Miley Cyrus: Not a girl, not yet a Britney

The talented singer deserves to break out of her Disney mold. Too bad her risky "Can't Be Tamed" video is so dumb

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published May 5, 2010 3:17PM (EDT)

Nothing starts a ruckus on the Web quite like a squeaky clean young Disney star and a little suggestive writhing. So when Miley Cyrus debuted her pouty new music video last night -- for a song that sports the provocative name "Can't Be Tamed" -- you could practically hear indignation rolling across the land.

In the video, Miley is a rare bird in a gilded cage who wears a ton of makeup. Kind of like the chicken lady in "Freaks," but hotter. But this bird can't be tamed, see? So she busts free -- getting in a little dry hump against the bars of her cage on the way out -- and proceeds to shimmy and grind against a menagerie of male and female sexy beasts along the way, while telling you to "go to hell." Are you outraged yet?

While some of the commenters on E!, where the video premiered, were complimentary of Cyrus's new direction, others wasted no time in labeling her a "half naked ... Britney wannabe" and "another Disney chick gone horribly wrong." The Daily Mail, meanwhile, more gently pondered: "Aren't you a little young for that?"

Cyrus, who's in her final season as Disney's Hannah Montana, has shrewdly been laying the groundwork for her move away from the tween-friendly character for a long time now. Two years ago, she scandalized the planet by baring her back in Vanity Fair. More recently, she stretched herself dramatically in "The Last Song."  Everybody grows up -- and it's natural that Cyrus would be expressing that in her work. One day you're little Penny from "Good Times," the next, you're the 19-year-old sexpot Janet Jackson of "Control." One day you're the kid from "Charlotte's Web," the next, you're making out with Kristen Stewart in "The Runaways."

So it's not surprising that Cyrus would want a more adult image. And unlike many prefab pop tarts who've gone before her, Cyrus actually has talent galore. She's got a hell of a set of pipes; she's a naturally gifted musician; she's a far better actress and comic presence than Madonna ever was -- and it doesn't hurt that she's also stunning. She's even put out decent singles like "The Climb" -- which is fortunate for those of us who have little girls and have to hear those songs on a continuous loop.

What a letdown, then, is how predictable, derivative and dumb her chosen breakout vehicle turns out to be. At the top of her game, Cyrus is an artist who could do anything she wants right now. She got Nicholas Sparks to write a movie for her, for God's sake. Why would she release a song that sounds so tinny and mechanical? Cyrus told E! yesterday, "For me it's never been about fitting in. I'd rather stand out." So why put out a video that looks like a very expensive rip-off of everything that's already out there? Oh, you're a wild animal in a cage? Can we put you in the same zoo as that She Wolf, Shakira? That dreamy, lay-my-jeweled-body-down-in-an-alternate-universe shtick? This terri much covered when Fergie did it in "Meet Me Halfway." And I'm sorry, but until further notice, only Gaga gets to do avian hats. Don't even get me started on the Adam Lambert comparisons.

Very few people ever transition seamlessly from cute teen to mature adult – whether they're an ordinary girl or Disney's biggest princess. Cyrus, like anyone who's ever been 17, has a right to stumble and look silly. But if you're going to tell the world you can't be tamed, maybe you should consider doing it in a way that doesn't look so painfully contrived.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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