Saturday, April 1, 2023
April 1, 2023

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Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and when pop music gets personal


Miley Cyrus is back on top of the pop charts, and she arrived there with a little help from Taylor Swift.

Not explicitly, mind you. Swift is not credited as a guest or a writer on Cyrus’ new song “Flowers,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart last week. But her influence, her ethos, is all over it.

That’s because on “Flowers,” Miley gets personal. She’s spilling details of her love life and her relationship and inviting fans to be a part of her narrative, which is a formula Swift has perfected better than any other modern pop artist.

And as social media and current trends have made everyone’s story an open book, artists are sharing more of themselves, and are reaping the rewards from fans who feel like they’re on the inside, cozying up to their besties each time they listen to a new song.

Let’s back up. “Flowers,” the first track from Miley’s forthcoming “Endless Summer Vacation,” is the 30-year-old’s first No. 1 single in a decade and only the second chart-topper of her career. She got there previously with “Wrecking Ball,” which spent three non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 in 2013, two weeks before and one week after Lorde’s nine-week “Royals” run.

The years in between saw her swing and miss with several attempts, and by the time 2020’s “Plastic Hearts” album failed to produce a Top 10 hit, it looked like Miley’s hitmaking days were behind her, and she had a long, respectable career as a covers artist and a New Year’s Eve host ahead of her.

But then she planted “Flowers” and came roaring back, and that’s where Swift comes into play.

“Flowers” is largely seen as Miley’s kiss-off to her ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth, from whom she split in 2019. The song never mentions him by name but the messaging is all there, from the breakup references to a quite literal mention of a house going up in flames. (The couple’s home burned down in the 2018 California wildfires.)

“Flowers,” which rides a sturdy disco groove and is fueled by themes of self-empowerment, was released on Hemsworth’s birthday, Jan. 13. Miley didn’t have to say that part, fans figured it out on their own. And all those behind-the-scenes-but-not-really details helped make “Flowers” a certified smash, and the song set a record for the most first-week spins in Spotify history, with more than 100 million streams. It toppled that record its second week, earning an additional 115 million streams.

Miley’s not the only one currently experiencing success with a personal breakup narrative. Shakira’s “BZRP Music Sessions, Vol. 53,” released two days before “Flowers,” is No. 9 on last week’s Hot 100, and is centered on the Colombian singer’s scorched-earth breakup with soccer star Gerard Piqué.

“You left me with your mom as a neighbor, the press at my door and a debt with the treasury,” Shakira sings (the song is in Spanish), and goes on to take aim at Piqué’s new girlfriend, saying, “you traded in a Rolex for a Casio.” Daaang.

The song is Shakira’s biggest hit in ages, and is her first song to crack Billboard’s Top 10 since “Beautiful Liar” in 2007. And Shakira, too, has Swift to thank.

Swift didn’t invent the breakup song, or the diss track, or leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to the coded meaning of a song. Carly Simon hit No. 1 with “You’re So Vain” in 1972, leaving listeners wondering to which vain man she was referring, and artists from Stevie Nicks to Marvin Gaye, from Adele to Beyoncé have been penning pop confessionals ever since. (Noted Swiftie Olivia Rodrigo rocketed to the top of the charts in 2021 with her debut single “Driver’s License,” which reveled in the super-personal details of her breakup with her “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” co-star Joshua Bassett; the song was the first time many listeners had heard of either Rodrigo or Bassett.)

She may not be the architect but Swift is the modern master of the form, and fans parse her lyrics the way Charlie Cale discerns clues while solving a mystery. (“Poker Face,” now streaming on Peacock. Watch it!)

Swift’s “Midnights” album — released on the birthday of her sometime rival Kim Kardashian, which was surely just a coincidence, wink wink — was greeted by fans who take decoder rings to every line and inspect every frame of her videos for hints, secrets and insights into whom she’s talking about and what’s going on in her personal life. This is an artist who has had fans upset at Jake Gyllenhaal over a red scarf for more than a decade. And since she’s the biggest artist on the planet today, it stands to reason that other stars would crack their diaries and let fans in on their personal lives when tackling new material.

Social media has toppled the walls between artists and fans, and fans want to feel connected to their favorite artists’ story. And the juicier or more gossipy the details, the better: Miley’s “Malibu,” her 2017 love song about Hemsworth, didn’t perform nearly as well as “Flowers.” Drama outsells domestic bliss, that’s just the way it is.

It’s fitting that “Flowers” replaced Swift’s own self-reflective “Anti-Hero” at No. 1. And it’s a lesson for any artist looking to climb back to the top in today’s pop world: Personal sells. Details sell. And if you’re not sharing, someone else is.