Why Miley Cyrus‘ ’Flowers’ Doesn’t Need to Credit Bruno Mars
The new Hot 100-topping hit seems to references Mars' "When I Was Your Man," but does not sample or interpolate any melodic elements from the song.
With all the many fan theories bouncing around the internet in the weeks since Miley Cyrus released her Billboard Hot 100-topping new single “Flowers,” a particular amount of attention has been paid to its relationship to Bruno Mars‘ own No. 1 hit from a decade earlier, the torch song ballad “When I Was Your Man.”
Countless fans have pointed out the lyrical similarities between the two songs — particularly their respective choruses — with “Flowers” echoing many of Mars’ regretful sentiments from an opposing, unmoved perspective. (For example, Mars laments on “Your Man,” “I should’ve bought you flowers… take you to every party, ’cause all you wanted to dance,” while Cyrus protests on “Flowers,” “I can buy myself flowers… I can take myself dancing.”) Speculation behind the extended reference has centered around the song being a favorite of Liam Hemsworth’s, furthering the idea of the song as a kiss-off to Cyrus’ real-life ex. The buzz over the two songs was even enough to give “Your Man” a nearly 20% bump in weekly streams in the frame following the release of Cyrus’ new single.
With the relationship between the two songs appearing obvious to fans, many have wondered over social media whether Mars or “Your Man” co-writers Andrew Wyatt, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine deserve writing credits on “Flowers.” To a degree, this sort of thing — offering writing credits to obvious sources of musical inspiration — has become common practice in new songs by popular artists, even if a direct sample is not present and the use of an interpolation is an arguable matter of interpretation. Well-publicized cases of that phenomenon include Olivia Rodrigo adding Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro to the credits of her “Good 4 U” due to the song’s musical similarities to their “Misery Business,” and Beyoncé including “Show Me Love” scribes Fred McFarlane and Allen George in the credits to her “Break My Soul” due to some overlapping sonic elements with the Robin S. smash.
The case of “Flowers” and “When I Was Your Man” is a little different, though. Those previously mentioned examples were mostly based around sonic similarities — melodic, rhythmic and textural — which were close enough in nature that a case could have been made that the original’s copyright was infringed upon. However, not only are there no direct samples or obvious interpolations between “Flowers” and “Your Man,” there are no major sonic overlaps either — no obvious shared melodies or rhythms, no major similarities in production textures. When Cyrus sings “I can buy myself flowers,” for instance, she does so in a cadence and melody of her own, without any significant similarity to how Mars sang “I should’ve bought you flowers.”
The only obvious similarities, then, are in the songs’ lyrics — which are not identical, but do share elements and ideas — and merely using some of the same words as an older song is not considered grounds for infringement.
“This is great fodder for fan theories, but lawyers should have nothing to do with it,” says Joseph Fishman, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville and an expert in music law. “There are no songwriter credits for the ‘When I Was Your Man’ writers because no license should be necessary.”
Cyrus’ arguable use of Mars’ lyrics as a reference point for her own expression is certainly not without precedent, with the “answer song” serving as a longtime staple of popular music. Famous examples include any number of responses (The Miracles’ “I Got a Job,” The Heartbeats’ “I Found a Job”) to The Silhouettes’ ’50s doo-wop staple “Get a Job,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rejoinder to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” in their ’70s southern rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama” (“I hope Neil Young will remember/ Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”) and countless rap diss records dating back to the ongoing “Roxanne Wars” of the mid-’80s, when male rap group U.T.F.O. and female rappers Roxanne Shanté and The Real Roxanne (among others) all traded barbs with new singles. While many of these singles included lyrical references to their predecessors, most did not include additional writing credits for those songs’ performers.
“Lyrically, sure, there’s enough similarity to make listeners think that ‘Flowers’ is deliberately responding to the earlier song,” Fishman offers. “But even if we assume that’s true, so what? Using one song to issue a retort to an earlier song is not, by itself, infringement. John Mayer and Taylor Swift don’t need to cross-license anything when they write songs at each other.”
Does all this mean that there’s no chance of Mars and his co-writers eventually being added as co-writers to the “Flowers” credits? Not necessarily: Whether or not Cyrus is protected legally from legal recourse from the “Your Man” writers, she may ultimately decide to add them anyway as an act of goodwill and out of a desire to avoid further conflict, particularly with all the media attention the similarity between the songs has received. It’s not uncommon for additional songwriting credits to be added to a song after its initial release — as was the case with “Good 4 U” in 2021 — often following a period of negotiations between the concerned parties. But if the names of Mars and his co-writers stay absent in the credits, Cyrus is not likely to have any legal responsibility to give them their “Flowers” there.