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FAO Miley Cyrus: A Brief History of the Lumbering Simile in Contemporary Pop

From "Umbrella" to "Wrecking Ball", how pop got lazy with its lyrics and why it's the fault of Year 5 English teachers.

Of the myriad of things that Miley Cyrus has become famous for over the past couple of weeks, subtlety isn’t one of them. Yet even by the standards of her own thrush-ridden foam finger, the video for "Wrecking Ball" is so jaw-droppingly in your face that it’s almost doubled in on itself to become an understated metaphor for something else. Its lack of nuance is based in three painstakingly literal translations of the words "wrecking ball".


Painstakingly literal translation #1: the name of a wrecking ball itself. Some inventions have genius titles that surmise their purpose without explanation: cat’s eyes, Slinky, the web. The wrecking ball does not fall into this lucky group. Like a baby girl called Kandi, you pretty much know what it’s going to be. Which would be fine if it wasn’t for…

Painstakingly literal translation #2: the main lyric of this song is “I came in like a wrecking ball/all I wanted was to break your walls”, which would be a great line in gay porn, but is a bit clunky in a pop song. But even that would be just about pass if that it wasn’t for…

Painstakingly literal translation #3: the lyrics in "Wrecking Ball", which, under the genius direction of Terry Richardson, have resulted in a video in which Miley swings around butt-naked on a giant wrecking ball smashing up walls and giving oral pleasure to a sledgehammer. Yep a sledgehammer, literally the word you use to describe actions devoid of subtlety or sensitivity.

It’s such an audaciously obvious attempt to provide verbatim visuals, you have to question whether Miley is genuinely considering a career in construction. But alas the song’s other hamfisted lyrics “We clawed, we chained, our hearts in vain” and “instead of using force, I guess I should've let you win” suggests that this song is indeed a thalidomide metaphor for a broken romance.

But I would posit that very little of this is Miley’s fault. There are societal powers greater than her’s which led her pushed into this corner OR SHOULD I SAY, SWUNG AGAINST THE WALL, AM I RIGHT MILEZ?? Here’s a brief history of inanimate objects and how they came to take over pop.



These are the three most successful pop songs of the 90s, and they typify the attitude to songwriting at the time. They all tell the stories of relationships in terms of the relationships themselves. Cher’s singing about leaving a past love behind, Bryan Adams about devotion, and Britney - well she’s always claimed the “hit” is metaphorical, but either way it’s about the passionate first throws of love. But that all changed with…


Back in 2007, Rihanna was, to use a metaphor she’d enjoy, choking on the roach of her career. Two albums had failed to ignite the charts and she was being overtaken in the diva stakes by Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse. Then came Umbrella, which was number one for an entire summer, and made her the globally-famous overworked slush pot she is today. Unusually at the time, the song’s central lyric used an everyday object to describe security from the vulnerable vestiges of love. It was simple, but it was clever, transforming the most mundane household item into a symbol of union.


And so it came to be that just about every major pop song over the next six years was about an inanimate object. But unlike Rihanna’s inspired turn, lazier writers started to use any super obvious shit to signify the explosion of love. So we had Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”, Jessie J’s “Domino”, Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes”, Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”, Jordin Sparks “Battlefield” and too many others to mention. There has, of course, always been metaphor employed in song, but here the technique wasn’t to use language in an emotive and descriptive way, but to screech the title of the song over and over again until you’re forced to buy it off iTunes just to make it go away.



The blame of course, lies with these idiots. When you’re in school, you learn a couple of techniques you’re told will make your writing more interesting, all of which are examples of abysmal writing that should be employed by no one. Alliteration makes you sound like a cunting cretin. The equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium structure is staid and predictable. And similes, which you’re constantly told will add colour to writing, are normally employed so lazily they make intelligent, grown humans sound like whimpering teenage poets. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? No.


So it’s not Miley’s fault that pop music has been sanded down to a vehicle for rich people to iterate the title of the thing they’re trying to sell. But the final piece of this puzzle is that despite its blaring, in-your-face look-at-me obviousness, the wrecking ball is the last thing you’re thinking about when you watch Miley’s new video. Because in sucking off a hammer and engaging in frottage with a rusty chain, the wrecking ball barely gets a look in. I suppose the songwriters wanted to do whatever they could to try and get some semblance of a song squeezed into the video equivalent of letting the sweaty-palmed snot boy from school slip two fingers up you just so you can tell your friends you did it in the music store cupboard.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamWolfson

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