Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
By 2012, Miley Cyrus was a year removed from her hit Disney series Hannah Montana — and very ready to move on from it. “She was coming out of her prior existence and really wrestling with her new path in music,” recalls RCA co-president John Fleckenstein, who first met Cyrus that year.
The pop star in the making had already released three albums, all on Disney’s Hollywood Records, with her third, 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, offering the biggest hint at where she was headed. When she first met with RCA, she played a handful of songs, including an early version of a future smash that would become her first Hot 100 No. 1, “Wrecking Ball.” However, it was the ballsier party-girl anthem, “We Can’t Stop,” that became the lead single for her then upcoming RCA debut and fourth album, Bangerz — and ushered in the new Miley.
“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.”
Cyrus has enjoyed her fair share of further evolutions since: she collaborated with The Flaming Lips on her independently-released Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz in 2015; leaned into her country roots on 2017 album Younger Now; and this June, starred as the Nine Inch Nails-subverting pop star Ashley O, on Netflix’s dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror. It all traces back to “We Can’t Stop.”
“When I hear it [today], I think of that turning point of what she went through as an artist,” Fleckenstein adds. “That video and that song basically say, ‘This is what I represent’ — and to me, that was one of the braver pop moves this industry has seen in a long time.”