'Flowers' and The Art of Musical Revenge

'Flowers' and The Art of Musical Revenge

Miley Cyrus’ ‘Flowers’ hit number one on both the UK and US charts following its release on January 13th 2023. It comes as Cyrus’ first chart topper in both markets since 2013’s ‘Wrecking Ball’, arriving after a week of broken records and mass online speculation as people attempted to piece together as many hints as they could to connect lyrics to Cyrus’ marriage and subsequent divorce. 


‘Flowers’ was a success, and comes as a drastic change from Cyrus’ previous release ‘Plastic Hearts’, which was widely celebrated within her fanbase, but did not see the widespread attention her newest single and music video have received. Perhaps it’s the lyrical references that caught the public eye (Cyrus sings ‘Built a home and watched it burn’, referencing the California wildfire that burned her and her now ex-husband’s house down in 2018). Scandal may have been provoked by the release date, which coincided with ex-husband Liam Hemsworth’s birthday. Or perhaps it was the sampling of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ which is used in a chorus which serves as a response to Bruno Mars’ ‘When I Was Your Man’, once allegedly dedicated to Cyrus by her ex-husband. 


‘Flowers’ is not the only recently released track to make waves as fans and wider audiences alike have tuned in to pick apart lyrics and draw connections to artists’ personal lives. Shakira, amidst a seemingly never-ending saga of legal issues with the Spanish treasury, teamed up with producer Bizzarap to release a Spanish track titled ‘Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53’. Sometimes referred to as ‘Out of Your League’, this track is filled with references to the ending of her nine-year relationship. It’s Shakira’s first top ten single in the US since 2007’s ‘Beautiful Liar’. It directly names her ex, and the woman he cheated on her with, with deliberate pauses which make sure her point is made. The end of the relationship arrives after Shakira allegedly figures out what was going on because the Other Woman was eating her jam (this is one hundred percent serious by the way, apparently Shakira found out she was being cheated on because of jam). 


Both Shakira and Cyrus’ tracks were released within the same week, both having marked massive success for the artists. However, the concept of a revenge song is not something we’ve never seen before. Gloria Gaynor’s triumphant ‘I Will Survive’ was released in 1978 and was also a number one hit in both the UK and US. Artists throughout musical history have drawn inspiration from various heartbreaks, and we’ve seen time and time again the way that audiences react positively to these.


What has changed since the heyday of Gloria Gaynor is the way we interact with and talk about art. Gloria Gaynor and her inspiration didn’t have to deal with social media upon the song’s release. There wasn’t a massive amount of easy to watch, fast-paced videos unpacking her lyrical content; describing the history of the relationship, making parts of a private life suddenly accessible to the world. Despite this, we’ve seen recent artists triumph with emotionally-charged music, and in recent years social media has allowed artists with a lower profile to suddenly explode due to public interest. 


Ariana Grande reached number one in the US for the first time in November 2018 with ‘Thank U, Next’ which many consider to be a career high, with both the success of the single and the album of the same name that was released early the following year. The track’s first verse references her exes in a positive light with the idea of learning and gaining something from each relationship. This drew a large audience and brought the track success in the middle of Grande’s on-going personal turmoil. In a December 2018 Billboard speech for ‘Woman of the Year’, Grande herself stated “this has been one of the best years in my career and one of like.. the worst years in my life.” She wasn’t wrong. Grande had broken streaming records, and received her first chart topping hit. At the same time, she was dealing with the fallout of the death of ex-partner Mac Miller and the breakdown of her engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. 


It would be wrong to say that these songs only succeed because of internet drama. It feels more complicated than that. Scandal is certainly a fast track to attention, but what people (in these cases, women) seem to be looking to express is a feeling of freedom from the pains of their personal lives regardless of how much, or how little, this divulges.


Take SZA. 


‘Kill Bill’ from SZA’s SOS, released in 2022, is her most successful single. Notably, the album has outpaced her debut ‘CTRL’, likely aided by the sound bites which are spread online, leading people to the album from which they came. In ‘Kill Bill’ SZA sings that she might kill her ex and his new girlfriend, while this is a dramatisation of her feelings, there’s no denying the sense of connection she has generated with her audience. The song remained stable in the Billboard charts, and sparked millions of videos posted by people perhaps inspired to also think about killing their exes. Little is known about SZA’s personal life, and yet the song still resonates, providing one thing to be true: while personal scandal might spark audience engagement, it’s the music that keeps people interested. 


As long as nobody actually tries to kill their ex, I reckon revenge songs will continue to be on trend for quite some time.


People seem to really like the idea of getting revenge.