I get it. I understand your Miley rage, America. But speaking as someone who grew up in the ’80s, I would have appreciated some of this concern back when the New Kids on the Block and Tiffany were popular. I mean, if you were going to get pissed off about pop music and latch onto thinly veiled pretenses to obsess about a teenage girl’s sexual development, why couldn’t you use your power to improve the shit that was on the radio when I was a kid? Way to let my generation down, America. It’s your fault we turned to Candlebox.
But in all seriousness, Miley Cyrus has a new album out this week, one which promises to present an “edgier,” more “grown-up” version of the erstwhile Hannah Montana, along with dance production allegedly inspired by Lady GaGa. Hide your tweens, amiright?
In a word, no. Like pretty much everything else related to Cyrus, Can’t Be Tamed is a repackaged version of stuff you’ve seen and heard before, wrapped in countless screaming layers of manufactured controversy and breathless hysteria. When you get right down to it, this is nothing more or less than a 12-song collection of pop tunes written and recorded by professional ringers — and aside from a few token nods to the electro-pop of the day, there’s nothing here that Tiffany or Belinda Carlisle couldn’t have done in 1988.
And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s true that a sizeable portion of the album swaggers with an up-to-the-minute, machine-assisted strut, but work your way past the pounding beats, spidery synths, and periodic outbursts of Auto-Tune, and Can’t Be Tamed is an album that hews tightly to the established parameters for gateway pop for kids. It’s loaded up with tasteful instrumentation, slick production, gigantic choruses, and lyrics that are, to pinch a phrase from David Baerwald, smart in a stupid way. These are songs that speak in melodramatic absolutes, and focus on subjects that plague the young at heart — specifically, relationships and having the power to be your own person. Is it ironic that an empowerment anthem like “Liberty Walk” finds Miley sharing co-writing credits with five other people? Certainly. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt the song in any way.
In fact, in terms of solidly by-the-numbers pop songwriting, portions of Can’t Be Tamed are pretty gratifying — like “Two More Lonely People,” a 21st century update on the Diane Warren power ballad that blends a programmed gallop, a strummed acoustic guitar, and a huge, Angie Aparo-assisted melody on the chorus, or the triumphant teeny club bangers “Who Owns My Heart” and “Permanent December.” And like the corporate rock records of yore, Tamed has the common courtesy to save its boring cuts for the back half — the filler trifecta “Stay,” “Scars,” and “Take Me Along” doesn’t show up until the part of the program that we used to call Side Two, and just like the old days, the record perks back up at the end, with a pair of songs (“Robot” and “My Heart Beats for Love”) that close things out on a high note.
On the Venn diagram illustrating the overlap between art and commerce, Can’t Be Tamed hugs commerce’s outer rim. But it stakes its ground with calculated precision, and that’s really all you can expect from gateway pop like this. For an artist like Miley Cyrus, who’s a passable vocalist with little or nothing to say as a songwriter, Tamed is about as good as it gets — and to her credit, she seems to understand this, at least if you believe her recent statements about being uninspired by her music and wanting to take a break from recording for awhile. If only Tiffany had been so self-aware.