Hilary Duff’s ‘Metamorphosis’ Turns 10: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
Some albums become iconic because they shaped the sound of an era; others are so critically lauded that they become immortalized in music history. Neither of those things happened with Hilary Duff‘s Metamorphosis, which celebrates its tenth anniversary today. (In related news: We’re all getting really old, you guys.) A slight bubblegum pop record with an obvious tween leaning, Metamorphosis received a moderate critical reception, went platinum in a few countries, and spawned just one Top 40 single, “Come Clean.” Even I feel a little funny writing about it here.
But looking back on the role the album played both in my life and in the industry, it was an important album; for the Radio Disney quotient, Metamorphosis was nothing short of a revelation. As the titular heroine on the wildly successful Disney Channel original series Lizzie McGuire, Duff was beloved by tweens, and had already tried her hand with a few one-off singles — “I Can’t Wait,” “Why Not” — and released a holiday album, Santa Claus Lane. (I still play a few of those tracks during the holidays; I cited one of them, “Tell Me A Story,” to Hilary, and she said drolly, “I don’t even remember that song. I have to go look it up now. Honestly, I hate that record — I think I blocked it out of my memory.”)
With Metamorphosis, here was an eminently likable tween role model who was transitioning into the mainstream commercial pop space from the niche kids’ market, carrying her extant fanbase along with her. She was the proto-Miley — and you could certainly make an argument that there would be no Miley without Hilary paving the way first.
As a young teenager, I loved Metamorphosis fiercely and remember it now with great fondness, but the grown-ups didn’t entirely agree, although a few grumblingly conceded its successes: AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote plainly: “Metamorphosis isn’t a record that will change the world, but like the best teen pop, it sounds right in its moment, which means it’s about as good as this kind of music gets,” while Rolling Stone‘s Jon Caramanica noted, “The best songs are so thoroughly focus-grouped that they actually transcend cliche and come out gleaming.”
But many critics blasted the album’s right to exist at all, coming on the tail end of the millennial teen pop boom, just as saccharine Max Martin productions were beginning to yield to the more muscular pop-rock of production house The Matrix, who had just begun turning out hits for Avril Lavigne and would go on to give alt-rock queen Liz Phair a wildly derided mainstream makeover. One reviewer ungenerously described Metamorphosis as “[not] bad, in an instantly disposable, amiably vacuous kind of way” and “a cynical, pocket-money grabbing exercise in faux adolescent angst.”
At that age, I was too young to care what critics had to say about my beloved Hilary, and the songs stood up on their own: “So Yesterday” was a crunchy pop-rock kiss-off, all rollicking guitars and sweetly thin harmonies but a hook that was deserving of a #1, and “Come Clean” is, well, one of the very best pop songs of that era, and anyone who disagrees is objectively dumb and wrong. (Sorry. It’s true.)
Even the album tracks are great: “Workin’ It Out” takes a loungey hook that feels cribbed from Portishead, then makes it soar with a big “Hey!” chorus moment. The likably weird, squalling “Little Voice” features a writing credit from Patrik Berger, a pop nerd hero who went on to helm “Dancing On My Own” with Robyn, “I Love It” for Icona Pop, and “You’re the One” for Charli XCX. The title track, penned by Hilary herself (at age 14), is trippy and wobbly; “Sweet Sixteen,” which served as the opening theme for that other MTV reality show, is giddy and sugary. The album plays safe — there’s none of the explicit come-hithering that characterized her older contemporaries — but it does so without feeling crippled by it.