The date is August 25.
That night, at the MTV VMAs, Miley Cyrus would complete her transformation into “Miley Cyrus” — a meme, a thoughtpiece, a scandal, a headline, a punchline. The shot of a scantily-clad Cyrus twerking into the crotch Robin Thicke’s Beetlejuice suit may be the defining pop image of 2013: sexually and racially complicated, a sensationalist sensation, a crossing of paths between a pop singer whose raunchy (to some, rape-y) summer hit was in decline and a young upstart determined to stake her claim to the next day’s headlines.
It felt desperate in all the wrong ways.
Earlier that day — the late-night, early-morning hours, to be exact — a pre-“Miley” Miley’s Vevo account posted the first audio for “Wrecking Ball.” I distinctly remember where I was when I first heard it: sitting in my den, headphones on, curious to hear what the singer behind one of 2013’s best party songs had up her sleeve. I knew the song was a ballad, but beyond that, I was out of the loop on the details. (I didn’t even know my favourite evil producer, Dr. Luke, was behind the dials.) Immediately, the cracks in Cyrus’ voice shocked me: where was the perfect sheen, the metallic veneer? Then, seconds later, the song’s chorus kicked in, a gigantic wall of piano and synth that set me on my heels. For another three minutes the song poked, prodded and pulled me, leaving me rushing to hit the reload button as soon as the song’s final chord faded out.
It felt desperate in all the right ways.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this essay about a pop song.
That’s an odd thing to say, given that I just spent a couple thousand words on Wednesday describing the year in pop, and that my musical interests have taken a big turn for the candy-coated over the past couple of years. But choosing a pop composition as my top song of the year almost seems too easy: they’re built to be all-encompassing, universal anthems. If I’m picking my “song of the year” (rather than a “best” or even a “favourite,” though those terms do blur together a bit), the odds are stacked in pop’s favour even without my biases at play. Why not use this real estate to argue for a hidden gem, or an off-kilter contender, rather than a song that nearly everyone heard and opined about this year?
So in the interest of full disclosure, I think I’ve ended up at “Wrecking Ball” in the interest of reclamation, in taking back one of the year’s greatest pop compositions from “Miley Cyrus.” I’m pretty sure the song doesn’t need my assistance in this — as I argue below, it can more than stand on its own — but unlike with “We Can’t Stop,” I couldn’t help but feel that the surrounding pop culture debate about “Miley” distracted from, and arguably conflicted with, a true appreciation of “Wrecking Ball.” I’ve always had a complicated relationship with pop’s non-musical sensationalism; sometimes, it’s an incredibly effective tool to support a song, but it can quickly become a sideshow. As compelling a pop figure as she was in a lot of ways, there were times when I felt like “Miley Cyrus” was taking “Wrecking Ball” away from me, and I feel strangely compelled to make a case for it as my (and our) own, separate from all that.
It’s also about taking the song back from Terry Richardson, a shallow provocateur of a director/photographer who never fails to turn young, beautiful women from objects of desire to objects of exploitation. It’s rare that I don’t find myself unnerved by his camera’s gaze — oversexualizing young women who are plenty sexual without his scandalous excess — and “Wrecking Ball’s” hideously on-the-nose music video is no exception.* There’s a perfectly valid connection to be drawn between physical and emotional nakedness and Richardson is, without question, the worst possible director to portray that. The song’s intimacy became swallowed up in a sea of shallow, meme-worthy images (sledgehammer licking, naked wrecking-ball riding), and even the video’s superior alternate version can’t shake off its place as a shallow homage to Miley’s now-archnemesis Sinead O’Conner.
*This is not to suggest that Cyrus is some passive pop star in Richardson’s camera; by all accounts, she’s quite self-aware of the image she’s constructing. That doesn’t make Richardson’s visual point-of-view any more comfortable to me.
The worst part is that the song’s success this year owes a great deal to Richardson’s work: the song hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to YouTube and Vevo streaming and, by year’s end, the video ended up being the most-watched music clip of 2013 (more than 400 million views and counting). There’s no question, as well, that Cyrus’ headline prowess helped keep Bangerz’ biggest and best ballad in the pop sphere. And that just plays into my frustration: how can I possibly separate “Wrecking Ball’s” cultural value from its context when, by the basic metrics, context was a huge part of its success this year?
Allow me to try, because the “Wrecking Ball” is pretty incredible.
It’s the voice that hits first and, despite the song’s massive chorus, ultimately hits hardest.
The thrill of Cyrus’ vocal performance comes in her phrasing, particularly in how she starts and ends her lines. There’s a breathlessness to it, like you can hear her fighting to find the energy to start each lyric and then threatening to run out of steam by the end. She lets her southern twang sneak through at the perfect moments as she bounces up and down the scale, leaving a slightly unhinged feel to the melody’s sharp turns.
When the chorus hits, it’s all in: primal, forceful, her voice losing each note ever so slightly so she can steal another quick breath. But the song’s vocal peak comes during the bridge, with the drums disappear again, leaving Cyrus alone with piano and strings. “I never meant to start a war / I just wanted you to let me in / and instead of using force / I guess I should have let you win.” That’s about as easy a rhyme as it comes, but the gap between “in” and “win,” thematically, is vast, and Cyrus sells it by breaking the end of each line with the tiniest, most pitiful whelps on her tongue.
This is pain. It’s a vocal performance that sells the agony, the ache of each and every line. It’s not just that you can hear the grit and grain of Cyrus’ sorrow; it’s like you can taste the crimson blood still present from the parting blows of the fight. “Love as war” is an easy, all-too-common metaphor in pop music, but rarely does the soldier’s voice wear its wounds as well as Cyrus does here.
The composition itself is a thrilling balance of minimalism and excess. Up until this point, I’d say “Teenage Dream” has been my favourite Dr. Luke production, and though it’s a different beast, “Wrecking Ball” shares that song’s quiet-loud-quiet construction. The bouncy, echoed piano of the verses is left on its own, only adding an extra piano line for harmony’s sake and letting Cyrus voice do most of the heavy lifting. But the chorus: oh, what a chorus. It’s impossible to pick apart the pieces even if you tried: there’s piano, synths, strings, drums, maybe even a kitchen sink for good measure. Regardless of how it’s built, it’s perfect — the auditory experience of a wrecking ball itself, bowling the listener over every time it comes around again.
There’s something else to the song’s mix of fevered rush and quiet contemplation, and it gets to the heart of the lyric itself. “Wrecking Ball” is far from high poetry, but it’s concise, biting and, above all else, brutally efficient. There’s a lot going on here with very little: the song has to communicate the fevered rush of sudden love, the loud crack of collapse and then the slow smoldering of regret. Most pop songs would struggle to sell just one of these feelings; though the regret dominates, “Wrecking Ball” pulls all of them off, line by line, and kicks real feeling into phrases we’ve heard a million times before. “I will always want you” — how many pop songs say some version of that? How many hit like “Wrecking Ball”? Very, very few.
That’s what amazing pop songs do. They rephrase the familiar and make it novel again, allowing us to draw straight lines from the notes to our lives. Sometimes, the collusion between pop music and celebrity culture makes this really fucking hard to do, and maybe that’s “Wrecking Ball’s” greatest triumph: it’s a song so great that the more I live with it, the less and less I hear “Miley Cyrus.” Instead, I hear my own aches and regrets. I hear my friends who walk around with broken hearts from time to time. I hear the anger and uselessness anyone feels when something great just cracks and smashes, and the catharsis that comes from just belting that shit out. I hear a song for everyone who’s ever hit a little bit too hard in love. It’s ours.
* * *
Here are 24 more of my top songs of 2013, with a few quick reasons why the next several of ’em meant something to me this year:
2. Young Galaxy – “New Summer”
Glisteningly nostalgic, “New Summer” perfectly captures that feeling of youthful possibility in the face of disaster. It also has the year’s most magical chord change, shifting the chorus melody just as the song climaxes and shatters one more time.
3. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
On album full of seemingly effortless melodies, “Ya Hey” is the one that I found myself humming throughout 2013. It throws everything great about Modern Vampires of the City — the soundplay, the swagger, the subtlety — into a single astonishing track.
4. Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”
The year’s great, universal party song, so slinky smooth that it was completely, 100 per cent undeniable to nearly everyone whose ears it hit this year. It leaves you wanting in that best of ways: you want to hit “repeat” the moment that synth outro fades away, hoping there’s more of it the next time you listen.
5. Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”
Arcade Fire are the masters of the penultimate song. Every one of the band’s albums peaks right before the end (“Rebellion,” “No Cars Go,” “Sprawl II”) and Reflektor’s heart-stirring “Afterlife” didn’t break with tradition. That moment when the horns kick in hits me every time.
6. Fall Out Boy – “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)”
It soundtracked everything from sporting events to CTV News commercials this year, yet “My Songs” never lost its edge for me. It’s one of the nerviest, brashest songs the pop-punkers have ever laid to tape, its tightly-round rage unspooling over three sharp, efficient minutes.
7. Kanye West – “New Slaves”
“The 2nd verse of New Slaves is the best rap verse of all time….meaning…OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP…” Kanye’s tweet earlier this year was as excessive as “New Slaves” is brilliantly minimalist but you know what? Find me another 1.5 minutes in 2013 as wonderfully unhinged, as epically furious as that second verse.
8. Haim – “The Wire”
Yes, yes, “Heartache Tonight,” blah blah blah, as if no one else has ever used that drum beat before. The real stars here are the Haim sisters voices, transformed into wonderful staccato instruments that, as I’ve discovered, it’s impossible for dudes to emulate without sounding like Muppets.
9. Chvrches – “The Mother We Share”
After The Knife went off and became a wonderfully weirdo electronic band, it was only a matter of time until someone smartly ripped off their sound. What elevates Chvurches and “The Mother We Share” is Lauren Mayberry’s vocal clarity: she’s the broken, inspired human at the heart of a pristine synth-pop machine.
10. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
It’s the one outro on The 20/20 Experience that really works for me, and the song itself is simply beast of a power ballad. The lyric’s a dud if you stop and think about it for more than 20 seconds, but the song miraculously sells its vanity as true love, thanks to that guitar riff, those big drums and Timberlake singing the hell out of it.
11. Miley Cyrus – “We Can’t Stop”
My rule with these lists is typically “one song per artist,” but I have to break it to recognize the other half of Miley’s 1-2 pop punch this year. “We Can’t Stop’s” genius is how it flirts with scandal but never goes all in. Is she singing “Miley” or “molly?” Is she in line for the bathroom, or just watching everybody there? It feels hedonistic but keeps things just PG-13 enough to be a universal pop anthem.
12. Superchunk – “Me & You and Jackie Mittoo”
“I hate music, what is it worth? Can’t bring anyone back to this earth, or fill in the space between all of the notes, but I got nothing else so I guess here we go.” That might just be my favourite single lyric of the year, and in the no-frills two minutes that follow, the rest of “Jackie Mittoo” lives up to its promise with a celebration of life and loss.
13. Beyonce – “XO”
Tough competition in the “power ballad” sweepstakes this year, but man, this fourth-quarter play by Queen Bea puts some big points on the board. It captures the tingle and tension of romance as good or better than any song this year, and its sweeping canvas is epic enough to make me forget that Ryan Tedder is responsible for it.
14. David Bowie – “Love is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix)”
David Bowie’s The Next Day reminded me a bit of R.E.M.’s final album: a solid career survey but with little new to offer; a greatest hits without the hit. It wasn’t until James Murphy got his hands on “Love is Lost” and stretched it out over 10 handclappy minutes that Bowie’s new material finally sounded as exciting as I’d hoped it would.
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Despair”
Mosquito was one of the year’s biggest disappointments for me, but it did offer two great singles. And as much as I love the gospel-tinged “Sacrilege,” I’m a sucker for YYYs ballads so it’s “Despair” that I’m drawn to at year’s end, a celebration of sadness as an elemental part of one’s self that’s ends up joyous as all hell.
Ten more songs I loved in 2013:
16. Sky Ferreira – “You’re Not the One”
17. Dog Day – “Before Us”
18. Paramore – “Still Into You”
19. Basia Bulat – “Tall Tall Shadow”
20. Phoenix – “S.O.S. In Bel Air”
21. Icona Pop – “All Night”
22. Drake – “Hold On We’re Going Home”
23. Tegan and Sara – “Now I’m All Messed Up”
24. Savages – “She Will”
25. Lorde – “Royals”
And here’s a Rdio playlist of 24 of my 25 (I’ll throw in “XO” once it gets added.)