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From Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift: How pop singers get their revenge

As Miley Cyrus returns to the pop scene with a track reportedly about ex Liam Hemsworth, Ed Power explores the musical phenomenon that is the revenge song

Friday 13 January 2023 13:25 GMT
If in doubt, goes the logic, rip your ex to shreds – and watch the public come running for more
If in doubt, goes the logic, rip your ex to shreds – and watch the public come running for more (Getty/The Independent)

Revenge is a dish best served loud. At least it is if you’re a singer eager to make an impression on the charts and re-establish your credentials as a top-tier pop star. That is the logic seemingly behind Miley Cyrus’s comeback single, “Flowers”. Pop’s one-time enfant terrible breaks a three-year silence with the release of the song on 13 January. That day is also the 33rd birthday of her ex Liam Hemsworth, whom she divorced in January 2020 after two years of matrimony.

Coincidence? Not if the snippet of lyrics she has shared on Instagram is anything to go by. “I can love me better than you,” sings Cyrus, her husky voice splintered with emotion. But is the urge to share her heartache the only motivation? Cyrus has never been an artist to do things by half measures, and will be eager to build on the acclaim won by her 2020 album Plastic Hearts. Does she hope to supercharge her return with a broken-hearted diss track?

She wouldn’t be the first to adopt that strategy (the single is followed by a new LP, Endless Summer Vacation, on 10 March). There is a secret history of pop stars using revenge songs to leverage their way up music’s greasy pole. If in doubt, goes the logic, rip your ex to shreds – and watch the public come running for more.

Consider many of your favourite pop stars – and then reflect on their best-known songs. Taylor Swift? Until last year’s early midlife crisis masterpiece Midnights, her biggest hits were invariably those where she took a blunderbuss to former beaus.

A case in point is “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, the vituperative bopper with which she brought down the curtain every night during her last major world tour (in 2018). This was her snarling salute to the ex who, in her telling of the tale, had treated her like an emotional rag-doll – to be picked up and tossed aside as required.

The rumour is it’s about Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom Swift was romantically involved for about three months in 2010. She has neither confirmed nor denied that speculation. That mystery notwithstanding, the lyrics are not afraid to get into specifics. Swift recalls, for instance, how her then boyfriend looked down on her songs – “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/ With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”.

“It’s a definitive portrait of how I felt when I finally stopped caring what my ex thought of me,” she told USA Today. “[He] made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to... So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio.”

Taylor Swift has written songs about several of her exes (Getty)

You could fill an entire ledger with a list of Swift’s revenge tracks. They also include “Dear John”, reputedly about John Mayer, whom she dated in 2009 when she was 19 and he was 32. And “Bad Blood” – not romantic, but inspired by her beef with Katy Perry, with whom she fell out when they both tried to hire the same backing dancer for a tour.

Swifties believe their heroine is reinventing pop every time she steps behind a mic. The truth is that, in terms of demolishing lousy exes, she is perched on the shoulders of giants. One of those who went (slightly) before her is Beyoncé. Because while the Renaissance star is nowadays unchallenged as the Queen of Pop, early in her solo career that wasn’t the case. It took a cold, sharp revenge anthem to confirm her status as one of the great stand-alone artists of her generation.

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B’Day, Beyoncé’s second LP, had floundered on release in 2006. Singles “Déjà Vu” and “Ring the Alarm” had come and gone without a trace. Questions were asked about the viability of Beyoncé the solo artist – especially with Destiny’s Child having come off a huge world tour 12 months previously. Was she better off sticking to the day job fronting a blockbusting girl group?

Then she released the wonderfully vindictive “Irreplaceable”. It’s a torch song about setting alight to the memories of a bad relationship and a cheating partner. “Everything you own in the box to the left/ In the closet that’s my stuff,” she declaimed over a sprightly Spanish guitar – and Queen Bae was born.

Five of the best revenge songs

The potency of a good revenge track was not lost on Beyoncé. “Irreplaceable” paved the way for the definitive artistic statement that was 2016’s Lemonade. This was an epic flensing of her husband Jay-Z in the aftermath of his alleged infidelity. And it gave her the one prize she was, at that point, yet to receive – universal critical acclaim.

But perhaps the most explicit – and notorious – example of the commercial potential of revenge was Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, from 2002. A quintessential before-and-after moment, it sealed the transformation of the former ’N Sync leader from mere heart-throb to Serious Artist.

The criticism of Timberlake is that he revved up his career by sacrificing his ex, Britney Spears. The lyrics to “Cry Me a River” were inspired by his split from Spears. However, Timberlake made the implicit explicit in the accompanying video, which not only featured a dancer styled to look like Britney Spears, but was filmed in a way that suggested that Spears had been unfaithful to Timberlake (as rumoured in the tabloids).

Justin Timberlake was criticised for seemingly airing his dirty laundry with Britney Spears in public (Getty for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles)

At the time, the video served its purpose, painting Spears as the heartbreaker, Timberlake as the innocent and naive boyfriend. Twenty years later, the public shaming of Spears landed very differently.

Far from being seen as the wronged party, Timberlake was now viewed as a bully, washing his dirty laundry before all the world. He came round to that point of view too, and in 2021 publicly apologised to Spears. And yet, even here, he was not breaking new ground. His lack of generosity towards Spears was part of a tradition of male artists taking it out on their exes.

Bob Dylan mastered the art of the take-down early in his career,” says Helen Brown, The Independent’s music critic. “‘Goodbye’s too good a word, babe,’ he sneered on ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ (1963), probably addressing his on-off girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who appeared with Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the album on which the song appeared.”

Dylan got a taste of his own medicine, she continues, when another girlfriend, Joan Baez, wrote her own song about her time with “the unwashed phenomenon” in 1972.

“‘Diamonds and Rust’ exposed the future Nobel Prize winner as an emotionally unavailable lover who used his verbal dexterity for keeping things vague,” says Brown. “Although when Baez met Dylan she was the bigger star, by the time she wrote ‘Diamonds and Rust’ she was punching up, and that’s important if you want to bring the audience on board. And although Justin Timberlake helped launch his solo career with ‘Cry Me a River’ in 2002, using a video that strongly suggested that his ex and at that point the bigger star Britney Spears had cheated on him, he was forced to apologise to her after the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, accused him of ‘weaponising’ their split to raise his own profile in an misogynistic industry.”

If Timberlake’s reputation has suffered, he can console himself by knowing he isn’t alone in taking a former lover to task. Even squeaky-clean Ed Sheeran has done so, with his 2014 song “Don’t”, about girlfriend Ellie Goulding allegedly cheating on him with One Direction’s Niall Horan (Goulding denied this had happened). Here, he furiously warbles “I met this girl late last year ... I reckon she was only looking for a lover to burn.” There is lots of speculation as to the identity of the woman – and while Sheeran has never named names, he says the song is inspired by real events.

“‘Don’t’ is 100 per cent true,” Sheeran told Billboard magazine. “I could have gotten nastier – there was more s*** that I didn’t put in. I was seeing someone for a bit of time, and then they ended up physically involved with one of my friends in the same hotel that we were staying in, while I was downstairs. And I feel like: Treat people how you want to be treated.”

Ed Sheeran’s song ‘Don’t’ is believed to be about an ex (Getty for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

These are just a few examples. There are countless others –from “Song For the Dumped” by Ben Folds Five to Little Mix’s “Shout Out to My Ex”, via all the best bits of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (where the band members toiled around the clock inflicting heartache upon one another). The question, then, is why do these songs speak to us? Perhaps it is the spikiness of the emotion. Pop can feel homogenous nowadays – with a handful of producers and songwriters shaping the aesthetics of the genre (Max Martin, who co-wrote “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with Swift, also authored Spears’s “Baby One More Time”, for instance).

But every bad break-up is unique. The heartache Cyrus experienced over the end of her marriage is a very different feeling to that experienced by Swift when Gyllenhaal allegedly told her he preferred cool indie rock to her songs. This gives each of these tracks its own personality. Also, snark sells – and perhaps it restores our faith in human nature to be reminded that even glamorous pop stars are dumped, and cheated on, and nurse resentful feelings about the person who stomped all over their dignity. They are, in other words, just like us.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Nancy Sinatra’s solo career was regarded as already over when she released “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” in January 1966. Her previous single, “So Long, Babe”, had flopped. With its failure, Frank Sinatra’s daughter was thought to have blown her big chance. Then came “These Boots” – with those lyrics about taking a controlling lover down a peg or three. And with that, she achieved pop immortality.

The same feat was replicated half a decade on by Carly Simon. Though from a hugely privileged background – her father was the co-founder of publishers Simon and Schuster – she is acknowledged as one of the outstanding female artists of her era: a peer of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. But what is the first – perhaps only – song of hers you can name off the top of your head? The answer is inevitably 1972’s “You’re So Vain” – that hurricane-force takedown of a dude who regards himself as God’s gift, to women specifically and to humanity in general.

Speculation has raged for decades as to who the song is about. Simon has kept that secret to herself (though she did whisper a name to the winner of a $50,000 charity auction in 2003). Suspicion has, however, fallen on lovers such as Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty (who remains convinced he is the target of Simon’s wry ire). There is also a theory that it was directed at notoriously ruthless (and rude) record mogul David Geffen.

The more prosaic possibility is that it isn’t about a specific rock star or actor, but is directed at men in general. “It’s about a compilation of men that Carly had known, but primarily Warren Beatty,” said Richard Perry, who produced the track.

No decade demonstrated the power of the revenge song more than the 1990s. Björk, Tori Amos and No Doubt all dabbled to one degree or another. And Alanis Morissette’s entire career is built on the shin-kicking Jagged Little Pill from 1995. And that record is an exacting act of payback towards a lover who double-crossed the singer. With 33 million units sold, her quest for musical vengeance was lucrative. It also cast a shadow over the life of her former boyfriend, David Coulier. He found himself hounded by the journalists eager to discover if he was the one who had smashed Alanis’s heart to pieces.

Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ is one of the most famous revenge songs (Getty for Audacy)

That he was the villain in all this was news to Coulier. He was in his car listening to the radio when Morissette’s single, “You Oughta Know”, came on – with acid splash lyrics such as “I’m here to remind you/ Of the mess you left when you went away.” “I said, ‘Wow, this girl is angry.’ And then I said, ‘Oh man, I think it’s Alanis,’” Coulier revealed. “I listened to the song over and over again, and I said, ‘I think I have really hurt this person.’”

Readers may point out that not all of these songs were entirely the work of the artist with whom they become synonymous. Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” was written not by her but by R&B star Ne-Yo, and was inspired by his aunt, who hadn’t hesitated to show the door to a boyfriend who had cheated on her.

“These Boots” was meanwhile penned by Nancy Sinatra’s foil, Lee Hazlewood. He had overheard boozehounds in a dive bar mocking a drinker about his supposedly controlling girlfriend. The man responded by putting his feet on the table, saying, “I am the boss of my house, and these boots will walk all over her the day that I’m not.”

Hazlewood considered recording the song himself. In the end, he felt it was better for Sinatra. She agreed: “When a guy sings it, the song sounds harsh and abusive, but it’s perfect for a little girl.”

We’ll never know for sure. But the likelihood is that a Hazlewood version would have gone down in history as a forgettable curio. What makes the track is Sinatra’s mix of wit and menace. The same can be said of “Irreplaceable” and Beyoncé: the power of the song flows from her gut-punch delivery. The revenge element is expressed not simply through the lyrics but in the cathartic way in which she emotes them.

With Cyrus yet to unveil “Flowers” in full, it’s hard to say whether it will soar to the heights of these great revenge songs of the past. But given she tied the knot with Hemsworth and made her life with him in Malibu, her feelings about their break-up clearly run deep. Nor has she ever been an artist to bite her tongue or sneak around the back entrance when there is an option to kick down the front door. So whatever surprises it contains, expect “Flowers” to shoot from the hip.

Hemsworth is currently girding his man-bun in preparation for season four of Netflix’s The Witcher (he replaces Henry Cavill as the titular hero). Here’s hoping he packed his shield and chainmail. If the pummelling teaser to “Flowers” is anything to go by, he will need all the armour he can lay his hands on.

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