As I grow older, time seems to go faster. That’s an illusion, I suppose, stemming mainly from an ever-keener awareness of my own mortality — but it’s due, too, to increased ubiquity of mass media and the attendant global interconnectedness. If everything seems to be happening all at once, well, maybe it always was; what has changed, perhaps, is our ability to observed and process it on the fly, instead of absorbing the mediated version after the fact. Perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Because pop culture is a highly mediated phenomenon, with corporate interests acting as stakeholders and gatekeepers — and yet the accelerated boom-and-bust cycle is apparent in pop culture, too. Not so long ago, the Beatles had to play a couple of years at five sets a night in the sailor haunts of Liverpool and Hamburg to attract the notice of management; and although they eventually came to be marketed primarily as personalities, it was their musical skills that were their initial product, before their personal charm and humor could be monetized effectively.
These days, though, young stars arrive as pre-packaged omnimedia engines. It’s not enough to be one thing anymore; backed by deep-pocketed conglomerates like Disney and Viacom, these kids début in a flurry of hyphens — singer-actress-comedienne-dancer-fashion designer, with a CD, a tour, a basic-cable sitcom, and a Vanity Fair spread all bursting on the scene at once. All the revenue streams are cross-branded and cross-marketed, regardless of the stars’ skills or shortcomings in any of those market sectors. There are ways to compensate, after all. Not such a great comic actress? That’s what laugh tracks are for. Autotune can sweeten the vocals, and a sufficient cadre of backing dancers makes even pedestrian choreography look impressive. Thus can sufficient budgeting make a megastar of a mediocrity — for a certain audience, anyway. A very young audience, in the main, with indiscriminate tastes, plenty of discretionary income, and indulgent parents.
The cost of this career fast-tracking is an accelerated burn rate. While there are occasional youth stars who survive off the reservation — recent examples include former Disney kid Shia LaBeouf, by this point a genuine movie star, and Nickelodeon stalwart Josh Peck, who’s been cobbling together an impressive indie-film résumé on the side — most fall away somewhere along the line. Sometimes their fall is public and tragic (e.g., Lindsay Lohan), sometimes it’s a slow fade to obscurity: What do you hear from Hilary Duff lately? How about the kid from Cory in the House? Shia’s old co-star, Christy Carlson Romano, has had a quiet couple of years. So has Amanda Bynes. Frankie Muniz was making 5 mil a picture, not long ago. These days? The occasional direct-to-DVD project, which leaves him plenty of time to drive race cars.
Here’s the thing: Not everybody has the savvy or the luck to go out on a high point. For most of these people, in most of these careers, there had to be a moment when it became apparent that the good times could not last. Maybe the certainty doesn’t come all at once, but it comes nonetheless. And what do you do then? What do you do when you know that it’s all but over? When your numbers are down but you’re still under contract for another ten episodes, another album, another tour — how do you keep on? Do you suck it up and hack it out? Do you rage against the dying of the light? Or is it business as usual? I find myself asking this because I’ve just watched the DVD Hannah Montana Volume 5: Keepin’ It Real — collecting episodes of the Disney Channel sitcom — and it seems like a product of that fading twilight, that hour of the wolf.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the Hannah Montana juggernaut — and how I envy you if you have — the show features singer-actress Miley Cyrus as Miley Stewart, a seemingly ordinary teen who (by donning a blonde wig that’s got to be the least convincing disguise since Clark Kent’s glasses) secretly becomes the pop sensation Hannah Montana. Miley lives in Malibu with her dad (played by real-life dad Billy Ray Cyrus, cast against type as a washed-up country-pop star, and eschewing his famous mullet in favor of a haircut reminiscent of Jennifer Aniston’s in the second season of Friends) and her brother, portrayed by a kid who looks like a shaved Troll doll; in between concerts and celebrity charity events, she struggles to live the life of a typical, non-famous but still fabulously wealthy Malibu teenager with perfect skin and unlimited free time. You know, keeping it real.
It’s easy to see why the character and the attendant licensed products have been a huge hit with the target audience of young girls. The concept touches on issues of persona and self-creation in a playful way, just when its audience is engaged in the hard work of creating their own identities. But the execution is utterly grating. It’s brightly-colored and crackling with manic energy, but there’s an air of exhaustion over the whole thing. The sets look cheap. Plots are freely plagiarized from old episodes of I Love Lucy. The players mug and flail and can’t find their marks. The banter has constant undercurrents of hostility and contempt. This, I thought, is what a franchise looks like in its decadence. This is how you keep busy while waiting for the cancellation notice that you know is inevitable.
The show itself all but admits its own impending obsolescence. In the most metafictive episode, Miley/Hannah comes under the wing of an older established pop-star, a transparent Madonna stand-in, who has stayed on top in the business by constantly reinventing herself. Hannah thinks about nastying up her wholesome image, but in the end decides to stick with the tried-and-true. It’s couched as an affirmation about staying true to oneself, but in context it comes off as an admission that Miley Cyrus’s own career is not built to last. The hour of the wolf has come, and it’s only a matter of time. Surely, I thought, this explains the sourness and the rot, the listlessness, the apathy. Surely, I thought, this is the work of a production team on auto-pilot, servicing the franchise, running out the clock.
Then the Hannah Montana movie opened at a strong Number 1, and it’s still making money weeks later. I was wrong; the franchise has legs yet. This raised an even more horrifying possibility — that the mess that I had watched, that I had needed great quantities of bourbon merely to endure, was not a once-passable show in its decline — that it was instead as good as the show ever got, that this lazy shrill trainwreck was par for the course.
And here the true evil of the multimedia branding approach emerges: Every bit of it is of a piece with all others. No component is more important, or more painstakingly crafted, than any other. And so the show — the flagship of the brand, mind you — conforms to the same quality standards as the rest of the line. It is one revenue stream among many, and it is no less cheap and shoddy than the flood of licensed merchandise that bears its brand, and that in their overweening cynicism everyone is okay with this — because it is understood and assumed that the franchise is ultimately disposable. The true horror of Hannah Montana the TV show is that it is no better than it absolutely has to be.
And so the show is a pot of Chinese-made lip gloss laced with glycol antifreeze. The show is a loosely-stitched backpack with a lead zipper pull that will fall off and present a choking hazard. The show is a MAGIC ROCKSTAR MICO-ROPHONE!! with its reverb spring affixed to a cracked plastic diaphragm, rendering your child’s voice buzzy and demonic when she sings into it. The show is a garish pink scooter with a loose bolt on the wheel assembly, and a child will fall to the pavement in a clash of metal and a grind of sparks, and she will be injured. The show is a lunch set with a defective thermos that will leak milk all over the inside of the lunchbox, imbuing it with a foul cheesy smell that will not fade. The show is a packet of tainted fruit snacks. The show is a poly-blend T-shirt with a transfer decal that will blister and peel, made in a sweatshop by a child who will never have cable TV. The show is a quickie “souvenir poster magazine,” blurrily printed on an offset press ordinarily used for pornography. The show is a hazardous object that will shatter upon viewing, causing deadly shards of stupid to lodge in your brain. The show is the tour is the album is the DVD is the board game is the fashion doll is the ghostwritten autobiography is the locker poster is the pen-and-pencil set is the spiral notebook is the Halloween costume is the show and I am so cold, so cold, and sleep will not come.