The ex factor: Miley Cyrus smashes records with breakup anthem
Miley Cyrus can buy herself flowers, she can write her name in the sand. She can take herself dancing, and she can hold her own hand.
That’s the message the pop star imparts in her new single, Flowers, which smashed Spotify’s one-week streaming record with more than 96m streams last week, and topped charts around the world including in the UK, Australia, Canada and China.
The song, reportedly about Cyrus’s divorce from the Australian actor Liam Hemsworth, has become an anthem for female empowerment after heartbreak. Cyrus even released it on her ex-husband’s birthday, spawning countless headlines, TikToks and memes about Hemsworth’s rumoured shortcomings.
Liam Hemsworth's references in Miley Cyrus' "Flowers" music video and song 🌺
A THREAD. pic.twitter.com/UI6dk7WJWo
— 𝐁𝐄𝐘𝐒𝐔𝐒🇲🇦🦄 (@mileycyrusvibez) January 14, 2023
As the adage, rightly or wrongly attributed to the late poet Dorothy Parker goes, writing well truly is the best revenge. Even Gloria Gaynor, whose 1978 breakup anthem I Will Survive cemented her status as an empowering musical icon, has shared and commented on Cyrus’s hit.
“I’m in Nashville working on new music and just heard ‘Flowers’ for the first time,” she said. “Your song carries the torch of empowerment and encourages everyone to find the strength in themselves to persevere and thrive. Well done Miley!”
But Cyrus isn’t the only star whose breakup song has found success in the charts recently. The Colombian singer Shakira topped Spotify’s top 50 global chart with a “diss track” about her ex, the former Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué. The song, a collaboration with the Argentinian producer and DJ Bizarrap, broke records as the most watched new Latin song in YouTube’s history (currently at 200m views) and was the top song in Spanish-speaking markets including Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Mexico.
With lyrics such as “You traded a Ferrari for a [Renault] Twingo, you traded a Rolex for a Casio,” Shakira’s single also sparked global intrigue in fans already captivated by the singer’s scorched-earth mentality – including claims she used a jar of jam to catch Piqué cheating and set up a lifesize witch doll on her balcony that reportedly overlooks her former mother-in-law’s home.
shakira looking into her refrigerator pic.twitter.com/9WUUWs2pfX
— alex (@alex_abads) January 17, 2023
Shakira inside the jam jar investigating how much was missing pic.twitter.com/fUGouZEgm2
— AND IM VICTORIA MALCOLM (@fagfetchd) January 17, 2023
Meanwhile, two other stars with top three singles in both the UK and US are the R&B singer SZA with her track Kill Bill – which is about a fantasy to exact revenge on an ex-boyfriend – and queen of the breakup ballad, Taylor Swift, with Anti-Hero. While Anti-Hero isn’t a breakup song, Swift’s popularity largely derives from her ability to leave tantalising clues about her exes in songs (one that was thought to be about Jake Gyllenhaal led to the actor’s social media being inundated with Swifties).
Last month, Lana Del Rey bought a billboard in her ex’s home town to promote her new album, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, commenting that this one was “personal”. She also announced her album and dropped the title track on her ex’s birthday.
Lana Del Rey had an album billboard placed in her ex's hometown:
“There's only one and it's in Tulsa ☠️” pic.twitter.com/BiTG81nyVW
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) December 19, 2022
According to the chart analyst James Masterton, breakup songs “date back to the dawn of pop music history”. The fourth song ever to top the British charts was Outside of Heaven, by Eddie Fisher, and one of the biggest hits of 1957 was Singing the Blues as performed by Guy Mitchell and Tommy Steele – both about the end of a relationship.
But breakup songs take on a special frisson when they are about the performers’ own experiences. “The most moving and heart-rending Abba song of all is The Winner Takes It All as they sing about their divorces from each other,” Masterton said.
What’s most fascinating, he added, was the “gender divide” in the songs. “Breakup songs sung by men are [often] in the noble blues tradition of ‘my baby she left me’ as they sit feeling sorry for themselves. But while there are plenty of heartbroken women, there are just as many songs about a woman picking herself up and moving on. Both Gaynor’s I Will Survive and Cyrus’s Flowers are essentially feminist anthems. The women are empowered by their breakup, not destroyed by it. No wonder it turns out to be such a rich seam of songwriting.”
Alex Goat, the chief executive of the youth culture specialists Livity, said: “If Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved and Forget Me sit firmly in the depression phase, Flowers feels like you’re coming out the other side, alongside Dua Lipa’s Don’t Start Now, which brings a sense of acceptance and empowerment to ‘owning your breakup’.”
But, she said, what felt different and current about Flowers was that the sentiment and the music video vocalise – and visualise – self-care and self-love.
“For today’s younger generation, self-care rituals and practices are huge. From the unbelievable boom in wellness to Selena Gomez’s heartfelt appearance on The Boss Wives last year, physical and emotional self-care and self-love – the hashtag of which has 52bn TikTok views – capture the spirit of how so many young people are approaching and prioritising the relationship they have with themselves.”