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.
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:
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.