CD Review of Breakout by Miley Cyrus
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Hilary Duff, The Jonas Brothers, Ashlee Simpson
Miley Cyrus: Breakout

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


here was a time in the not-too-distant past when Hollywood Records was one of the biggest jokes in the record industry – aside from lucking into the Queen catalog immediately prior to the band’s improbable early ‘90s resurgence, everything the label touched turned to shit; if you were a Hollywood artist, the only thing more certain than your record tanking was the inevitable annual rumor about Disney finally pulling the plug on the whole shebang.

Times, to say the least, have changed. Hollywood has put together quite the hot-selling roster over the last few years – and they’ve done it by going back to something Disney has always done extremely well: selling sanitized teen sexuality to kids.

That’s admittedly a fairly crass way of summing up the house Uncle Walt built, but it’s true – ask the male Boomers in your life about watching the letters on Annette Funicello’s “Mickey Mouse Club” t-shirt slowly distance themselves from one another, or spend a little time reliving the adventures of the studio’s countless nubile, yearning-to-be-domesticated princesses. Disney seemed to lose its way a bit in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, unsure of how to rebrand its quaint, corny wares in a colder, more cynical era, but they quickly discovered that the answer was to turn out colder, more cynical product – and Hollywood Records’ 21st-century business model has done this brilliantly. By targeting the under-16 set – the only music-loving demographic that can still be reliably counted on to actually, you know, pay for music – the label has made pop stars out of such unlikely candidates as Hilary Duff and Ashley Tisdale, and sent its balance sheets soaring into the black during a time of widespread industry panic.

Here’s the thing about kids, though: they grow up fast, and it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever they’re screaming about today will be totally lame tomorrow. As teen idols from Fabian to the New Kids have learned, it’s one thing to score a few hits with the pre-driver’s license crowd; it’s quite another to stay on their radar into adulthood. Making that transition is one of the trickiest moves in pop, and it’s swallowed countless careers whole – but it’s a bridge that’s impossible to avoid, and at the ripe old age of 15, Miley Cyrus, the jewel in the Hollywood Records crown, takes her first steps across it with Breakout.

Cyrus is, of course, no stranger to the vagaries of teen starlet sexuality – she’s had a series of almost completely innocuous photos leaked, not to mention the whole fluffed-up scandal over the Annie Liebovitz shoot for “Vanity Fair,” and she, like Britney and Xtina, has gotten a firsthand look at how easy it is to fan the twin, all-American flames of Puritanism and lust. As you might expect, she doesn’t come anywhere near her famous photos’ slightly racy territory here – Breakout’s focus remains fully on teenage concerns – but the musical and production ingredients thrown into the mix are as grown-up as they come; in the admittedly very narrow context of the genre, this is one supremely savvy little pop record. Taken out of that context, of course, it all falls apart – but that’s beside the point; listening to Breakout in the hopes of finding a gem for the ages would be as foolish as listening to the Go-Gos’ Vacation and expecting Blood on the Tracks.

Miley CyrusThe Go-Go’s reference is deliberate, by the way – although the majority of Breakout is built from the same brightly colored Lucite blocks used to create similar tween-targeted product, it also shows a few bursts of classic early ‘80s girl pop, starting with the title track, which was co-written by none other than Gina Schock. During a few of the album’s more rocking moments, when Cyrus launches into her full-throated wail, she even sounds like she could be Pat Benatar’s granddaughter. (That sentence originally ended with “niece,” proving that this writer, alas, is older than he feels.) The ‘80s vibe builds through a synth-frosted cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and reaches its apex with “Fly on the Wall,” a wonderfully odd, New Wave-ish rave-up that starts off with fuzzy synths and handclaps. (It’s worth noting that “Fly” was produced by Matthew Wilder; like Schock and Robbie Nevil, he knows there’s better money in working behind the scenes for Disney product than schlepping his own gear on ‘80s package tours. Come on in, Howard Jones – the water is warm.)

Alas, “Disney” and “odd” tend to be mutually exclusive, and Hollywood didn’t beef up its market share by doodling outside the margins, so most of Breakout’s back half falls within the MOR guidelines established by focus groups and Cyrus’ forebears. The album’s more pedestrian moments – like the laughably over-the-top power ballad “Bottom of the Ocean,” or “Wake Up America,” an eco-anthem loaded up with enough lyrical clichés to choke Jon Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams in a single listen – aren’t completely without their merits, and it’s wonderful to hear a female pop singer who doesn’t try to stuff a dozen notes into every line, but about halfway through, the album starts to lose its steam.

All in all, it shouldn’t win any Grammys, but as first tentative steps into musical adulthood go, it’s certainly better than, say, Debbie Gibson’s Body Mind Soul – and as a piece of thoroughly overproduced pop product, it’s probably one of the smarter releases we’re going to hear this year. Your kids would still be better served listening to Coltrane or the Stones, but if they’re susceptible to this kind of thing, you don’t need to worry; they’re in good – or at least perfectly competent – hands.

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