This past Friday marked the eleventh anniversary of the premiere of Hannah Montana, a milestone (if you’ll forgive the pun) that was utterly unremarkable yet which nonetheless garnered its own trending hashtag on Twitter. I am not sure why. Our pop culture media cycle seems to thrive off of this stuff: aging Millennials obsessing over the tick of the clock, geeking out over the inexorable march of time: every month brings some more dust in the wind, yet another television show or lame pop album or Internet meme that came into its own when we were juniors in high school. We get it, people: you grew up with this stuff. Nobody cares. Anyway, happy anniversary, Hannah Montana.
What a difference a decade makes. When Miley Cyrus first broke onto the scene in 2006, she expertly melded the bubbly innocence of a post-Eisnerian Disney starlet with the smoky charm of a two-generations-from-shirtsleeves Tennessee fescue redneck—and her music wasn’t really all that terrible, if you were willing to hold your nose and just enjoy some corporate pop (and the occasional guest track from Billy Ray). Those days are long gone: she is now, and has been for some time, a weird, capering kind of celebrity monster, someone who is seemingly incapable of keeping her tongue in her mouth, who talks openly about ingesting semen, whose own now-pathetic musical catalog makes ample use of creepy oversize stuffed bears, nonsensical gross-out imagery and other unimaginative and talentless hack conventions, who has embraced a kind of moneyed white trash aesthetic that incorporates inflatable furniture and dinosaur fantasy pajamas, who glorifies drug use up to and including ecstasy, and who has—of course!—adopted the tiresome conventions of postrevolutionary sexual politics.
There is an understanding within our society that this kind of thing—this brutal collapse of the moral and psychological center—tends to happen most acutely to child stars, particularly those whose success is meteoric enough be almost lottery-like and who can thereby more readily afford, both literally and figuratively, their bouts of folly or indigence. But not all child celebrity tragedies are created the same: Drew Barrymore’s substance abuse-soaked childhood (over which she eventually triumphed) is more heartbreaking than anything, as is Michael Jackson’s entire life arc (though he at least had the dignity to pretend that nothing much had changed about him). Miley Cyrus is a different breed of mess: her own spiral downward appears to be an actively, eagerly chosen one, like a sixteen-year-old who discovers and fully embraces a lame Goth subculture. There was no need for this, nor is there any kind of real explanation for it. And yet here we are.
Miley Cyrus’s rather grotesque transformation from normal human into the unnerving spectacle we see today says something not merely or even mostly about Cyrus herself, who is, after all—at least by the standards of lower-class exhibitionism and self-indulgence—utterly unremarkable (not counting her immense wealth, anyway). Her metamorphosis is rather an uncomfortable commentary on us—on a society that not simply tolerates this crude Caligulan depravity but glorifies it, rewards it, encourages it. When you think back on the celebrity affairs of midcentury America, they seem so quaint by comparison: the tawrdry marital history of Elizabeth Taylor was a scandal at the time but would be positively reactionary for someone like Cyrus today. We’ve moved our pop culture Overton Window several feet over the past few decades, so much so that a young woman can almost literally make a career out of this. Who would of thought there could really be any money in such a spectacle? I guess Miley Cyrus did, and to her credit she was right.
We are, by many measures, a civilization in ascendance: we are living longer, healthier, happier lives, with more comfort and convenience and ease than every human being before us; we are the heirs of a political order the stability of which is virtually unheard of in human history; we have it not simply good but Good. A sleazy celebrity story arc looks positively irrelevant by comparison, and in most ways it is. Nonetheless it is something of a mystery, and a profound one at that: what causes someone to behave this way, and what causes millions more people to revel in it and spend unconscionable sums of money on it? I am not sure. Probably it does not matter, not even to Miley Cyrus herself. But it is a question worth asking. Think about it, as the twelfth year dawns in the age of Hannah Montana.