LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Miley Cyrus’ audition tape for the Disney Channel’s “HanID be found on YouTube. In it, the 12-year-old Cyrus is sporting frizzy hair, a big smile and, even then, her trademark whiskey drawl.
She displays the practiced poise of all child actors — a fearlessness when it comes to staring straight into the camera and reciting her lines — and her posture and mannerisms reveal that she knows this is a business opportunity and not a social call.
Flash-forward five years, and Cyrus’ latest YouTube offering, her video for the title track of her album “Can’t Be Tamed,” involves a bird-cage set that doubles as a pole-dancing playground, writhing background dancers and an outfit notable for its feathers and décolletage.
Like Disney teen idols Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake before her, Cyrus is making the often-murky transition into adult artist. The June 22 release of “Can’t Be Tamed” is the boldest statement in a years-long process of transitioning Cyrus away from the scrubbed cheeks and all-American girl charm of “Hannah Montana” to a modern pop diva.
“I’m just at a certain place where I’ve changed a lot as a person,” she says. “I’ve grown up a lot, which everyone does.”
Everyone does, but very few have to do it in the public spotlight with all the divisions of Miley Inc. — from film to TV shows to voice-over work to apparel — riding on the success of the transition.
It’s no secret that Cyrus has been publicly testing the waters of adulthood for the past few years — making dramatic displays like the bed-head Vanity Fair photos or the vaguely stripperish dance moves at Nickelodeon’s Teen Choice Awards — followed by an equally dramatic retreat.
Her music has followed a similar act of toeing the line between tween and adult, with singles “The Climb” and “Party in the U.S.A.” offering a far different message from earlier teeny-bopper tracks like “See You Again” and “7 Things.”
On the eve of the video debut of “Tamed” on May 4, Cyrus knows that it’s going to ruffle some feathers. “You’re going to, like, die when you see the bird cage in the video because it’s so crazy,” she says. Despite Cyrus’ march into adulthood, she still talks like a teenager — all rapid-fire patter that, by a reporter’s transcribing tally, comes in at around 200 words per minute. “I’ve got, like, 30 dancers in there and a tree and a nest. Literally, it’s out of control. I’m definitely going to be doing a lot more stuff like that.”
“Miley’s transformation was inevitable — she’s been clawing herself out of that cage for a while,” says Suzanne Ross, executive producer of E!’s “True Hollywood Story” and “E! Investigates.” “I’m surprised it shocks people anymore. It’s an inevitable part of growing up Disney. It’s a formula, from what I’ve seen from past stars: Disney makes you a star, you make them an enormous amount of money, and then you either crash and burn or you go out and stake your claim in the real world.”
“Can’t Be Tamed” (Hollywood Records) is Cyrus’ seventh studio album. Previous sets range from the four soundtracks she’s released under the “Hannah Montana” imprimatur to two as herself and one Walmart-exclusive EP.
While Cyrus is strenuously distancing herself from the days of “Hannah,” she still has the benefit of being a product of the giant Disney promotional machinery.
“We’re very fortunate that we have artists who have many, many levels to their careers, whether it’s film, TV, books or records,” Hollywood Records general manager Abbey Konowitch says. “The unfortunate news is that we’re fighting for minutes — not hours or weeks — for the artist’s availability.”
Cyrus began work on the album in December 2009, while she was touring in England, with a sold-out five-night stand at the O2 in London. Producer John Shanks — who worked with Cyrus on her single “The Climb” — reteamed with Cyrus for the album and wracked up frequent-flier miles in the process.
“John spent quite a bit of time, God bless him, running over to England and catching her for parts of the day for recording and writing,” Hollywood Records head of A&R Jon Lind says. “He would come back to L.A. and work on the songs and tracks. He was really a soldier and a world traveler for going to do this creative thing in between Miley’s schedule.”
Besides Shanks, Cyrus worked with two familiar faces on the album: co-songwriters Tim James and Antonina Armato, who penned “7 Things” and “See You Again” and also wrote this album’s title-track first single with Cyrus.
“I call Antonina ‘Mommy’ because she’s my second mom,” Cyrus says. “No one could ever understand the relationship we have. I’ve been working with her for four years, and every day I go into the studio and we just sit around and eat cupcakes and talk and I tell her everything about my life. I think that’s why we make good music together.”
Although several songs on the album throb with the kind of Euro-inspired dance beats heard on hits by David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas, Cyrus says the sound is secondary to the personal lyrics.
“I listen to zero pop music, which is really weird for someone who makes pop music,” Cyrus says, noting that the first concert she ever went to was a show by Poison. (She covers the metal band’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” on the album, with Bret Michaels doing backing vocals.)
“My 13-year-old self would have beaten up my 17-year-old self because she would be like, ‘You’re a sellout!’ But that’s not what it is. It’s not dance music that’s just about, ‘Ooh, I’m in the club and everyone’s looking at me.’ It means something. I’m not just sitting here trying to sell glitz and glamour ... because no one lives that life. A lot of (pop) songs are super shallow, but this music isn’t.”
As an example, Cyrus cites the album track “Liberty Walk,” about someone who finds the courage to leave an abusive relationship. She says she doesn’t have a formal process for songwriting, instead preferring to take notes on her cell phone or in the journal she keeps on her computer.
“With anything — the clothes I wear or the way I want to look — I don’t plan it,” Cyrus says. “Even with the video (for “Can’t Be Tamed”) I had the treatment, but beyond that, it was whatever comes. We didn’t have all the choreography set in stone because I didn’t want it to end up looking fake and polished. Everything in life has to come naturally or I feel like it’s just been done.”
For Cyrus, being authentic may be the key to her success as she transitions to adulthood.
“The challenge is: How do these pop teen idols mature without alienating their fans — those that supported you on the way up, including the parents, who often shelled out the dough for the music and the concerts?” Ross asks. “Miley is in good company. After Britney (Spears) appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in the infamous hot pants that created a boycott of her music and the release of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U,’ she took a tremendous amount of heat. But as long as the audience perceives that the artist is in control of their image, they’re likely to be more forgiving. With Christina (Aguilera), when she put out ‘Dirrty,’ that also created a media storm, but she reeled it back in when she reinvented herself with the torch songs and the ballads.”
“Hannah Montana,” the TV show that made Cyrus a household name, is coming to an end. (The fourth and final season of the series will air this summer.) For Cyrus, its conclusion comes with a mixture of exultation and relief. But it’s relief tinged with the knowledge that the end of the TV show just frees Cyrus for more work.
“It’s hard when you’re doing a show and you’re going to London for two days and then you come back and you’re doing the show again,” she says. “I can kind of bounce around everywhere and I don’t really have something that’s tying me back here.”
A big part of the appeal of “Hannah Montana” was seeing her flip between the two characters she portrayed on the show: schoolgirl by day, pop star by night. The same could be said of Cyrus, as she’s formed some teenage pop-culture opinions in her downtime from stardom. Lady Gaga gets a thumbs-up — “unlike a lot of artists, all her music does mean something to her personally” — and she can’t quite find it in herself to suspend her belief enough to watch “Glee,” even though the show featured her hit “The Climb” in a recent episode.
“Honestly, musicals? I just can’t. What if this was real life and I was just walking down the street on Rodeo Drive and all of a sudden I just burst into song about how much I love shoes?” She pauses for a second, and then laughs. “It would get hits on YouTube.”
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters