Lee: Hey Sheely, let’s Overthink Miley Cyrus’s hit single, “Party in the USA.”
First question: is this song even worth Overthinking?
Sheely: I definitely think so. I think the better question is do YOU really think this song is worth Overthinking? I know that on previous podcasts, you have admitted to selecting pieces of pop culture that are especially stupid or banal to subject to close scrutiny. I think you used your Musical Talmud of the Black Eyed Peas song, “I Gotta Feeling,” as an example of this.
Do you think that “Party in the USA” is in the same category as “I Gotta Feeling”? I liked your piece on that song, but I saw it as more of a humor piece than a piece of analysis. I don’t actually think there is a lot going on in that song either musically or lyrically, which made the Overthought analysis of it pretty ironic.
Lee: Um, dude, I was actually being serious with that piece…
Sheely: (awkward pause) Right… So, anyway, while it is tempting to lump Miley Cyrus’s catalogue into the same category, I actually think there is a lot to analyze in “Party in the USA”. Beyond (or perhaps because of it) that, I actually like the song a lot. I often find it stuck in my head, which makes me want to play it over and over again, which I see as the sine qua non of a great pop song. Of course the Biggie mashup didn’t hurt- there was one day where I probably listened to that approximately 20 times:
Lee: Holy balls, that is an incredible mashup. So, here’s my first question about the lyrics of the song: Although she “hopped off the plane at LAX” and comes from “out of town,” is the land of “fame and excess” she speaks of the entirety of the “USA” since it’s a “party in the USA”?
Sheely: You’re on the right track, but more specifically, I read this as being about the “two Americas”.” It could be called red state vs. blue state, but it is probably more apt to describe this divide as “folksy heartland” vs. “coastal elitism.” (Sidebar: I don’t know if you watch “30 Rock,” but they actually dealt with this topic two weeks ago, when Liz and Jack went down to Stone Mountain Georgia to search for the new TGS actor).
Lee: (Continuing sidebar: I do watch “30 Rock,” and though I haven’t seen that particular episode, I can cite many examples of “30 Rock” and the heartland/coastal elite divide. Kenneth the Page’s character basically exists to provide that on an ongoing basis. Plus there was Liz Lemon’s high school reunion, which ended with her basically saying, “F-you, red staters. Have fun at IHOP, I’m getting back on my private jet and going back to New York City.” Good stuff.)
Cyrus is the very epitome of this divide, actually. She was born in Tennessee, but tried for years to lose her Southern accent. Her celebrity alter ego, Hannah Montana, is the obvious stand-in for the coastal elite within her. And she’s well aware of this dualism: during her “Best of Both Worlds” tour, she performed as BOTH Cyrus and Montana. She certainly knows that the Hannah Montana character can’t last forever, which is why she’s furthering her status as an independent adult artist under her own name as opposed to a Disney character.
Now this is where things get interesting: in one way, her transition from Montana to Cyrus is a sort of heartland to elite transition. Wholesome Disney character for young audiences becomes adult pop star. She abandons innocence and embraces the decadent coastal elite lifestyle. But it also works the other way around: in “Party in the USA,” she transitions from young Cyrus, heartland red-stater, to a pseudo-Montana adult Cyrus, LA elitist celebrity.
She really does want the “Best of Both Worlds.”
Sheely: You know, that was also the title of an R. Kelly & Jay-Z collaboration.
Lee: I repeat, Holy Balls. Anyway, so if we take that concept of Cyrus transitioning to an adult, coastal elite, then it seems like Cyrus moves to LA, parties to the music of Jay-Z and Britney, establishes herself as a celebrity, and then uses her power of fame to project her coastal realization of a “Party in the USA” to a national audience.
Sheely: It’s actually more complicated than that. Let’s take a look at this through the lens of theories of state and nation-building.
Lee: *Sigh* Again with the political science.
Sheely: Shut it. Now, you describe something akin to “internal colonization,” the process by which the influence of a capital city (in this case, the cultural capital of Los Angeles) spreads its influence (and its method of partying) to the hinterlands. Instead, I see this more as an example of “reverse colonization,” a process in which diverse communities in the interior are brought under a unified set of political institutions and a common culture. In fact, Cyrus goes one step further by appropriating two of the key cultural touchstones of our urban landscape–hip hop and hipster friendly indie pop–to actually replace both of these pieces of the mainstream culture with her brand of “American values.” That is her nationwide “Party in the USA.”
Lee: Huh? Musically, this seems like a pretty straightforward pop song to me. Where are you getting the hip hop and indie pop from? Obviously, she references Jay-Z in the lyrics, but that seems to be the extent of those two genre’s representation in this song.
Sheely: Allow me to explain. Let’s start by examining the reference to “Jay-Z songs.” Now, it turns out that when asked about it, she claims she’s “never heard a Jay-Z song”:
I guess I knew in the back of my head that she doesn’t write her own songs, but I was struck by how blunt she was about this, saying “I’ve never heard a Jay-Z song” and that she only picked the song “Party in the USA” to launch her new clothing line.
Lee: Well, she actually does write some of her own songs, but this wasn’t one of them. Nevertheless, you’re ascribing some agency to Cyrus for this reference to Jay-Z?
Sheely: Yes, and here’s why. She’s obviously lying about never having heard a Jay-Z song. She was at the Grammies, and Jay-Z definitely performed there. It certainly seems like the claim that she has never heard a Jay-Z song is actually rhetorical stance that is often used by rappers: denigrating someone by not even acknowledging their existence. When rappers do this in diss tracks, it’s to signal that the target of the diss isn’t even on their level. In this case, she’s not really trying to say that she’s a better rapper than Jay-Z; rather, it is to draw a qualitative distinction. She is such a down to earth, wholesome, middle-America girl that she hasn’t ever even heard a song by the most famous rapper in America.
Lee: So that’s how she appropriates, then replaces hip-hop in the process of “reverse colonization.”
Sheely: Exactly. But this appopriation and substitution of hip hop doesn’t end with the Jay-Z dissing. There are some musical elements that seem to take their cue from modern R&B/hip hop. The first is what appears to be a melodic quote of T-Pain’s second single, “I’m Sprung”:
Specifically, the melodic quote in “Party in the USA” first shows up about 26 seconds into the first verse, when she sings the line “”This is all so crazy/Everybody Seems so Famous.”
Lee: Yes, the similarity is there, but it’s also an extremely common melodic trope in all western music (three ascending whole step intervals).
Sheely: *Sigh* Again with the music theory. OK, if not that, then what about the autotune, that staple of modern R&B/hip-hop? In contrast to the other Miley songs that I have heard, which use autotune mostly for pitch correction, the use in this song is much more overt, like in a T-Pain song.
Lee: Okay, I do hear the autotune. But I hear it used excessively everywhere these days, even in the soundtrack to that damned show “Glee” that you seem to love so much.
Sheely: LEAVE GLEE OUT OF THIS.
Lee: Fine. So for the sake of discussion, let’s ascribe the Jay-Z diss, the T-Pain melody reference and the use of autotune as Cyrus’ ways of appropriating hip hop into her style. So where’s the indie-pop?
Sheely: Glad you asked. It turns out that the lead writer and producer on this song is Dr. Luke, who is best known for producing Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”. This makes a lot of sense- not only does he have a history of integrating hip hop and pop (see his recent work with Flo Rida), but he also has dabbled in appropriating stylistic elements of contemporary underground rock (compare the bridge of “Since U Been Gone” with “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). I think that is part of what made the song so appealing to me- the combination of the autotuned vocals and synth textures essentially turns this into an electro indiepop song that isn’t all that far off from one of my favorite albums of the year, by an indie band called Discovery.
Lee: Good point. The more I listened to the song, the more the synth part reminded me of the song “1901” by Phoenix, which as you know, is the theme song for your excellent “These F***ing Teenagers” podcast about bad TV shows “Glee” and “Gossip Girl.”
Sheely: LEAVE GOSSIP GIRL OUT OF THIS. You just crossed the line, mister.
Lee: I got you riled up now, huh? I’m just getting started.
There’s another part of all of this that I think you’re missing, but which you might have picked up on if you hadn’t been so proud of yourself for your clever little reverse colonization theory. Miley released a song called “Party in the USA” in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The USA is decidedly not having a party right now. Doesn’t that strike you as a little curious?
Sheely: Reverse colonialism! Reverse colonialism!
Lee: You are such a one-trick-pony. So there’s another piece of the above interview that I think reveals something important about this song, which you totally ignored. When she talks about having never heard a Jay-Z song, she mentions the clothing line that she is using the song to promote. What she doesn’t mention is that the clothing line is for Walmart. When viewed in the context of Walmart’s recent ad campaigns that attempt to position Walmart as an alternative to wasteful excess, then the possiblility of having a new kind of “Party in the USA” makes a lot more sense. As long as you buy bargain clothes and hold on to your traditional heartland values, this isn’t a recession–it is a party!
Sheely: You know, Wal-Mart is actually a great example of reverse colonialism. It came from the hinterland of Arkansas, appropriated mainstream things like keeping labor costs to a bare minimum and using uber-efficient supply chain and distribution management to make a massive profit.
Lee: *Sigh.* I give up. Fine, it’s all one big statement on reverse colonialism. And Miley Cyrus is the future of rock and roll.
Sheely: I knew you’d come around.