"Everybody in the house is a rock star tonight," is what Hannah Montana tells her audiences.
By Greg Beato
Fret not, guardians of authenticity! Bubbly, super-assured pop variable Miley Cyrus does virtually all her own lip-synching when she performs live in concert. All her own costume-wearing too. Her PR firm has assured us of this. Yes, there is that YouTube video clip that shows the 15-year-old star of the Disney TV series Hannah Montana surreptitiously exiting the stage in the midst of a song, only to have a body double, dressed in identical white go-go boots and classy blonde stripper wig, take her place for a convincingly simulated half-minute of dance-inspired flailings and high-energy pretend-singing.
But does that make Cyrus a fraud -- Hannah Nontana, Hannah Faketana, or Miley Vanilli, as Internet hecklers have taken to calling her? Or is she just impressively committed to wardrobe diversity?
On her TV series, Cyrus plays a character with a dual identity. Most of the time, she's Miley Stewart, an average teen dealing with typical high-school issues and a bratty little brother. But occasionally she dons a blonde wig and becomes a famous pop star, Hannah Montana, whose true identity is known only to her family and closest friends.
In her current "Best of Both Worlds" concert tour, Cyrus employs a variant on this theme, performing the first half of her show as Hannah Montana, and the second half as herself. This character switch requires a costume change; the body double simply gives Cyrus more time to complete this without having everything grind to an upbeat, super-fun halt. "Other than during this very brief transitional moment in the show," her PR firm explains, "Miley performs live during the entirety of both the Hannah and Miley segments of the concert."
"Wait a second!" you might be saying. The same video clip that outs her part-time impostor also catches Cyrus in a moment of obvious lip-synching -- when she leans forward to belt out a refrain, her voice rises in volume as she emphatically mouths the words, but her microphone is nowhere near her face. It's down by her hip.
Ah, but the PR firm didn't say anything about live "singing," just live performing -- so score one for PR firms with a flair for linguistic nuance. And besides, isn't looking for authenticity in Disney-bred pop stars sort of like looking for teeth in Flavor Flav's teeth? What tweens and toddlers find most appealing about Cyrus, one imagines, is not that she's some unique, unduplicable phenomenon of nature, but rather that she's so familiar, so relatable, so easy to emulate.
"Everybody in the house is a rock star tonight," Cyrus tells her audiences, and while that isn't true, of course, the gulf between the performer and her fans isn't nearly as vast as, say, the gulf between Christina Aguilera and the average 12-year-old. Cyrus' voice might inspire gratuitous, you-have-a-beautiful-spirit praise from Paula Abdul, but Simon would be yawning. Her doppelgänger is actually a better dancer than she is. As she, her band, and her background dancers bop around the stage in apparently random fashion, their moves even less coordinated than their garish, mismatched outfits, they look like nothing so much as a bunch of YouTube wannabes spazzing out to their favorite High School Musical dance number. Anyone in the audience could assume a role in the production and fit right in. A fair number of them probably believe that with the right trenchcoat and go-go boots, they could take Miley's place. One or two of them may actually be right.
Is it time, then, for an open-source teen idol? Nobody, of course, is paying $2,000 per ticket to watch anonymous teenagers sing at the local all-ages karaoke show. But what are the screaming tweens and toddlers who get their parents to pay that much to see Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus in concert actually paying for? As much as we love YouTube, Facebook, and all the other ways we've devised to democratize stardom, we still find stars necessary. They give us songs to sing, styles to emulate, branded merchandise to buy. They give us lifestyles to fantasize about, the thrill of seeing someone famous, a way to make the moments of our lives special, rare, memorable.
But can you create a "star" who delivers all those things without actually binding the star's identity to one specific person? A star who taps into the American Idol dreams of the YouTube generation by permitting various members of the target audience to inhabit the character for a month, a concert, a song? The body double that Hannah Montana's Dr. Frankensteins are currently using to temporarily simulate their creation in Miley Cyrus's concert tour proves you can pull this off for at least 30 seconds. Eventually, they'll realize that employing the tactic in a much more aggressive manner will only increase the appeal of their perky pop monster. • 8 February 2008
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor.
Photo by Getty Images.