“Miley at the time was very keen on drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is who I am and what I stand for,’ and I think she was very serious about killing off the old character,” says Fleckenstein. “[‘We Can’t Stop’] grabbed the world by its shoulders and shook them."
After Miley first played RCA the music she was working with, the label’s A&R team connected her with hip-hop hitmaker, producer Mike WiLL Made-It, to help finesse her new sound and direction; when they first played “We Can’t Stop,” Fleckenstein says it was “an immediate head-twist. We knew we were onto something.” And once the track and its twerk-filled, all-grown-up video (directed by Brooklyn-based Diane Martel) were released in June 2013, the song became an immediate smash. “She was striking a nerve -- we knew within 24 hours that this was connecting.”
“We Can’t Stop” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Fleckenstein credits its fast ascent to radio support, explaining that there was such a big initial push for airplay at that time because the market still relied heavily on physical and download sales. Cyrus also performed the song endlessly, stopping by most late night shows and delivering an acoustic version as musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
But it was her show-stopping set alongside R&B star Robin Thicke during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards -- during which she sang “We Can’t Stop” alongside plush teddy bears, and later twerked against Thicke to “Blurred Lines,” the song that kept “Stop” from hitting No. 1 -- that solidified this song’s (and this Cyrus era's) place in pop culture history, for better or worse. (In spite of the track’s success, or perhaps in part to its benefit, Cyrus faced criticism for cultural appropriation following the video’s release, which her VMA performance only fueled.)
While the production of “We Can’t Stop” set a trend of weaving together urban and pop influences, what’s most revered now is what it represented then. “Miley’s ability to transform herself in the public eye like that, and really to be as bold as she was to take a musical direction that was so against the grain of anything she’d done beforehand, and then come out in such a provocative way in the video, really showed a lot of people -- and a lot of other artists -- that you can do that,” says Fleckenstein. “That created a new play in the playbook.”