What a moment to be a Miley Cyrus fan. “Flowers” is more than just a surprise comeback hit — it’s the triumph of Mileyism. It’s been 10 years since her last Number One hit, “Wrecking Ball,” at the height of her tabloid-scandal, electro-sleaze Bangerz era. But now she has finally transformed into the kind of old-school grown-up legend she’s always wanted to be. “Flowers” and Friday’s Saturn-return post-divorce album Endless Summer Vacation finish off her unlikely journey from Hannah Montana to world-wise adulthood. This moment is the cherry on top of one of modern pop’s longest, most bizarre stories.
Miley’s only 30, but she’s already been a mega-famous artist for nearly two decades. She started out as a Disney moppet playing a fictional pop star with a secret life as a regular all-American girl. Hannah Montana was a fun house of mirrors, identity-wise: Her dad was played by her real-life dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, the “Achy Breaky Heart” dude, who had already played himself in a nightmare scene in a David Lynch movie.
Even in her first Top 10 hit, “See You Again,” 15 years ago, Miley was singing about her personality crises, with the chorus hook “My best friend Leslie said, ‘Oh, she’s just being Miley!’ ” And she’s always been Miley ever since, through all her many incarnations. As she recently said, “You can say I am a twerking, pot-smoking, foulmouthed hillbilly, but I am not a liar.
“Flowers” became her biggest hit because it’s her realest song ever, her poignant ode to starting over after a divorce and learning to love herself. She says goodbye to her ex with the vow “I can buy myself flowers.” Everybody could figure out the connections to her ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth; after a decade together, their marriage lasted less than a year, crashing and burning in 2019. She even sings about the real-life experience of seeing their Malibu house go up in flames, with the words “We were right till we weren’t/Built a home and watched it burn.” As she told Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos in a 2020 cover story, the fire “did what I couldn’t do myself. It removed me from what no longer was serving its purpose.”
But Miley brilliantly packs the song with secret clues for fans to decode, learning from the Taylor Swift/Olivia Rodrigo school. Is she quoting the Bruno Mars song Liam played at their wedding? In the video — released on his birthday — is she wearing his suit from the Avengers premiere, where he told her to behave?
She gives fans room to flesh out the narrative, no matter how much of it is imaginary, working in the “Paul is dead”/“Tupac is alive” tradition. Her sister Brandi argued about the rumors on her podcast, Your Favorite Thing. “The song did come out on [Hemsworth’s] birthday — was that on purpose? I don’t know, can’t say,” she said, adding, “It makes Miley seem like an absolute genius. The narratives are fucking hilarious, but it’s so great.” Yet Miley herself took care not to deny a single one. As Brandi said on the podcast, “Only Miley knows the truth.”
Miley’s face card has always been her honey-roasted country voice, which has carried her through all her different pop lives. Ever since she twerked from Disney kid to molly-gobbling party monster with Bangerz, she’s made every move a drastic departure. A psychedelic rock opera with the Flaming Lips about her Dead Petz? A rootsy country return with Younger Now? Last time out, she went full Eighties with the neon-and-leather synth bombast of her excellent Plastic Hearts, featuring Stevie Nicks, Dua Lipa, Billy Idol, and Joan Jett.
But she really made her maturity move in the pandemic, when she turned herself into America’s favorite covers singer. When she sang Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on Saturday Night Live, it was a brilliant summary of the state of the nation, addressing a country full of lonely souls living in their quarantine fishbowls. She kept it rolling with her great versions of “Doll Parts,” “Heart of Glass,” and “Zombie.” No other pop star does so much personal expression via her cover versions. She really reveled in her role on her New Years Eve Party special, dueting with everyone from David Byrne to Dolly Parton, from Latto to Paris Hilton.
It makes sense because Miley has always been a child of pop fantasy. Literally — she was born at the moment her dad was inventing the template for the modern Nashville stud. Just a month after Miley was born, Billy Ray starred as Dolly’s boy toy in her “Romeo” video, where Dolly leers, “I’m old enough to be that boy’s lover!” Parton is Miley’s real-life godmama, of course, as they both love to remind people. This past New Year’s Eve, Dolly and Miley dueted on a medley of “Wrecking Ball” and “I Will Always Love You” — the song that turned into Whitney Houston’s historic comeback in 1992, when she was the age Miley is now.
So this moment feels like a culmination of the journey Miley has been on ever since her teen days of “Hoedown Throwdown.” She’s always been a classicist, with her unique knack for interpreting famous songs from the past. And she’s always played the long game, a clever pop scholar with a profound sense of history, and her place in it.
But her new music makes it sound like Miley is setting out to write her own classic oldies, the kind of songs she would choose to cover. She’s showing off the pipes of a grown woman who’s been through it and back, mourning a marriage the way she used to mourn Pablow the Blowfish. It’s the song, the album, the moment she’s spent her whole career building up to. Now more than ever, she’s just being Miley.