SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” Is Her First No. 1 Song in a Decade

It’s been a long road back, but a bit of celebrity gossip carried her the final mile.

Until a few days ago, I thought I was going to be writing in this space about a chart-topper by Solána Imani Rowe, the artist who calls herself SZA. Since late December, SZA has had the top album in America. She released her long-awaited, widely hailed sophomore LP SOS just before Christmas and has dominated the Billboard 200 for six weeks now, fending off Taylor Swift’s megablockbuster Midnights and setting chart benchmarks in the process—SOS is the first R&B album by a woman to be No. 1 for that long since Janet Jackson’s self-titled Janet nearly three decades ago. On the Hot 100, the SZA album’s lead single, the bubbly-emo murder ballad “Kill Bill,” rose as high as No. 2 and appeared ready to eject Swift’s long-dominant “Anti-Hero” from the penthouse. To put “Kill Bill” over the edge and score SZA’s first ever No. 1 song, her label was pulling out all the stops, dropping a Tarantino-esque music video and even juicing the song’s digital data with a four-track “bundle” of remixes.

And then Miley Cyrus had to go and buy herself some “Flowers.” The song of that title crashes onto the Hot 100 at No. 1, giving the former teen queen of the aughts and enfant terrible of the early ’10s her first pop topper in nearly a decade.


My sympathies for SZA aside, I’m actually happy for Cyrus. She’s spent the decade since her previous—and, until now, only—No. 1 hit, the explosive torch ballad “Wrecking Ball,” in a bit of a self-created pop wilderness, searching for a post-child-stardom sound to call her own. I’m not sure she’s really found that signature sound with “Flowers,” a pleasant, serviceably catchy lite-disco track that’s kinda hopping on Harry Styles’ sonic bandwagon. It probably could’ve been a hit for any number of pop stars. But what Miley Cyrus, now 30, brings to “Flowers” is personality, her uniquely husky voice, and a bit of seen-some-shit gossipy backstory, the kind that made Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” a smash two Januarys ago.

The short answer to the question we ask ’round these parts—why is this song No. 1?—is that “Flowers” is blowing up in all three metrics that comprise the Hot 100. The early warning that this song was going to open big came late last week from Spotify, which announced that Cyrus’s jam had set a new all-time weekly streaming record: more than 100 million streams globally in seven days, breaking the previous mark set by BTS’s 2021 smash “Butter.” (Note: Some of this is pure technology adoption—Spotify is now used by more people in general than it was two years ago, and this record is probably going to be reset several more times in the next few years—but that doesn’t diminish the Cyrus song’s stunning achievement.) When Billboard announced the new Hot 100 a couple of days later, “Flowers” was predictably the week’s top streamer, with 52.6 million US streams, about 50 percent higher than SZA’s “Kill Bill.” In digital sales, “Flowers” shifted 70,000 dollar-downloads, the biggest one-week sales total since Swift’s “Anti-Hero” arrived last fall. And finally, the song opens to a radio audience of nearly 34 million, immediately placing it 18th in airplay after just one week. That’s already the best any Cyrus single has done at radio in a decade, since her post–Hannah Montana, late-’00s–early-’10s heyday.

As magnificent as the song’s grand entrance is, if you’ve been watching her career, its instant success feels fluky. Why this song? Since “Wrecking Ball” hit No. 1 in the fall of 2013, Cyrus has been issuing music pretty regularly but hasn’t scored any major smashes. And a few of the songs were legit bops (or, as she called them on her 2013 album, Bangerz). In 2020, I particularly liked “Midnight Sky,” an appealingly ’80s-sounding hit that one critic aptly described as Stevie Nicks fronting Depeche Mode. In a year when the Weeknd was riding ’80s vibes to a massive hit, “Midnight Sky” should’ve crushed on the charts, but it peaked at an unremarkable No. 14. Cyrus’s followup single, the Pat Benatar–esque “Prisoner,” featured vocals by Dua Lipa at her hitmaking peak but stalled at No. 54.

I wouldn’t call “Flowers” enormously catchier than those prior hits, but it is right on trend. Cyrus generated it with some heavyweight electropop svengalis. She co-wrote the song with Michael Pollack and Gregory “Aldae” Hein, journeymen who’ve penned numerous hits including several Justin Bieber tracks; in particular, Pollack co-wrote Bieber’s “Ghost,” a massive pop-radio hit last spring that has a bit of “Flowers” in its DNA. The even more telling collaborators are the song’s producers, whom I’ve discussed in this series before: Thomas “Kid Harpoon” Hull and Tyler Johnson, the masterminds behind Harry Styles’ chart conquest. Hull and Johnson were the ones who shifted Styles from a classic rock–indebted sound to beachy, radio-friendly technopop, and they’ve basically pulled the same trick for Cyrus. The dreamy, percolating “Flowers” sounds like an unofficial sequel to “Watermelon Sugar,” a summery vibe reinforced by the sultry, skin-baring video, much of which finds Miley lounging poolside in a two-piece that’s closer to lingerie than a bikini.

But whoever Cyrus worked with, lyrically and sentimentally, the song’s all her. As the tabloid media has chronicled in exhaustive detail, “Flowers” is a kiss-off to a former lover that, for all sorts of reasons, is almost surely directed at Cyrus’s ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth. Frankly, I find some of the “clues” fans have been digging up to affirm this about as believable as Beatles-era “Paul Is Dead” lore, but there are enough Easter eggs that, in the post–Taylor Swift era of social-media hint-dropping, you have to believe Cyrus is intentional enough to try this gambit to promote a brokenhearted single. So let’s just accept, Occam’s Razor–style, that Hemsworth is the song’s target. Like “Drivers License,” a song speculated to be about an unfaithful boyfriend that exploded when it arrived two years ago, maybe we are all just bored enough in January to want a juicy diversion.

In any case, what makes the song irresistible even to casual radio listeners not fully plugged into celeb gossip is that “Flowers” is a classic, disco-style, self-love anthem. It has drawn appreciative comments from living legend Gloria Gaynor, the queen of “I Will Survive” disco resilience. Cyrus’s titular chorus hook, “I can buy myself flowers,” has been received as a feminist riposte to the 2013 Bruno Mars No. 1 “When I Was Your Man,” whose first chorus line went, “I should have bought you flowers.” Actually, the whole “Flowers” chorus seems to address “Man” line for line. Mars: “Shoulda gave you all my hours.” Cyrus: “Talk to myself for hours.” Mars: “All you wanted to do was dance.” Cyrus: “I can take myself dancing.” Miley’s responses to Bruno are just lyrical allusions. Musically, she doesn’t really borrow anything else from “Man”—the drumless Mars piano ballad was part of the early-’10s New Stark wave spawned by Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which is miles removed from the electro-disco flavor of “Flowers.” But the two songs share a yearning melancholy and an old-fashioned melodicism that’s akin to country music story-songs.

Lest we forget, country music turned into trollish pop is what spawned Miley Cyrus. Literally from birth: her dad Billy Ray Cyrus, who sold his breakthrough country-pop line-dancing hit “Achy Breaky Heart” thanks to its hunky video, had a multiplatinum Top 10 pop album the week she was born in 1992. The subsequent three decades have been one long boom-then-bust-then-rebirth cycle for Miley, and understanding how she managed to come back as hard as she has this year means understanding her career’s full arc.

Miley’s breakthrough vehicle came a decade after her father’s. The Disney Channel show Hannah Montana was about the daughter of a country singer (played by Billy Ray) who, through the power of a blond wig, transformed herself into global pop sensation Hannah. In this guise, Miley tried it all: uptempo pop-rock (to this day, the 2008 Top 10 hit “See You Again” might still be my favorite of her singles), country-style balladry (“The Climb”), tween-friendly rap&B (“Gonna Get This”), and eventually, Max Martin–style megapop courtesy of maximalist producer Dr. Luke (“Party in the USA,” No. 2 in 2009). In all cases, Cyrus leaned into story-driven, self-empowerment lyrics showcasing her Southern accent over guitars and/or hip-hop beats.

In a way, the Miley Cyrus who briefly topped the charts in the mid-’10s was the anomaly—in her storytelling-meets-trolling formula, she turned up the troll dial to the max. The alluring “We Can’t Stop,” an ode to drug intake and not giving a crap co-created by famed hip-hop producer Mike Will Made It, was one of the top songs of the summer of 2013. And a big reason why was its video—a gleefully surreal clip that looked like a lurid American Apparel ad come to life: dozens of leotard and bikini-clad teen bodies writhing, hip-thrusting, and, most notably, twerking, a Black-derived booty-shaking dance Cyrus appropriated from New Orleans bounce music. The song, fueled in part by tens of millions of video views, reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 in July 2013. (It was only held out of the No. 1 spot by summer 2013’s top song, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which also benefited from a video sporting acres of unclad flesh. You may recall that an MTV performance of “Stop” and “Blurred” was where Cyrus attempted to show off her live twerking skills.) “We Can’t Stop” set up not only Miley’s chart-topping album Bangerz but also her only No. 1, “Wrecking Ball,” which benefited even more from video views. As I reported back in 2013, record YouTube clicks on Cyrus’s sledgehammers-plus-nudity clip vaulted the song to the top, from No. 22 to No. 1 in a single week. Three months later, a parody video by a Chatroulette user named Stephen Kardynal, riding a wrecking ball in the nude in his own home, racked up so many views on its own that “Wrecking Ball” went back to No. 1.

All this attention gave Cyrus hits, but it rather obscured the fact that “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” were both good songs. (Yes, even “Ball,” which was produced by Dr. Luke and whose video was directed by Terry Richardson—two men who have each been accused of sexual misconduct.) Cyrus had successfully made the delicate kid-to-adult transition on her own terms, more or less, but she became notorious in the process. A truly peculiar 2015 followup album recorded with psychedelic indie-rockers the Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, only deepened the Miley’s-gone-bizarro reputation, and the attempt at a hipster crossover earned poor reviews. Dead Petz didn’t even chart, let alone spawn hit songs.

So basically, Cyrus has been in career-rebuilding mode for the better part of a decade. The pity of her successful bird-flipping escape from the Disney machine was that it obscured her raw talent. I mark the start of Cyrus’s rehabilitation with a low-key, twangy, and mature performance of the Paul Simon hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special in 2015, which won praise of the Lady Gaga–sings–Julie Andrews, hey-wait-this-weirdo-can-sing variety. That won her a warmer welcome for her 2017 LP Younger Now, which made a brief Top Five appearance on the album chart. The sun-kissed single “Malibu” spent a single week in the Top 10 but never quite caught on at radio and was off the charts in a couple of months, as was the album. The followup, 2020’s Plastic Hearts, did far better, riding the charts more than half a year and spawning the aforementioned “Midnight Sky.”

By the evidence of the past two years, the general public seems to have maintained goodwill toward Miley so long as she keeps the trolling at a medium boil. Her now-annual televised ball-drop event, Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party on NBC, hasn’t topped ABC’s deathless Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the ratings, but it has done well enough to restore Miley’s center-of-culture reputation. The coup de grâce on this year’s Party was a stellar duet sung by Cyrus with her literal godmother Dolly Parton, a medley of Miley’s own “Wrecking Ball” into Dolly’s classic “I Will Always Love You.” The performance, widely shared in the first days of 2023, finally made the argument that, shorn of its sexy video, “Ball” is a song worthy of Dolly. And it couldn’t have been a better setup for “Flowers,” a song that—like “I Will Always Love You,” a somewhat gentler kiss-off to a former partner—gave notice to people who’ve written off Miley that it was OK to like her again. Is “Flowers” catchier than “Midnight Sky”? No, but it’s not emerging from the long shadow of a Terry Richardson video, live twerking, and an album about dead petz.

I’ve seen speculation online that, now that Miley Cyrus has made this improbable return to the top of the charts, anything is possible. Could, say, onetime chart-topper–turned–wilderness-dweller Katy Perry be next? Demi Lovato? Ke$ha? The only bad news, if any of these women are contemplating this kind of comeback: I’d recommend they wait until next January, when another winter doldrums leaves us hungry for any crumbs of relationship drama a resurgent pop star wants to drop in our mouths. The good news: That gives them 11 months to come up with something as smooth, sleek, and sassy as “Flowers.”

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