Pricey, sweet shriekfest

By SEAN DALY, Times Pop Music Critic
Published November 20, 2007

TAMPA -- You'd think the sound of thousands of preteen girls shrieking in unison for more than two hours would be a jarring, disorienting noise. And, well, you'd be absolutely right.

But if you looked beyond the tinnitus and the parents with napkins stuffed in their ears, there was a resounding sweetness to the deafening hysteria generated by 18,061 people at Monday's sold-out Hannah Montana show at the St. Pete Times Forum.

For all the consumer madness leading up to the big night, in the end the kids just wanted to dance and sing and scream REALLY, REALLY LOUD, soaking up a defining point in their childhoods with gonzo gusto. And you better believe the 14-year-old phenom on stage, sucking wind and sweating aplenty for 80 minutes, gave back just as much G-rated glee and pogo-hopping energy as she was given.

As a kids show, it was a pretty darn fun one.

As to whether Mommy and Daddy had a swell time, too, that's a different story.

Getting tickets to the hottest act of 2007 was an ordeal that turned parents into scavenging lunatics - and scalpers into mustache-twirling villains.

Hannah Montana, a fictional Disney Channel pop star played by ever-smiley actress-singer Miley Cyrus, is the patron saint of the powerful 8-to-12 set. Tickets to the Best of Both Worlds Tour sold out in mere minutes. Ticket brokers, who managed to gobble up a great number of seats, were asking as much as $4,000-plus for a single front-row spot. Grownups complained. Investigations were launched.

Oy, the hullabaloo.

There will almost certainly be fallout from the Hannah Montana tour, as the way we buy and sell concert tickets is being scrutinized like never before. But let's save that ugliness for another time, okay? For those lucky enough to get into the show, all that mattered was the moment.

Cyrus, the daughter of country star Billy Ray Cyrus, split her over-the-top, spare-no-sparklers spectacle into two slick parts. With iconic blond wig aflutter, she first appeared as sitcom sensation Hannah Montana. Next to me, a wee girl cried, "I love you, Hannah!"

Forty minutes later, Cyrus returned as her "real" self - "Meet Miley," the umpteen video screens flashed - which came off as a symbolic transition and one smart business choice. Cyrus is positioning herself to guide your kiddos from their tweens to their teens, and hopefully prolong a career past training bras and braces. Sooner rather than later, that blond wig is coming off for good. But maybe it won't matter. The wee girl beside me didn't miss a beat: "I love you, Miley!"

So what's the big difference between Hannah and Miley -- besides that unfortunate hairpiece? As far as I could tell, Hannah sings utterly benign, maniacally catchy rock songs about 1) partying, 2) good self-esteem, 3) boys and 4) more partying. (These parties still feature balloons, mind you.) Miley, on the other hand, does all this while wearing a leather jacket. The crowd might have been a little quieter for Miley's set, but you could chalk that up to the approach of bedtime.

Backed by dozens of singers and dancers, not to mention a full band and an arsenal of special effects, Hannah/Miley worked through tons of tunes and just as many costume changes, none of which revealed more skin than a knobby little knee.

She efficiently knocked out all the guitar-chuggy numbers from her two multiplatinum albums: I Got Nerve,Just Like You,Nobody's Perfect and the rather clever East Northumberland High, which borrows some slick Beach Boys harmonizing. Disney's fleet of songwriters, especially Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil, are secret weapons for sure, and could certainly give a tutorial on building pop songs that stick in your melon.

When the High School Musical concert blew through town last year (another Disney cash cow), there was a slimy feeling to that sold-out show, a sell job that stank of infomercial. Cyrus and opening act the Jonas Brothers (get ready to pay for these shaggy cuties really soon) constantly reminded us who they were, but never at the expense of the entertainment. They might not be fully realized musicians just yet, but they plan to be.

And give credit to Cyrus for really singing - no Britney lip-syncing for this down-home gal. She closed the show strumming an acoustic guitar and warbling the ballad I Miss You. Without the help of background singers and buzzing synthesizers, her voice was a little shrilly, a little pitchy, but altogether charming, as adorable as her sparkly eyes.

So after all this, was the show worth $4,000? Well, that all depends on who's shrieking the answer.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.