Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hannah Montana

Since I have a need to understand phenomenons, I have begun to watch Hannah Montana.

The girl with two lives–-one normal, one superstar–-seems to connect with everyone under 15. Her concert selling out has become huge news. My mom wouldn’t even let me go to a concert when I was in high school, so the idea of taking an 11 year-old to see a preteen performer still strikes me as odd, especially if they’re paying top dollar for tickets. So why is she such a big deal?

Although she’s supposedly a huge star in the show, the few episodes I’ve seen have barely touched upon it, focusing instead on her relationships with her father, best friend, and slightly older brother. Yet it works precisely because of this–-deep down Miley is just a regular girl having wacky, normal issues, but in cooler clothes. There’s no sense of her fighting celebrity, or dealing with the tensions of trying to be accepted in both worlds, or falling prey to bad things. I hope this works out for Ms. Destiny Hope in real life, that she doesn’t follow any of the paths of Disney stars of the recent past.

Her show still has all the conventions of a kid/preteen show–-the over-the-top, mugging acting, the same stale jokes and inflections when making a joke, the lessons learned, as well as the silly, misunderstanding-based plots. Miley Cyrus isn’t above it, but despite its formula, the show works by keeping the personalities somewhat grounded and by having her father be levelheaded and easygoing. I don’t roll my eyes during Hannah Montana, or go “I can’t believe I’m watching this!” with an embarrassed giggle. It’s enjoyable. It’s light. It doesn’t feel too kiddish or silly, despite its popularity. And that’s probably why it’s popular.

I’m even intrigued by her music. The past few years Top 40 radio has let a few songs from those Disney stars of the mid-00s enter the airways, instead of being regulated to Radio Disney. All bright, focused pop, they are meant for the vast legions of teenagers and tweens who are just beginning to discover their own taste. Miley Cyrus’s “See You Again” doesn’t vary from that formula-–it’s catchy, tells a story, and is about a crush. But her voice is deeper than the usual fare, and the beat is low, two things that immediately set it apart from other pop tarts in training. “See You Again” has that everygirl quality of describing how excited she is to be around her crush, but how she stutters and stumbles around him, with the very excellent chorus: “The last time I freaked out/I just kept looking down/I just st-st-stuttered when you asked me what I’m thinking bout/Like I couldn’t breathe/You asked what’s wrong with me/My best friend Leslie said ‘She’s just being Miley’/The next time we hang out/I will redeem myself/My heart can’t rest til them, whoa whoa/I, I can’t wait/to see you again”. It’s so very much a teenager’s dilemma. Even though Fergie’s “Clumsy” has the same topic, the retro sound and especially the bridge talk of an adult’s version of the same scenario, although clearly Miley has cooler friends. I’m also a sucker for any song that uses “big words”, and redeem, especially in this context, qualifies.

Both in her songs and in her character on her show she is very upbeat and confident, giving advice to others and taking charge. She’s not shallow or fake like Lizzie McGuire, debating between different outcomes, but instead leading the way. Despite her songs’ subject matter, she’s not boy crazy, nor is she obsessed with being popular, liked, or into celebrities. She’s usually preoccupied with helping out her friends or her father, which is what leads her to getting into jams with her big mouth. Those qualities can be very appealing to kids who aren’t into the whole popularity thing, or who are trying to escape it. She’s got that great both-sides-of-the-coin fantasy/real life thing going on, a staple of kid-appeal from Sabrina to Bewitched, but instead it’s celebrity without all the crazy and paparazzo drawbacks. In this day and age, to be a tween rock star yet still be able to do normal, cool stuff with your friends seems to be the ultimate fantasy for that age group.

It’s interesting now that preteens and children have their own entirely separate culture, distinct from teenagers: webkins, neopets, High School Musical and Hannah Montana. It’s an entirely different world that largely doesn’t exist except anecdotally unless you are in contact with someone in that audience. While I am very glad for oh so many reasons that I am not in that age bracket, there’s a certain wistfulness that I didn’t have that kind of shared pop cultural experience. My age group reminisces about Teenage Mutant Turtles and Ace of Base, Saved By the Bell and Full House, but they don’t have the cachet nor the huge, extended following and marketing push that kids’ products do today. In a way that’s good, though, because we weren’t force-fed these creations by adults, we found them on our own, on Saturday morning and weekday mornings and afternoons, and then found out that others did too. There was always that moment where you gathered every day to find out if you’ve seen the latest episode. And that kind of community bred by media doesn’t change by age, location or generation. Even still, these touchstones of our childhood are still around, and have been passed down to those too young to remember when they were new: there was the TMNT movie earlier this year, Zack is eternally playing pranks in loud clothes on a clueless Mr. Belding, and Full House is a proud Nick at Nite staple, to many of my generation’s horror. It's like we couldn't let go, or rather the TV executives couldn't let go of us, assuming we would follow reruns blindly whenever we needed a pick-me-up of the nostalgic or horrified order.

Maybe this is the beginning of the eventual takeover of the kiddie universe. American Idol is going to start soon, and some days it seems that preteen girls rule the world. Or at least, the pop culture landscape.

No comments: