Jul 10, 2008

Zombies, Zombies, Zombies!

I'm sort of in talks to collaborate on a proposal for an essay in an edited volume about zombies. I'm thinking I want to write something about zombie walks and pub crawls and their social significance(s). I went to a zombie dance party once...it was okay. As with most things, more fun to dress up than to spend a night dressed up, especially when sweating to electronic dance music in zombie eye makeup and Meg's pair of green tights slowly suffocating my nearly-undead testes.

We came across this article while searching for information about zombies in the 21st century.

Zombie Boy

Rick is turning himself into a zombie. So far, more than 24 hours of tattoos – costing over £4,075 Canadian – have got him halfway there and made him a minor celebrity on the internet, where people can’t decide if he’s a body modification visionary or mentally ill sicko. We caught up with Rick for an exclusive interview and photoshoot to see what life is like when you’re transforming yourself into the living dead.
...Follow the (undead) link...

Jul 6, 2008

Best of Both Worlds: the Hannah Montana Phenomenon and Duplicitous Girlhood

This is the first in a series of the absurd papers I get to write for school. Several people have asked me to email this paper to them, so I thought the interest in it is enough to warrant publishing it online. I'd love to hear what you think!


Disney has had enormous success with its television heroines since Annette Funicello debuted on the original The Mickey Mouse Club television show in 1955. The most recent, and arguably most successful, of the young starlets is Miley Cyrus, star of the hit Disney Channel show Hannah Montana. Née Destiny Hope Cyrus, daughter of one-hit wonder Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley’s startling rise to fame has eclipsed all expectations, leading to an Emmy nomination, a sold-out concert tour, a blockbuster 3D film, fashion and accessory lines, and hundreds of successful consumer product tie-ins. In the face of media saturation documenting the downfalls of teen pop princesses like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan, the question that begs to be asked is how Miley Cyrus, the fifteen year old singer, and her fictive character Hannah Montana, have become cultural icons to a degree surpassing the successes of her predecessors. While much can be explained away by the marketing powers of the massive Disney corporation, which seems to have a rare hold on the burgeoning “tween” demographic, this paper attempts to perform a semiotic reading of Cyrus’s rhythmic body and musical voice, in the style of Fred Pfeil’s reading of the hegemonic male body[1] and Richard Leppert’s reading of the subversive feminine voice.[2] In the end, I suggest that the synergistic Cyrus/Montana combination offers a unique articulation of contemporary female pre-adolescent identity.

In his article “Rock Incorporated: Plugging in to Axl and Bruce,” Fred Pfeil reads images of masculinity in the iconic bodies of Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose. He argues that each convey a particular mode of costuming that reinforces rather than challenges patterns of domination in wider culture. Their images, although explicitly saying otherwise, nonetheless provide models for the iconic portraits of white male privilege. Richard Leppert argues that the world-worn sensuality of Patsy Cline’s singing voice “effectively repositioned some of the well-established conventions of country music and pop alike [that were] used to define women’s identities,”[3] successfully subverting the male privilege seen in the former artists. Because Cyrus/Montana is delivered on television, and later in concert and film, her role is disseminated via a medium engaging both the visual and acoustic domains, just as those of Rose, Springsteen, and Cline. The Hannah Montana music videos premiered on the Disney Channel, and Miley Cyrus in other media, make use of her body and voice as conjoined elements to elicit her iconography as something in between Pfeil’s model of replicative dominance and Leppert’s suggestion of stylistic subversion, making Cyrus an example of both appropriately conservative behavior of the pre-teen girl, and a subversion of that innocence in sexuality.

The television show Hannah Montana, which premiered on the Disney Channel in 2006, is targeted primarily at pre-adolescent (“pre-teen” or “tween”) girls, roughly between the ages of eight and twelve years old. It follows the adventures of Miley Stewart, a normal, brunette, eighth-grader with a secret life as blonde-wigged pop sensation Hannah Montana. The central drama revolves around the pressures of maintaining the “normal” life of middle school-age girl, while also facing the closeted pressures of an extraordinary life in the limelight. Jacques Steinberg, in his profile of Cyrus in The New York Times, explains that “the on-screen Miley is constantly faced with the temptation to reveal her alternate, bewigged identity to her schoolmates, who pay her little mind but have Hannah pictures plastered inside their lockers.” [4]

And therein lies the most profound trope for “tween” girls: a new-found duplicity of identity, in which they must come to terms with their liminal state between childhood and adolescence by switching between aspects of both. Their bodies nearly in a state of intense change, pre-teen girls that make up the demographic with which Hannah Montana seeks to connect are searching for patterns of behavior that will mediate the sudden realization that they are sexual and sexualized objects, that peers are more aware of social performance, and that they must thus erect a distinction between the public and private domains. As secrecy becomes a powerful tool, it also becomes an unwanted obligation. Hannah Montana offers a character who deals with the duplicity of identity in more extreme terms, and I argue that this is the key to the success of both the show and Cyrus’s career.

The lyrics of many of the songs the character Hannah Montana sings involve the dual identities she must present to the world. In “Just Like You” Montana sings “So what you see/ Is only half the story/ There's another side of me/ I'm the girl you know/ But I'm someone else too/ If you only knew.” In “The Other Side of Me” she sings of playing a part, while longing to display the true self underlying these pretenses: “The girl I want you to know/ If I could only show/ The other side of me.”

The song playing during the title sequence of the show, “Best of Both Worlds,” however, provides a solution to this dilemma of hidden dualism. The lyrics are in the second person (“you”), directing her words at several identities: Hannah Montana the fictive performance character, Miley Stewart the fictive eighth-grader, and additionally not only Miley Cyrus, who performs these fictive identities under a nom de plume, but by extension the pre-teen girl audience, embroiled in their own multiple identities, as well. While outlining the show’s premise, the song inverts the tragedy of secrecy into a celebration of multiple identities, proclaiming that it allows her (and the audience) to project that “The best part’s that/ You get to be whoever you wanna be.”

The video for “Best of Both Worlds” premiered on the Disney Channel as concert footage from a Hannah Montana concert.[5] Panning over the masses of screaming girls who welcome her appearance onstage, the blonde Montana wears long jeans and a sparkling shirt that covers her chest and runs down the entire length of her arms. Her costuming is conservative compared to the bare midriffs Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera made infamous almost ten years ago. As she bounces around the stage, she interacts with male backup dancers with a kind of naïve romantic flirtation, and paired with awkward leg-pumping, arm-raising choreography, she serves as a smiling mannequin, teaching a decidedly asexualized bodily vocabulary for pre-teen girls. The sound of the song is unmistakably in the style of earlier pop princesses, divorced from her country roots, and is grounded in a dance-able, simplistic drum beat that never reaches the furious tempo of anything like punk music, but nonetheless employs the harder edges of repeated guitar lick hooks and quieted snare as if to suggest that she is in dialogue with the prevalent sounds of “hip-ness” present in contemporary pop music. This is rock music—“cool music” music, teenage music—the sound seems to incessantly, and unconvincingly, remind us.

Her voice is the most prominent aspect of the song, however, and in her repeat of “You’ve got the best of both worlds” her voice rises to a pitch that foregrounds her technically and biologically immature soprano, using the elided grain of her voice to further reinforce the youthful image she projects. While the song seems to celebrate the empowerment of living a secret life, it also reads as a repression of emergent sexuality, of the tragedy of duplicity in pre-teen girlhood, which is then subsumed under the ever-smiling image of cheerful innocence.

In her “truer” performative identity as Miley Cyrus, however, that sexuality emerges in both her body and voice. In contrast to her performance as Hannah Montana, during her performance of her single “See You Again” on the popular show American Idol,[6] Cyrus’s initial image as a slinky silhouette behind a screen both disguises her youth and emphasizes her mature-looking feminine body, which is then revealed to be clothed in a low-cut shirt with the formerly covered skin now bare. Her dancing is more limited in terms of the space she covers, letting the all-male group of back-up dancers move in stiff acrobatic choreography, as if they are puppets to her sound, rather than the other way around. It is instead her body that she explores, moving her hips and playing with her long hair in a way that evokes the newfound, and therefore over-exaggerated, feminine sexuality common in teenage girls.

The song she sings, although clearly rooted in the sound Hannah Montana might produce, turns the bland guitar riffs of “Best of Both Worlds” into a sensual, echoing twang, with the pale drum beats metamorphisized into a raucous, synthesized club bass-thumping. The lyrics, although still tame, reference romantic love explicitly, but tie her to a desire for the attainment of erotic pleasure (“I got this crazy feeling deep inside”), a resistance to being contained (“I have a heart that will never be tamed”), and even a threat of figural violence, as she evokes the phallic imagery of herself as a gunslinger (“I got my sights set on you/ And I’m ready to aim.”). Her performance of “See You Again” on American Idol, in fact, contains moments in which she strays from the official lyrics of the song (i.e. those she sings on the CD) by introducing an exclamatory “Come on!” and “2-3-4!” that serves as a kind of seizing of power, wherein she is the one directing the music to conform to her power.

Cyrus’s voice is again at the forefront of the song’s sound, but this time the narrow range she engages almost exclusively involves her lowered alto, almost a speaking voice. This lower range is where most of her power as a singer lies, thus allowing her to avoid the stratosphere of her upper range which would reveal her vocal immaturity. In the last line of the song, while making eyes at the camera without a trace of her signature charming smile, she lowers her voice its furthest in both pitch and volume: “I can’t wait/ To see you again.” The lowered feminine voice, not to mention the bedroom eyes, has long been a method of signifying feminine sexuality, and Cyrus’s performance marks a juxtaposed image of willful seduction set against the disempowered asexuality of Hannah Montana.

The video for Britney Spears’s first hit single “Baby One More Time,” in retrospect at least, is less a transgressive example of youthful feminine sexuality than an almost humorous juxtaposition of erotic male desire alongside the untouchability of the Catholic schoolgirl. Spears flirtatiously performs a visual lap-dance at the ostensibly male viewer, who is distanced not only by the cultural taboos of intergenerational sexual fetishism, but even by the incorporeality of the very medium through which he watches it. The difference in the Montana/Cyrus icon is that while she is situated within the hold of the male gaze in that Hannah Montana is a model for “correct” girlhood, she is not to be contained as she dons the inverted reality of Miley Cyrus. Hers is a rare pairing of conflicting images of pre-adolescent femininity, speaking directly to the tween girl market rather than the male viewer, as both the epitome of social propriety and the possibility of sexualized resistance. While she perhaps offers no final solutions about maintaining this empowerment (she will inevitably switch again and again between the public and private identities), the Montana/Cyrus icon represents the capacity for living a life in which the doubled identity is an easy reality, and may very well lead to the “Best of Both Worlds.”

[1] Pfeil, Fred. “Rock Incorporated: Plugging in to Axl and Bruce”

[2] Leppert, Richard. “Gender Sonics: The Voice of Patsy Cline”

[3] Leppert 51.

[4] Steinberg, Jacques. "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: A Tale of Two Tweens." . New York Times on the Web.
20 April 2008 >.

[5] "Hannah Montana-Best of Both Worlds." Youtube Video, originally aired on the Disney Channel. Online video clip. Youtube. Accessed on 06 April 2008. .

[6] "Miley Cyrus – See You Again – American Idol – Gives Back." Youtube Video, originally aired on American Idol. Online video clip. Youtube. Accessed on 06 April 2008. < v="-eexrf1IcBE">.