They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That's why we bring you "Popology," the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Savage Garden and the Spice Girls here.
Miley Cyrus has been a household name since she debuted as the titular star of "Hannah Montana" back in 2006. It catapulted her to the sort of superstardom that only Disney can manage, not only making Cyrus into a star but also transforming her into a brand. Her name and face are on a variety of entertainment sources and retail products. It's easy to forget that she's primarily an actress and musician, and even easier to know who Miley Cyrus is without ever having seen an episode of her TV show or hearing a song with her name on it (I know I became deeply interested her Twitter page before I ever heard any of her songs).
That sentiment has become less reasonable since "The Climb" and "Party in the U.S.A." became gigantic crossover hits for Cyrus last year. Ironically, her musical profile has been higher than it has ever been, and yet she appears to be stepping away from the music industry to focus on movies. (And honestly, who can blame her?) But that's also a shame, because the pop-producing version of Miley Cyrus is sort of amazing.
In fact, I have a theory about Miley Cyrus: I think she's headed in the reverse trajectory of Liz Phair, who launched her long career when she released the watershed Exile in Guyville back in 1993. Though Exile in Guyville is a visceral, caustic song cycle about anger and loss (its signature song is called "F--- and Run"), Phair has mellowed out over the course of her career and peaked on a self-titled album that saw her collaborate with the Matrix on pop hits like "Why Can't I?" I think it's possible that Cyrus, who makes excellent pop at the moment, will slowly chip away the layers of production and management that surround her musical projects and eventually make an album as raw and honest as Exile in Guyville. She has the potential — and, more importantly, the talent — to get to that level of artistic honesty.
That's not to say that her current output is totally corrupt. On the contrary, much of her music is phenomenally catchy, well-constructed and varied. And her 2008 album Breakout totally rules.
Breakout saw Cyrus make the transition from being a fictional rock star on "Hannah Montana" to a real-life rock star named Miley Cyrus. It's a fantastically sharp album, full of big hooks and absolutely no filler (at 12 tracks in under 40 minutes, it's an incredibly efficient release, which seems extremely rare in this genre). It opens with the title track, which has a big chorus and a lyric sheet that is literally about getting out of school. But rather than sounding juvenile, "Breakout" is actually sort of genius, as it taps into a very adult set of feelings — the need to change without disrupting a delicate balance, the desire to hang on to friendships and good times — and expresses them in a way that make sense to her audience, herself and anybody who was ever 16 years old. Of course, Cyrus isn't credited at all on the song, but you have to take the representation of her worldview at face value until we hear otherwise.
Breakout is stacked with hits. "7 Things" is a phenomenal piece of teen-aggro that juxtaposes a jangly verse with a bit arena-punk chorus. (Take out the keyboard swells and it easily becomes a Paramore song.) "Driveway" is similarly loud (for a pop record, of course — she won't be challenging Mastodon or anything) and aggro, with another lyric about the end of love. Heartbreak isn't an easy lyrical puzzle to solve for a girl so young (as we learned with that first Jessica Simpson album), and Cyrus either has a deep connection to her own interior life or she's a much better actress than everybody gives her credit for. She totally sells it, and the chorus of "The Driveway" — "I guess the driveway will be the end of the road for us/ It's too late/ Let the credits start to roll" — is goosebump-inducing.
Things stay strong after the opening trifecta. After a straight ahead cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," she hits more high notes with the lighter-waving "Full Circle," the noisy, funky "Fly on the Wall" and the inspirational jam "Wake Up America." (The treacly ballad "Bottom of the Ocean" is mixed in there as well, which represents the album's only misstep.) Her one nod at crossover country is "These Four Walls," which is a vaguely twangy ballad in the Taylor Swift mode that works as a perfectly fine nod to modern Nashville (and to her dad, country star Billy Ray Cyrus). Though some of the songs are a little over-produced, the aural ornamentation rarely gets in the way of the melodies or Cyrus' unusual voice, which unlike most of her contemporaries relies on her lower register and a sort of chesty arena-rock wail as opposed to acrobatic high notes. It may not be the most dynamic instrument out there, but it absolutely works for her and stands out from the pack of anonymous sopranos.
The album wraps up with a big, sweeping track called "Goodbye" and a wacky remix of "See You Again" (which probably should have been relegated to bonus track territory, as "Goodbye" is a perfect album closer). It makes Breakout a surprisingly consistent album with just enough variety to satisfy the broadest audience possible (which is, you know, sort of the point). If her upcoming album Can't Tame Me ends up being her grand finale in the music world (and especially if she never makes her Exile in Guyville), she can lean on Breakout without anybody falling over.