Can Miley Cyrus Save Health Care Reform?
The pop starlet's new single is great, goofy—and bipartisan!—fun.
At 16, Miley Cyrus is an actress, singer, memoirist, clothing designer, cancer-research advocate, highly ranked member of Forbes' "Superstar Earners Under 25" list, and the subject of a magazine-cover mini-scandal, twice over. Recently, she enjoyed a new career milestone when her song "Party in the USA"—released to promote not an album but a Wal-Mart-exclusive clothing line—became her highest-charting single ever, debuting at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100.
For a 21st-century multitasker like Cyrus, chart performance may seem like a quaint, outmoded measure of success—surely it's a more robust vital sign that all three colorways of her chiffon ruffle blouse have sold out at the Wal-Mart site. But the charts likely mean a lot to a girl who got famous by impersonating a stadium-packing starlet (on the Disney series Hannah Montana), whose father is a musician, too (Billy Ray), and who spent the video for her second-biggest single schlepping around a guitar case (the go-to talisman for pop moppets seeking an aura of musical credibility).
Who needs credibility, though, when you've got a song like "Party in the USA" on your hands? It's the best song of her career and the first that truly deserves its ubiquity.
At the center of the song's appeal is Cyrus' conciliatory streak. Her C.V. is full of jobs, but the one she seems to relish most is that of peace broker: She loves trying to get seemingly irreconcilable forces to hug, or at least sit together at the same lunch table.
This is Hannah Montana's underlying conceit. On the show, the irreconcilable forces in question are the contradictory demands of the public and private spheres, which coexist within a single, industrious girl: Cyrus plays a world-famous pop star who attempts to carve out a secret life as a regular Malibu, Calif., student. In Hannah Montana: The Movie, the tension between fame and privacy is echoed, geographically, in a story line that divides Hannah's time between glitzy, fast-paced Los Angeles and her modest hometown, Crowley Corners, Tenn. (Cyrus herself was born in Nashville.) The tension is ultimately resolved when Hannah throws a special benefit concert that simultaneously saves the town from encroaching developers and offers her a renewed, down-home sense of purpose.
Cyrus's mediating tendencies are on proud display in her music, too. Her single "7 Things" begins as a cathartic kiss-off to some no-good boy, listing six obnoxious traits before the big reveal—"the seventh thing I hate the most that you do: You make me love you." To those of us wishing for a righteous slab of Disney-issue girl power, this payoff is a bit dispiriting, but it's of a piece with Miley's yin-yang philosophy: "You make me laugh, you make me cry," she sings, "but I guess that's both I'll have to buy." On "Hoedown Throwdown," one of the weirdest singles to ever crack the upper reaches of the pop charts, the disparate forces drawn together are hip-hop and country music. Like "The Macarena" and "The Locomotion," "Hoedown Throwdown" is a singalong instruction manual for a new dance step. There are fiddles and banjos, a bleacher-stomping beat, and the sort of awkward, vaguely "urban" slang you typically hear thudding from the mouths of European VJs and young black people in McDonald's radio ads. "Pop it, lock it, polka-dot it," Cyrus raps on the refrain, "countrify then hip-hop it." The song is a goofy mashup of cultural signifiers at their most superficial—a train wreck in the name of brotherhood.
"Party in the USA" is something like the culmination of these earlier efforts, bigger and better. Backed by a sun-mellowed funk riff and strafed with chunky, zipping synthesizers on the chorus, Cyrus tells the apparently autobiographical story of her first trip to Los Angeles. It's a classic fish-out-of-water tale, narrated by a Dixie girl "with a dream and my cardigan." (Dispatch a Ron Herman personal shopper—everyone knows knitwear is banned west of Pasadena!) Cowed, her eyes are wide, but not so wide that she can't roll them a bit at big-city pretenses: "It's definitely not a Nashville party," she sings, " 'Cause all I see are stilettos—I guess I never got the memo!"
At the end of each verse, Cyrus hears one of her favorite songs—Jay-Z comes on the radio in the first verse, a club DJ spins Britney Spears in the second—and suddenly she's able to dance away her jitters: "So I put my hands up, they're playing my song, I know I'm gonna be OK/ Yeah-eah-eeah, it's a party in the USA."* It's a bighearted, triumphant moment, tapping the grinningly goofy populism of "Hoedown Throwdown" and mercifully jettisoning everything else. The song gives a better window into Miley Cyrus' head—and does so more entertainingly—than any other song she's released. Some credit on this score surely belongs to the song's producer and co-writer, Lukasz Gottwald, * who excels at translating the sass and anxieties of American teenage girls—with a beguiling dash of Babelfish-esque stiltedness—into Top 40 gold.
The title "Party in the USA" makes explicit what the lyrics' Nashville-to-L.A. pilgrimage and Jay-Z and Britney name-drops suggest—this isn't a mere single so much as a red state/blue state, hick/elite, rural/urban détente. Pop bliss eradicates regionalism. (This point is built ingeniously into the music, too—when Cyrus repeats the words "and a Jay-Z song was on," it's hard to say whether her mildly robotic vibrato is nodding to country music, T-Pain, or both.)
"Party in the USA" pairs a familiar notion—music brings us together—with a more timely concern. After a summer in which anti-Obama crazies brought guns to town hall meetings and anti-government crazies may have lynched a census worker, in which calls from the left for the president to abandon bipartisanship intensified to a roar, Miley Cyrus has decided on her most ambitious arbitration yet: She wants to heal a fractured nation, at least for three and a half minutes.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus by Michael Buckner/AMA/Getty Images for AMA.