The year in mega-pop is officially underway with the debut of Miley Cyrus‘ “Flowers.” The disco-pop post-breakup anthem is the first new Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 of 2023, bowing atop the chart dated Jan. 28 with 52.6 million streams, 70,000 digital songs sold and 33.5 million radio airplay impressions, according to Luminate.
Despite Cyrus’s 15-year career of hitmaking prior to “Flowers,” the song marks just her second visit to the Hot 100’s top spot (following “Wrecking Ball” in 2013) — and her first-ever No. 1 debut. The level of cross-platform success for the new song is due in part to fan speculation over the song’s real-life inspirations, including several well-circulated theories about Easter-egg allusions to Cyrus’ relationship with ex Liam Hemsworth buried throughout the song and its video.
What does the song mostly owe its tremendous initial success to? And are there any lessons other artists can take from it? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. “Flowers” debuts at No. 1 this week, marking Miley Cyrus’ first solo single to reach higher than No. 10 on the Hot 100 since “Wrecking Ball” in late 2013. Which part of that do you find more surprising — that “Flowers” has enjoyed such a blazing start, or that it’s been nearly a decade since Miley’s last hit on this level?
Rania Aniftos: The latter. Justice for Plastic Hearts! I can’t believe “Midnight Sky” wasn’t a No. 1 hit, or at least in the top five. Miley hasn’t stopped giving us hits, and I’m glad everyone else sees that now.
Katie Atkinson: Both? I think “Flowers” is a great, instantly catchy song with a universal (and empowering) message, but I’ve been partial to quite a few Miley songs over the last decade – namely “Midnight Sky” (especially its Stevie Nicks-assisted “Edge of Midnight” remix) and really her whole rock-star Plastic Hearts era; or her twangy Mark Ronson collab “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”; or if you’re digging the ex-husband dirt on “Flowers,” might I suggest the sweeping, confessional “Slide Away”? Perhaps all of those (excellent) music moments from Miley over the past five years set the table for her to finally be back on top, where she clearly belongs.
Josh Glicksman: The latter is pretty stunning to me, though she has come close-ish a few times — previous lead singles “Malibu” and “Midnight Sky” reached No. 10 and No. 14, respectively. Of course, Miley Cyrus shifting her sonic direction a few times over that span is likely a factor, especially with regard to her resulting radio spin (her last time cracking the top 10 on Billboard’s Pop Airplay or Radio Songs chart is also “Wrecking Ball”). But perhaps equally shocking to me is that her last No. 1 album is Bangerz in 2013. Hopefully that gets resolved in short order as well.
Jason Lipshutz: The No. 1 debut for “Flowers.” I’m a pretty huge Miley fan, but she doesn’t have any singles over the past decade that leave me shocked that they didn’t make it to the top of the Hot 100 (although, in my heart, “Slide Away” was one of the biggest songs of 2019). The fact that “Flowers” has scored an enormous No. 1 debut isn’t too surprising when considering that Cyrus is still an A-list pop artist, and that the song has arrived during a slower part of the release calendar… but when reviewing her recent chart history, yeah, this is pretty unexpected.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s the new song’s performance for me. I’d grown used to Miley Cyrus as a pop star whose name recognition and general media interest has long outstripped her streaming or top 40 prowess — she’s had hits, but none of her singles since “Wrecking Ball” have been anywhere near unavoidable, excellent though many of them were. For her to come zooming in with an asteroid-sized hit that already seems a lock for year-end honors contention just three weeks into 2023… well, I would’ve needed quite the telescope to see it coming.
2. We’ve talked a little about some of the reasons behind the explosive debut of “Flowers” — which do you see as being the biggest factor in the song’s early success?
Rania Aniftos: While I think the fan theories surrounding how some of the lyrics may relate to her former marriage with Liam Hemsworth led people to listen to the song for the tea, at the end of the day, it’s an uplifting breakup song. No matter how many of those get released, it’s proven time and time again that people need music to heal from a heartbreak – and Miley delivered the perfect antidote for the newly single people out there.
Katie Atkinson: I’m going to vote a tie between January’s rapt music audience and the radio sheen of the Harry’s House crew. I’ve already heard the song on adult pop radio in heavy rotation, even though AC stations typically play established hits long after their debuts (alongside decades-old classics), not singles released a week prior. But when Diane Keaton is dancing to the song in her backyard and Gloria Gaynor is christening it the heir apparent to “I Will Survive,” the AC train apparently kicks into high gear.
Josh Glicksman: My lame instinct is to tell you that it’s a combination of these factors, but it’s hard to look past the power of a good fan theory in conjunction with TikTok’s impact. There are already more than 1.2 million user-created clips on the platform that use the song as a backdrop, and the additional layers to the perceived deeper meaning behind it all continue to roll in. Also, as a footnote to this factor, just the general presence of having a hype-worthy music video goes a long way in reaching an additional audience.
Jason Lipshutz: While “Flowers” is a strong entry in Cyrus’ singles discography, and I’m sure the Hemsworth Easter eggs drove some listenership, the timing of this rollout couldn’t have been more advantageous for its chances to hit No. 1. Announcing “Flowers” on a network television New Year’s Eve show watched by millions around the world, followed by a single release at a moment where holiday music had fallen off the charts and listeners were starving for a new jam, was a stroke of genius by Team Cyrus. Casual listeners and pop diehards alike were aware that “Flowers” was coming out on Jan. 13, and when it arrived, the single dominated the cultural conversation before streaking to No. 1.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s gotta be the social media interest. “Flowers” would’ve been a hit regardless, but unless you’re Adele, Taylor Swift or Harry Styles, you don’t score a debut this massive this quickly without a significant amount of extra-musical interest — interest in the backstory, interest in the discussion and drama around it, interest in related memes even. For better or worse, that’s the kind of stuff that really drives culture in 2023 — though it should be said that none of this off-court interest would last (or likely even exist at the first place) without a dynamite pop song at the center of it.
3. Given that the strategy and promotion behind “Flowers” seems to have paid off pretty well, what’s a lesson (if any) that you think other artists and their teams might be able take from its resounding debut?
Rania Aniftos: Be mysterious! Those posters around Los Angeles got fans so excited with little to no information. Instead of shoving the promo down their throats, Miley let the music speak for itself — and that worked out so well for her.
Katie Atkinson: I think this one might be a tad too complex to distill into advice for other artists. It goes something like this: Start out with the goodwill of a generation of tweens thanks to your wildly popular Disney Channel series, movies and albums; transition to a hip-hop-infused pop sound that nets you your first Hot 100 No. 1 and forces people to see you as an adult artist; make a decade worth of beloved-but-not-as-commercially-blazing albums that quietly win over new corners of fans and supporters; and finally, create a radio-friendly song with an undeniably universal message that arrives just at the right time to capitalize on the widest audience. That’s it!
Josh Glicksman: I’d have two big takeaways here: First, lean into a little mystique! It’d be a lot less exciting if Miley were to explicitly address all of the rumors circulating about what may and may not be a subtle jab. Instead, leave it to the listeners to speculate and continue looping back the song to check every square inch of the song and video for clues. And secondly, don’t overthink the lead single. Oftentimes, the down-the-middle fastball of a pop hit works wonders, and it’ll dance around in radio programmers’ heads long after the rest of the album rolls out.
Jason Lipshutz: I’d expect more jockeying for the First Big Release of the Year in the future. January has always been a sleepy time for pop releases, with major artists opting to save their hits for the summer months… but the way that Cyrus has been able to rule the discourse during this month must have other major artists and labels rethinking their strategies. People want new hits to kick off their year following the holidays, and in 2024 and beyond, I’d bet more artists make bids to efficiently supply those new hits.
Andrew Unterberger: Drop in January. Drop in January. Drop in January. I don’t know how many times we have to see this happen before major artists take the hint — everyone seems to think that the winter months are a dead zone for commercial releases, but that’s only because our biggest artists treat them like one. Time and time again, we see hitmakers new and established taking advantage of the lack of major competition early in the calendar and scoring career-changing hits as a result. (Hell, even the flops don’t flop as hard early in the year — you probably haven’t thought about Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion’s disappointing March release “Sweetest Pie” since at least last summer, but damn if it didn’t show up at No. 62 on our 2022 Year-End Hot 100 just the same.)
4. Now that Miley has scored her first no-doubt crossover smash in a while, who’s another veteran pop star with lesser commercial returns recently who you think might be due for a home-run comeback in 2023?
Rania Aniftos: Selena Gomez. Let’s revive the old school Disney Channel days once and for all.
Katie Atkinson: We can look at the exact same 10-year time frame as Miley and see that Katy Perry’s only top 10 Hot 100 hit since 2013 is “Chained to the Rhythm” with Skip Marley, which peaked at No. 4 in 2017 and quickly dissipated. Knowing what a major force she was in pop – with nine Hot 100 No. 1s and 14 top 10s – she could be just one song away from her own renaissance.
Josh Glicksman: How about Camila Cabello? I don’t necessarily expect her to release another album on the heels of Familia, but I could see a handful of singles or notable collaborations that propel her back into the top 10 — a region that has eluded her since “Señorita,” which reached the top of the Hot 100 in 2019. She’s come close a few times since then (with “My Oh My” peaking at No. 12 in 2020 and “Bam Bam” reaching a No. 21 high last May), but perhaps 2023 is the year of the return.
Jason Lipshutz: Over the past half-decade, Demi Lovato has veered away from mainstream pop in favor of genre exploration, most recently with last year’s great pop-punk exercise Holy Fvck. Discount Demi The Pop Star at your own risk, though: with a still-immaculate voice, plenty of mid-2010s hits and a ton of industry goodwill, the singer-songwriter could seamlessly return with a new hit in 2023 — especially considering that Lovato returned with an old smash going viral in 2022.
Andrew Unterberger: Kesha hasn’t seemed to have much interest in a full-bore top 40 return since her post-Dr. Luke return to recording, favoring a more personal and rock-based brand of her trademark pop assault that wasn’t much in step with radio trends of the late 2010s. But with pop-rock on the commercial upswing again and Kesha’s signature hits starting to fall in that magical nostalgia zone of 10-15 years past, I feel like her next album could have some much greater commercial potential — at least if she works with the right people on it, and if it’s something she wants in general.
5. With “Flower” power once again in full bloom on the Billboard charts, what’s your favorite flower-themed pop song of past years?
Rania Aniftos: “Bloom” by Troye Sivan perfectly blends being cheeky with being consumable for the pop audiences. It’s funny and catchy and so underrated.
Katie Atkinson: I love “Sunflower, Vol. 6” from Harry Styles’ Fine line, but it wasn’t a hit on our charts as a non-single, so maybe “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse),” the 2019 Hot 100 topper from Post Malone and Swae Lee, is a better… pick.
Josh Glicksman: Hard to beat Outkast’s “Roses” from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, though I’m more of a hydrangeas kind of guy, myself.
Jason Lipshutz: “Sunflower” by Swae Lee & Post Malone rules — so catchy, so guileless! — as does Harry Styles’ warmth-radiating pop-rocker “Sunflower, Vol. 6.” When are we getting “Sunflower Vol. 2-5,” though? The cycle needs to be completed, gentlemen!
Andrew Unterberger: Oh yeah, we’re taking it all the way back to 1959, with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band’s version of “Petite Fleur (Little Flower),” a hypnotic instrumental and top 5 Hot 100 hit that basically does for the clarinet what Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” does for the synthesizer. (You might also know it from a dance scene in season seven of Mad Men, or from a brilliant Dr. Dre interpolation in his supergroup The Firm’s 1997 almost-hit “Phone Tap.”)