The Ones of the ’10s: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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Miley Cyrus- “Wrecking Ball”

HIT #1: October 5, 2013

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

We start off with a closeup of Miley Cyrus’ face in a glowing white background shedding a tear, a scene inspired by the video for Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 smash “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Pretty soon, we see Cyrus on a set resembling a construction site with a sledgehammer while wearing a tank-top, underwear, and boots as a wrecking ball crash through behind her. Then, Cyrus does a lot of eye-catching moves from licking a sledgehammer to riding on a wrecking ball first with her clothes on then to increase the outrageousness of it all rides fully naked. It’s a video that’s designed to make you wonder what the fuck am I watching.

In the context of the song, the music video is utterly ridiculous. It makes absolutely no sense. Looking at the lyrics, “Wrecking Ball” is a song of heartbreak of looking back at a relationship that started out so promising before it all came crashing down. The singer is still pining after someone even though they wrecked her. Riding naked on a wrecking ball is not exactly the best representation of the lyrics. And yet the video has dwarfed many people’s viewpoints of the song me included. When I’ve thought about “Wrecking Ball” over the past eight years, I don’t think about how this person wrecked Miley Cyrus but the images I described above in the music video. 

That image was no doubt the intention. Cyrus and the music video director, the now-disgraced fashion photographer Terry Richardson, succeeded in getting people to notice “Wrecking Ball” with the video debuting to a record amount of views. It was all the culmination of a coordinated image makeover for Miley Cyrus from an innocent teen idol who came to fame from a popular Disney Channel sitcom to a more mature adult pop star, the kind of transition many famous people who get big young do when transitioning into adulthood. But with Cyrus, she really wanted you to take notice of her transition first by releasing a song devoted to unashamed debauchery then performing a sexually provocative set at the MTV Video Music Awards that became a culture war flashpoint and soon after releasing a song with a music video showing her unabashedly nude. All of it culminating in Cyrus’ first and so far only #1 hit.

Destiny Hope Cyrus was born outside Nashville right as her family was experiencing massive success. (The #1 song in America when Cyrus was born was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” a song written by her godmother Dolly Parton.) Her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, after years of struggling in the music business, found his home in country getting signed by Mercury Records and releasing his debut album Some Gave All in 1992. The album was a sensation not just in country where it launched three Top 10 country hits but also in the larger pop mainstream where it debuted at #1 spending 17 weeks there on the pop album chart selling over 9 million copies and for some reason was named the best-selling album of 1992. Its lead single, the jaunty “Achy Breaky Heart” was a #1 country hit and reached #4 on the Hot 100 in July 1992, four months before Miley was born. (It’s a 6. People seem to hate it but I think it’s OK.)

At the time, Billy Ray was part of the explosion of popularity country music was enjoying in the ‘90s buoyed by the blockbuster sales of Garth Brooks. His hit even spawned a line-dancing craze as the video shows. But as the history of pop music shows, starting your career with a goofy novelty craze hit isn’t the best way to have a long-lasting career. With his silly song and heartthrob looks, Billy Ray became an easy target for country fans as an example of the genre selling out to the mainstream. After the burst of success with Some Gave All, he wouldn’t have much success on the pop charts but was still a reliable hitmaker in country for the rest of the ‘90s landing several more Top 10 country hits. (As a guest, Billy Ray Cyrus will eventually appear in this column.)

Throughout all of this, Miley grew up in a relatively normal childhood all things considered. Raised a Southern Baptist on a farm in a large family, Cyrus early on wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps. Inspired by a production of Mamma Mia!, Cyrus quickly began her journey into show business making her acting debut with her dad on the cable series Doc at 11. She also landed a small role in Tim Burton’s 2003 film Big Fish. It was around this time when she began auditioning for a little Disney Channel show called Hannah Montana.

After being rejected the first time for being too young, Cyrus was eventually cast as the show’s title character who lives a double life as a pop star by night and a regular teen girl by day. Billy Ray was even cast as Miley’s father on the show. From its first episode in March 2006, Hannah Montana was a smash becoming the highest-rated premiere episode in Disney Channel history. The show’s success extended to the music with the first three Hannah Montana soundtrack albums, Hannah Montana, Hannah Montana 2, and Hannah Montana: The Movie, all going multi-platinum and hitting #1 thanks to major sales by kids at the time including some of the earliest members of Generation Z, my own generational cohort.

While the albums sold very well, the singles weren’t as successful which isn’t exactly surprising considering mainstream Top 40 stations tend to stay away from this kind of Radio Disney teen-pop. Many of the Hannah Montana singles didn’t chart that high with only one reaching the Top 10 which was 2009’s “He Could Be The One.” (“He Could Be The One” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) Even with the show’s popularity, Cyrus and Disney quickly began a concerted effort to establish Cyrus as an artist in her own right outside the show with the second Hannah Montana album being paired with Cyrus’ debut album Meet Miley Cyrus and released as a double album. One of the album’s singles, the heavily processed Disney-sounding “See You Again,” gave Cyrus her pop chart breakthrough peaking at #10. (It’s a 3.)

From there, Cyrus quickly became a reliable charting presence even crossing over a bit into country music thanks to her dad with the duet “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” which became a #4 country hit and peaked at #36 on the Hot 100. Her 2009 single “The Climb,” a soundtrack cut from Hannah Montana: The Movie, followed along as a moderate country hit peaking at #25 but performed better on the Hot 100 peaking at #4. (It’s a 5.) But the big hit came later in 2009 with the Dr. Luke produced catchy pop-rock track about feeling homesick in Los Angeles and how all of Cyrus’ worries fade when she hears a JAY-Z and Britney Spears song. Thanks to major download sales, the track debuted up at and peaked at #2 behind the juggernaut that was the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” (It’s another 5.)

Cyrus was a full-fledged teen idol and like most of them immediately attempted to grow past that status and be taken more seriously by the public. Even before 2013, the transition had started by venturing into more dance-pop-oriented music with a sexier image on 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed which was met with pushback over its lyrics and Cyrus’ provocative image, a foreshadowing of what was to come. The album was a flop compared to her earlier work and its lead title single, despite debuting and peaking at #8, fell off the charts pretty quickly after only ten weeks. (“Can’t Be Tamed” is a 4.)

When Hannah Montana ended its run in 2011, Cyrus took a break from music to focus on acting mainly starring in shitty low-grossing films and appearing on shows like Punk’d and Two and a Half Men. She started getting back into music in 2012 with a series of YouTube performances known as Backyard Sessions. But by that point, Cyrus’ early fame had faded and it looked like she was gonna be another child star who’d fade from the spotlight going into adulthood. Something needed to change if Cyrus wanted to keep the public’s attention.

It was around 2012 when the transition started when Cyrus cut off and died her hair, switched managers, and switched labels. In June 2013, she released the single “We Can’t Stop” which officially debuted her new look and music. The song was more hip-hop influenced thanks to the production of Mike Will Made-It, a then-rising producer behind many big hip-hop songs. (As a lead artist, Mike Will Made-It’s highest-charting single, the 2013 Cyrus, Wiz Khalifa, and Juicy J collaboration “23,” peaked at #11. As a producer, his work will eventually appear in this column.) The lyrics tell the tale of an out-of-control party where no one gives a fuck which is fully realized in the Diane Martel-directed music video. The song generated controversy and brought Cyrus back to the pop charts peaking at #2 that summer behind “Blurred Lines,” another song with a controversial Diane Martel music video. (It’s a 3.)

The two biggest songs of summer 2013 were given a front-row showcase August 25th at the MTV Video Music Awards where Miley Cyrus first came out in a bear-type outfit performing “We Can’t Stop” while leading an army of bears. We also see Cyrus demonstrating twerking, a predominately African American dance style from the New Orleans bounce scene, as a reference to the dance shown in the music video. When the song is done, the camera cuts right to Robin Thicke walking out as “Blurred Lines” starts playing with Cyrus and Thicke going back and forth singing the song. Then, as Thicke is singing Cyrus bends down and begins twerking on Thicke to the screams of the audience below. If this was meant to get everyone’s attention then it succeeded beyond imagination.

For a while afterward, the VMA performance was all everyone could talk about. This shit was everywhere. It helped to give twerking its mainstream acceptance. The performance drew intense backlash from moral conservatives for being inappropriate on a show aimed at teenagers despite the VMAs from its very inception being known for these kinds of sexually provocative performances. They also criticized Cyrus for not being a good role model for her fans who’d grown up with her as the squeaky clean child star from Hannah Montana. Obviously, all of this criticism is bullshit but as they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The same day as the VMAs, Cyrus released her next single that was bound to get big coming off the performance, a song that was shopped to her but was something she could relate to.

The main writing for “Wrecking Ball” came from songwriters MoZella, Stephan Moccio, Sacha Skarbek, and David Kim with all of them having various successes but only Skarbek had a hand with another #1 hit co-writing James Blunt’s 2006 chart-topper “You’re Beautiful.” The song first came from MoZella who was coming off a tough breakup and put that heartache into writing. She then brought it to Moccio, Skarbek, and Kim at a songwriting session. In a Songfacts interview, Moccio remembered MoZella being very emotional during the session and that he suggested the title when he and the team were trying to come up with a strong metaphor for the song with wrecking ball being the one that stuck.

When “Wrecking Ball” was finished, the plan was for it to go to Beyoncé for her to release but MoZella wound up bringing it to Cyrus who she was already collaborating with on her new album Bangerz. Cyrus immediately connected to its lyrics as her engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth was about to end but it took a while for it to find a producer. In a 2017 Howard Stern Show interview, Cyrus recalled the song being rejected by lots of producers not interested in producing a ballad before the hit-making Dr. Luke agreed to produce though according to John Seabrook’s The Sound Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, he also didn’t think it would be a hit promising to buy Cyrus some fancy-ass toilet if the song hit #1.

You can certainly tell Dr. Luke’s influence on “Wrecking Ball.” He gives the song his typical production styles of electro-sounding beats, simple chord progressions, and a monster chorus that the song builds itself around. Really, that chorus is what makes the song what it is. It starts out quiet with fluttering synth chords before a break comes at the end of the verse and then the chorus comes in as what you could say like a wrecking ball demolishing everything in its path. Cyrus knows how big and important the chorus not even waiting after the last line in the second verse to get back to that powerful hook. As we go on, the drama builds with swelling strings that add more weight to the breakup and disappointment of the lyrics.

As someone who’s never cared much about Miley Cyrus, I think “Wrecking Ball” is an OK song. Cyrus puts her all in the song going along with the beat starting out quietly before going in hard on the chorus. She starts out singing about falling so hard in love under someone’s spell. But even as their love burned out she states she will always want this person. She didn’t want to start a war, she just wanted a loving relationship and in reflecting back realizes she should have gone along with this person and let them win. She sings about how like a wrecking ball she came in so hard in a relationship but got nothing but wrecked in the end. Cyrus said she cried when she first performed “Wrecking Ball” coming off of her breakup with Hemsworth and I can see it. 

Even with all the emotion Cyrus puts into the song, “Wrecking Ball” just doesn’t do much for me. I certainly feel that Cyrus means every word that she sings and the power ballad nature of the song is a better fit for her piercing voice than any of her earlier work with Disney. But there’s a distance in the delivery which may or may not have to do with Cyrus not writing the song. There’s not a lot for me to grab on to with Cyrus’ take and again it’s hard to take it seriously when the video has shaped a lot of our views of the song. Cyrus may have intensity but doesn’t have the power and emotion to truly sell a song like this. “Wrecking Ball” is the type of song that’s easy to imagine being a better song with a better singer and production that could really go all out with the heartbreak and melodrama than this slight piece of early ‘10s pop production.

The music video lived up to its hype where it broke a record for the most YouTube views in one day at over 19 million views after its premiere on September 9. It was those monstrous views that helped “Wrecking Ball” debut on the Hot 100 at #50 the week ending September 7th before vaulting immediately into the Top 20 the next week before getting to its #1 spot in the fourth week. The song fell out of the top spot after two straight weeks in October but it lingered around and after a nine-week wait went back to #1 in mid-December which like its initial rise was all thanks to a viral video.

In November, YouTuber Steve Kardynal posted a video of himself lip-syncing to and imitating the music video for “Wrecking Ball,” right down to riding naked on a wrecking ball, to the then-popular dating site Chatroulette. The video shows Kardynal performing on the right side while we see reaction from the site’s users on the left side mostly looking amused and shocked. (I remember seeing the video during lunch in ninth grade and my classmates went hysterical over it.) Because the clip used the official audio of Cyrus’ song, all those clicks people made to the Chatroulette video counted toward the song’s Hot 100 performance thanks to Billboard’s then-recent decision to allow YouTube data to count for the charts. The activity was big enough to allow “Wrecking Ball” to get its out of nowhere third and last week at #1.

With “Wrecking Ball” driven to #1 not once but twice due to a much talked about video, it raises a question that the great critic Chris Molanphy brought up in his Hit Parade podcast about the song: Can a song be considered a hit if its popularity had to do with everything but the song?. It could go both ways. I remember a lot of attention that was paid to “Wrecking Ball” at the time was over the music video with not much discussion about the song. But Molanphy makes a good point that ultimately yes “Wrecking Ball” was a hit because of the song noting how the Chatroulette video shows some users singing along. After all, people were still listening to the song when they watched the music video and Miley Cyrus was a known quantity so fans and casual listeners had to have been getting into the song.

In my research for this review, I’ve noticed “Wrecking Ball” becoming a popular choice for singing competition shows. I remember someone at my high school singing it one year during our own singing competition and it got a rousing applause. People didn’t seem to care about the images from the video. It’s a song perfect for anyone looking to show off their voices whether it be at singing competitions or a night at karaoke. This ultimately shows the rarity a hit like “Wrecking Ball” is nowadays. We don’t have these types of howling power ballads get big anymore so any one of them that breaks through will immediately become a favorite of people looking to belt their hearts out.

The success of “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” along with the huge amount of attention from the VMA performance helped her Bangerz album debut at #1 and go triple platinum but it didn’t lead to more pop success. Its third and final single, the ballad “Adore You,” which despite another controversial video stalled at #21. Perhaps the shock value had worn off by then but Cyrus had gotten people noticing her becoming one of Time Magazine’s finalists for 2013’s Person of the Year that ultimately went to Pope Francis and was highlighted by journalist Barbara Walters on her 10 Most Fascinating People of the Year special.

A year after setting the world on fire at the VMAs, Cyrus returned for the 2014 ceremony when the “Wrecking Ball” video won for Video of the Year winning over “Drunk In Love” and “Chandelier” and two other songs that’ll eventually appear in this column. Instead of going up herself, Cyrus sent up homeless activist Jesse Helt to accept the award by speaking about homelessness in Los Angeles and his experience as a homeless teen in the city struggling to hold his mic. He ends by mentioning ways to help on the issue with the crowd cheering along.

In the eight years since her #1 hit, Miley Cyrus’ career has taken many creative twists and turns. She recorded an album with the Flaming Lips that’s supposedly godawful, reverted from the provocative behavior and hip-hop-inflected music to a more rootsier style, and has ventured into dance-inflected pop-rock recently. She’s become a popular live act being picked to perform on Saturday Night Live on the same episode Elon Musk hosted. And she’s also become good at covering classic rock songs helping to give her respect from the older music guard.

All of these adventures though hasn’t translated much in the way of pop hits. Since “Wrecking Ball,” Cyrus has only made the Top 10 twice. The first was 2017’s “Malibu” a mellow guitar-driven song about her relationship with Liam Hemsworth and it peaked at #10. (It’s a 6.) And just this week, she made it to #8 with her appearance on the remix of The Kid LAROI’s “Without You.” (It’s a 5.) Normally, I’d write here that we won’t see her again but with this recent development, I can’t say for sure. I don’t think she’ll get another #1 hit but I can’t rule it out.

In a 2017 radio interview, Cyrus expressed her regrets about doing “Wrecking Ball” and its video knowing how it has come to define her, “I will always be the naked girl on a wrecking ball, no matter how much I frolic with Emu [her dog] I am always the naked girl on the wrecking ball. I should have thought of how long that was going to follow me around. It’s my worst nightmare, that song being played at my funeral — that is my worst nightmare.” It’s not hard to understand her sentiments but it gave her her biggest hit. You can’t complain too much about that.

Regardless, Miley Cyrus is still around now making hits. “Wrecking Ball” did what it was meant to do for Cyrus and it has arguably paved the way for her continued success more so than what her early fame with Disney suggested.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s HAIM performing a more rocking version of “Wrecking Ball” during a 2013 performance on BBC Radio 1:

(As lead artists, HAIM don’t have any charting singles. As guests, they’ve been more successful with their only Hot 100 appearance to date being the 2020 Taylor Swift collaboration “no body, no crime” which peaked at #34.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Anne Hathaway doing her best imitation of the “Wrecking Ball” music video while lip-syncing the song to a rapturous crowd on a 2015 episode of Lip Sync Battle:

(Anne Hathaway’s highest-charting single, her 2012 version of “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Misérables, peaked at #69.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2 where Rebel Wilson sings “Wrecking Ball” during the Bellas Kennedy Center performance while struggling to get down:

(Anna Kendrick’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Cups,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2015 holiday movie The Night Before where Joseph-Gordon Levitt joins Miley Cyrus onstage to sing “Wrecking Ball” before proposing to his girlfriend:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lauren Graham singing “Wrecking Ball” on a 2020 episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist:

THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Avicii and Aloe Blacc’s wistful acoustic EDM anthem “Wake Me Up” peaked at #4 behind “Wrecking Ball.” It’s an 8.