With last week's announcement of a new Hannah Montana show next March, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo rode in like the U.S. Cavalry to the rescue of many an embittered suburban parent of a tween girl.
It's been a while since there has been such hysteria for any tour. Two state attorneys general have probed fraud allegations against ticket-scalping companies, and even the Federal Reserve Bank issued a report weighing in on the matter. Meanwhile, sad tales abound of both robotic and human scalpers rampant in the land, and clench-jawed parents direly fraught in their determination to score tickets.
Even members of the Hannah Montana fan club — who had been promised first crack at presale tickets over the phone and on the Net — failed to obtain them, even if they employed multiple buyers working the phones and keyboards from the opening gun, or were first in line at the box office.
A man in Indianapolis told that city's newspaper that most of the people in line with him for tickets looked suspiciously more like squeegee men than parents of suburban tweens. But that old-fashioned human-based scalping seems almost quaint today. The real action is with the ticket-buying 'bots and the secondary Internet ticket brokers.
The reason you fan club members never got a crack at a ticket in the presale was that just about every last one of them had been sucked over by spam/scalp robots — just call them SCAMPs — to any one of a bevy of secondary sales sites. Where, of course, they were priced exponentially higher. (One especially dirty trick these companies are alleged to have used was to have computers tie up the phone lines so few actual buyers could get through to buy tickets at face value.)
The L.A. Times reported that front-row seats for the show in that city were available at one site for $1,945 each, while other reports have surfaced of similar seats going for as much as $3,000. It's gotten so bad that StubHub (to its credit) sent out an e-mail blast advising potential buyers on the best way to avoid paying such extortionate prices at their own site.
Here in town, a friend, the parent of a ten-year-old girl, told me one of her daughter's softball games had been canceled due to Hannah-induced absenteeism on the night. My daughter just turned three last month, and while she can't be said to be a fan, she recognizes Hannah Montana at a glance.
So the demand level for Hannah is sky-high. Sadly for some, the supply is not.
Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel TV show, has an estimated four million viewers. The ongoing 54-city tour combined offers only (roughly) 675,000 seats. And you have to remember that an even smaller fraction of actual Hannah Montana fans will be getting tickets. By my own (very rough) estimate, somewhere between 30 and 45 percent of the attendees at all these shows will be adult chaperones.
But the question is, why?
My best guess is that this is merely a singularly skilled retelling of the Cinderella folktale. This has, of course, been one of Disney's stocks-in-trade since Old Walt's day, but none of them have caught on this successfully since the original. I think in this case, you have to give credit to both Miley Cyrus, the 14-year-old actress who plays Hannah, and her father Billy Ray, the once widely reviled country singer who crooned the earworm smash hit "Achy Breaky Heart" from beneath one of the crowning jewels in the universal mullet pantheon.
On the show, Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, persecuted nerd supreme in her junior high. Little do her detractors know that donning a magic platinum-blond wig transforms Stewart into Hannah Montana, sparkly pop star princess of the whole wide world. This formula — the "If only my true inner beauty could be revealed to a cruel world" meme — has worked since when, exactly?
Ever since the dawn of time, apparently, as a variant of Cinderella called Arinasa del Anne was first recorded by the Greek Historian Strabo 100 years before the birth of Christ. Even then it was an old folktale passed down by slaves in Egypt through the generations. The story also has variants not just in the West, but also in India, Japan, China and Malaysia.
It even has its own category in the exhaustive Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system. While other folktales are classified with rough plot descriptors such as "AT 49 — The bear and the honey" or "AT 157 — Learning to fear men," type 510AB is simply called "Cinderella stories."
Every generation needs its retelling of Cinderella, as Disney has always known, and today's version is Hannah Montana. All those millions — mostly girls between six and 12 — tune in every week, each one of them fantasizing later in their bedroom mirrors that they too are pop princesses in waiting.
Cyrus wrings the Cinderella myth for every last drop. In addition to using it as the TV show's central motif, Cyrus employs it on the road. This tour is called The Best of Both Worlds, and she is billed both as Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus, the "real Hannah Montana."
In addition to playing off the Cinderella myth, this dual role has the added benefit of (perhaps) extending her career beyond her core audience's tween years. Billy Ray may look dumb and his breakout hit certainly was, but he's always been more savvy than people think. One of these days, and it won't be long, Cyrus will shelve Hannah and go "solo" as Miley Cyrus, which just might keep her selling platinum an extra four or five years.
In the meantime, Cyrus/Montana goes to great lengths to include her young fans in her own living-out of the Cinderella myth. In "Just Like You," a song on her first album, Cyrus sings "I'm a lucky girl whose dreams came true, but underneath it all I'm just like you."
In an interview last month, Cyrus hammered the point home for those few who still did not get it. "I'm blessed. What more can I say...I'm like Cinderella going to the ball. And I get to sing and entertain my fans, and have fun with my friends. But like Cinderella, I do have a curfew. I can't stay out late and party. Oh no, not in my family."
See? She's always in by midnight, just like Cinderella, and just like you.
And quotes like that send a dual message. She's not just expressing solidarity with all those would-be Cinderellas out there, but also telling their parents that she's no threat, no age-inappropriate, gyrating sexpot Pussycat Doll. She's not trying to appeal to the girls who just put down their tarted-up Bratz dolls and picked up their first ill-gotten wine coolers and Virginia Slims.
Second, she's politely distancing herself from those damaged damsels closer to her age, the fallen Cinderellas whose every coke-addled car crash, leaked Internet sex tape, bout with anorexia and crotch-flash have been feeding the equally rapacious and salacious media for lo, this entire decade.
Unlike them, Cyrus's life has boundaries. She has lines you don't cross, not lines you snort, consequences that don't involve utter public humiliation and millions of people demanding to know what sort of monsters raised this hellcat.
And the drooling maw of the American public never seems to tire of dark epilogues to Cinderella stories. No, apparently there's little we love more than when these strumpets linger too long at the ball, the clock tolls 12 doom-laden bells and these would-be Marie Antoinettes see their fairy-cake carriages turn to rotten, pungent pumpkins. Who did that little bitch think she was? asks the little demon on our shoulder.
Were it not so, many a cubicle at the offices of Star, Entertainment Tonight, VH-1 and E! would empty; there would be many an awkward pause on The View; and Perez Hilton would melt away shrieking in a turgid vat of acrid goo.
Hannah's a world away from all that sleaze, so who can blame parents for encouraging their daughters to be her fans?
Certainly not me, up to a point — say, face value of the ticket price times two. But come on, people. You are actually shelling out four figures for your little dears to sit on the front row at these shows?
Have they been sick? Have they lost a loved one recently? Did they spend the last year making straight A's and spending all their free time selling hand-squeezed lemonade and handing over the proceeds to Darfur relief? Do they really, really deserve to be lavished with a gift that costs more than the average American makes in a month?
Or is it that we as parents have simply chosen to insulate our children from any and all disappointment?
Or worse still, is some of this even about our children at all?
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I have a sneaking suspicion that a number of those who have bid up prices to these astronomical levels are people who just can't wait to get at the other moms in the play group with a little comment like this: "My gosh, it sure was hard getting those Hannah Montana tickets for Grace. I called and called and called but I never got through, and I had Maria go down and wait in line for us, but she couldn't get a ticket either. So I went on eBay and they had some front-row seats there, and well..."
Of course, you wouldn't be so gauche as to let slip how much you paid for them — unless, of course they pried it out of you via Chardonnay-boarding — but you would have the satisfaction of knowing that they know.
And as for those girls who cannot go because the likes of you have raised the price through the roof, there's your true Cinderellas right there, staying at home crying their eyes out.