see this post pushed a button of yours. I don’t think anybody would argue that Miley’s music isn’t, more or less, the same thing as all the pop stars before her. She isn’t taking music anywhere.

    But I don’t think that means she is unimportant. I think low culture tells us more about ourselves, socially, than anything else. Which makes people like MIley Cyrus significant culturally, even if they aren’t significant musically.

    Does the fact that “The Jersey Shore” is the most popular show in the United States right now suggest that it is creative television? Of course not. But it does tell us something about ourselves. Why are we, as a society, interested in guidos at this point in history, as opposed to any other? Would the show have been a hit in 1999? 1989? I sense it wouldn’t, at least not to the same extent, and I posit that this can tell us something about who we are as a culture.

    I think the same is true of Cyrus. I agree with your basic argument — that the formula for pop music never really changes — but would a country-flavored artist like Cyrus have been a star in 1999? Would a marginally attractive Disney star become perhaps the world’s biggest pop star in 1989? Again, I don’t know, but I doubt it. The 80s and 90s had a different feel, and I think it’s significant — especially when combined with things like Larry the Cable Guy’s popularity and the growing popularity of country music — that Cyrus has become a star.

    I don’t think anybody is being duped. I don’t think anybody really thinks Miley Cyrus is making important music in the sense that The Beatles or, I dunno, Miles Davis did. It’s just that most people don’t care about that.

    That’s low culture. And it’s informative in the same way that McDonald’s doesn’t help you understand or appreciate cuisine, but it tells you a lot more about America than The Palms does.

  8. Trim is upset because Radiohead, with their usual public relations inability, dissed Miley on her home turf, and now, even though Miley has gotten over it, most of her fans haven’t. Radiohead Sucks!

    Miley got over it because she’s all about positivity. Maybe a world where anything is possible is in right now. Justin Berber or whoever that kid is who started out on Youtube, is really big right now. Hollywood used to be something of a club, and now more and more people can break in to that club from the outside. Yes We Can!

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  10. haha, well i will begin by noting mfan that i am not really concerned for Radiohead’s personally well-being. they can do as they like. and if people don’t appreciate their self-absorbed ways then that’s okay. that wasn’t the point i was making and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the value of music.

    remember that it doesn’t really matter what kind of flavor you bring because it has all been done. wasn’t garth brooks was enormously famous and also a country singer? what about the dixie chicks?

    this thing that you are calling “low culture” is not informative because the formula does not change. so if you are suggesting that the low culture of america is doing the same thing that it has done over and over again, by supporting the next miley cyrus or eating at the newest up and coming fast food diversion, then you are right. that is nothing new and will continue to happen until we are dead and gone. people in northern wyoming still go to rodeos, drink shitty beer, and listen to the next famous pop country star like they are the next beetles. trust me. i was there.

    thus, the question should not be “why is this slightly different but markedly similar pop star succeeding for a brief time?” but rather, “why does the ‘low culture’ of the US continue to gravitate towards media approved pop icons rather than using rational thinking to evaluate music and art?”

    if we are really trying to use the success of Miley as a gauge, then what does her success really say about “American Culture”?

    from my angle, not very much. only the same point that people have been pointing out again and again: that even after watching the disturbing footage of a movie like Super Size Me, people will still eat at McDonald’s without a care in the world.

    it’s just a formula. the same candy bar with a different packaging technique.

  11. I think our basic disagreement is this: I believe the packages we choose are significant, and you do not.

    I think an interesting quetion is, Why did we choose Miley Cyrus instead of someone else? There are thousands of other people trying to be what Cyrus is and, at minimum, dozens of other pop stars with major-label recording contracts and the same access to media promotion. So why did Miley Cyrus become bigger than, for example, Katy Perry or Taylor Swift*? Why choose this package over that package? I don’t believe it’s random. I think the differences are small and subtle, but telling nonetheless.

    *You could argue Swift is bigger, but for the purposes of this blog entry, she is not nearly the same thing. Scott Simpson doesn’t get Taylor Swift requests in bunches and 23-year-old men don’t dance to Taylor Swift songs at clubs. But anyway …

    The answer to that question may not be important, per se. But I think it is relevant to the extent that the music a generation and a culture chooses to listen to is relevant. To dismiss it is to dismiss popular culture as a whole, which is a compulsion I understand, but ultimately regard as overly idealistic and, therefore, a mistake.

  12. I am not attempting to dismiss popular culture in its entirety. But I refuse to hail Miley Cyrus for something she hasn’t yet proven: that she is any different than anyone else. Bands come and bands go and no one can remember who sang that one song that goes “dah dah dah dah”.

    If we are going to talk about popular culture, we need to discuss it’s ebb and flow. And unfortunately, your argument doesn’t take that into account.

    First of all, the photo you chose is an old photo. Any more recent photo will show that she has been made over in the same fashion that all of your other chosen pop stars have been made over.

    Second, your consideration for Miley’s success in a popular setting is based upon one experience at one bar in one small city in one state. You have no evidence that she is being received at bars across the nation in the same fashion.

    Third, even supposing that she is received in that way in other places, what does this prove? The point is that we don’t choose these stars. The record labels choose them for us. Their stories get blown out of proportion and everyone is so excited to say something profound about their success for 10 minutes until they realize that someone else will come along tomorrow and steal our wandering gaze.

    Like I said, I am not attempting to dismiss popular culture. I am merely pointing out that popular culture has a variety of pattern-based responses that are rooted in other things. This is why advertising works. Because popular culture is malleable. So to disregard that ebb and flow is to disregard the meaning of Miley Cyrus’ success and, therefore, a mistake.

  13. I recognize the ebbs and flows of popular culture, and I think as long as we discuss popular culture within its own context, we can derive meaning from it.

    There are reason Britney Spears was the biggest pop star in the world 10 years ago and Jessica Simpson was not, despite that both of them were chosen by record labels who had plenty invested in their success. The record labels presented us with a few options, and we chose Britney Spears. The reasons for this are subtle, no doubt. Both were busty, blondy teenagers who sang catchy pop music. But those subtleties are worth discussing. Perhaps not in a musical context, but probably in a cultural context and absolutely in a pop cultural context.

    The same is true of Madonna. In 198-whatever, the people chose Madonna, who is not like Britney Spears, who is not like Miley Cyrus, except in that they all were young women (old girls, maybe) who performed pop music and succeeded wildly.

    I also would point out that the scene I used from The Ranch was meant to be anecdotal*. While I can’t quantifiably demonstrate that Miley Cyrus has a more profound effect on 22-year-old men than other pop stars do, I think it’s pretty fair to characterize her as a pop culture phenomenon at this point, and that goes back well before she started recording Top 40 music.

    *I also would note that the point of the photos was to illustrate only that she is not as attractive as most female pop stars. Perhaps you disagree, but I think that’s a fair representation of how Cyrus looks and how the rest of them looked when they hit it big.

    Any act that sells out every concert in every city is worth discussing, whether the music is any good or not. I suspect you would disagree with that, and I would assume that part, not all, but part of the reason we have a fundamental disagreement about this is that I look at this from the perspective of a journalist (the news), and you look at it from the perspective of a musician (the music). From where I sit, I can recognize that this is not quality music, that it does not take the art form anywhere and doesn’t really express anything. And I hope from where you sit that you can see that Cyrus is a phenomenon and the responsibility of writers, especially news writers, is to chronicle, explain and offer perspective on phenonena*.

    *I’m not saying this blog has anything to do with my responsibility as a journalist or that it has any importance whatsoever. But you get the idea.

    So don’t think I’m saying any more about Miley Cyrus than I am. I couldn’t care less whether she sells a billion albums or never sings again. I’ll never buy her music. And I’ll probably never watch one of her movies. My indifference overflows.

    But the point isn’t whether I like her or not.

  14. Taylor Swift is big right now in music and she is a friend of Miley’s, but she is ONLY big in music, in fact, only ballads. She’s tried to sing rock, but she doesn’t have the voice for it. That’s O.K. Elton John had an entire career made up of ballads.

    In just three years, Miley has:
    > Released SIX CD’s (five platinum and one gold so far on it’s way up)
    > Made THREE live action movies that ALL opened or will open at #1
    > Had THREE successful ARENA tours (one opening act, two headlining)
    > Done MANY successful sideline concerts, projects, and charitable acts
    including voice work (e.g. Bolt), a successful YouTube show,
    publishing a best seller, having a successful clothing line, and
    participating in awards shows as a nominee, performer, presenter,
    and/or winner! Not to mention stellar iTune sales (2 of top 10
    singles for 2009)
    All while working full time on her television show, being homeschooled,
    and going to church on Sundays! Remember this is in a three year time
    period! You cannot stop this girl!

    Why Miley? Because she puts love out into the world, and gets it back in return. She is one of the most fun performers I have ever seen. So many performers try to be “cool” or even “awesome”. Miley easily achieves cool and awesome of the way to her destination of fun! I will always support her.

  15. I’m a little late to this party, but wanted to comment anyway. I agree with Trim’s essential thesis that popular music is not necessarily good music, but I don’t think the criticism relates to Tully’s point that Miley represents American culture in a more true way than does Radiohead. I don’t think either Trim’s or Tully’s points are surprising.

    I don’t think critically acclaimed work is a true representation of any culture. Critically acclaimed art represents the most refined tastes of that culture, which by definition differ greatly from those held by the common man. Do you think Mozart, Beethoven, etc, represent common culture from 18th and 19th century Germany? The average American does not sit around contemplating Deep Thoughts and sniffing his own farts. Thus, he is not interested in Radiohead.

    You can criticize this guy for this, but it’s not going to, nor will it ever change. The idea that human progress will nullify the parts of us that are attracted to poppy filler is a fallacy. 100 years from now, 90% of the population will be listening to 2110’s version of Miley Cyrus, not to 2110’s version of The Velvet Underground. I am sure that there were groups in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that were critically acclaimed, but because of their failure to hit the big time, have been lost to history.

    This discussion reminds me of an interesting quote from the character Jeff Babes in the movie Almost Famous: “Show me any guy who ever said he didn’t want to be popular, and I’ll show you a scared guy. I’ve studied the entire history of music. Most of the time, the best stuff is the popular stuff. It’s much safer to say popularity sucks, because that allows you to forgive yourself if you suck. And I don’t forgive myself. Do you?”

  16. Pingback: Has Lady Gaga made a country song, and if so, what about that? « The Cub House

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