Well, it didn’t take very long into 2023 for the first runaway hit to emerge — and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it comes from Miley Cyrus. She’s been one of the most consistently visible pop stars of the past 15 years, a cross-platform, household-name celebrity who’s maintained a devoted following while undergoing a fascinating artistic evolution from one era to the next.
Still, the speed with which “Flowers” reached exit velocity would’ve been tough to predict. While the spotlight on Cyrus has hardly diminished in the decade since she became the biggest pop star in the world off the backs of twin smashes “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball” (the latter her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100), she hasn’t scored the same level of hits over the past 10 years. In fact, she’s only reached the chart’s top 10 twice since 2013 — as an added artist to the remix of The Kid LAROI’s “Without You” (No. 8, 2021) and with her own “Malibu” (No. 10, 2017) — both times spending just one week in the region before sliding down the rankings.
That’s not likely to be the story of “Flowers,” however, which zooms directly to the top of this week’s Hot 100 — the first totally new No. 1 of 2023, with some of the best first-full-week numbers of any song this decade. With the single immediately being embraced on radio and streaming, and those numbers hardly looking like they’re falling off halfway into its second week, it seems like Cyrus’ new single might not just be her biggest chart hit since 2013, but may end up the biggest smash of her entire career to date.
How did it happen? Here are five reasons why “Flowers” is putting up such awesome numbers.
1. New Year’s Momentum. With the Christmas music season becoming more competitive every year, Cyrus made the wise decision to instead focus her attention on claiming the even more widely celebrated (but much less widely commemorated) neighboring holiday of New Year’s Eve. For the second straight year, Cyrus hosted the NBC special Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party during the Dec. 31 ball drop — another star-studded affair, co-hosted this time by her legendary godmother Dolly Parton, with the duo performing a mini-set of their own classics like “Wrecking Ball” and “Jolene.” The special was well-received and viewed by over five million people — a sizable audience in an era of declining linear ratings — helping boost both artists’ catalogs and further establishing Cyrus as pop’s Queen of New Year’s.
Cyrus also teased a “New Year, New Miley” with a series of billboards in the lead-up to Dec. 31 — and then announced the upcoming release of “Flowers” during the special, with a Twitter video teasing the Jan. 13 (ultimately late Jan. 12) drop. Then on Jan. 5, she announced that the single would be part of a new album, titled Endless Summer Vacation and due in March. With her recent New Year’s special both making sure Cyrus was already top of mind for her longtime fans (while perhaps introducing or reintroducing her to new ones who just happened to tune in) and giving her a platform to trumpet her return to pop, the new single arrived with built-up attention and anticipation, basically ensuring a good deal of ears on it upon its debut.
2. January dominance. The proximity to her New Year’s special wasn’t the only reason why the song’s Jan. 12 debut made for good timing. Increasingly, the relatively barren and uncompetitive post-holidays winter season has proven to be fertile ground for runaway hits — with one song in particular usually filling the void of new releases by seizing hold of the public imagination around mid-January and then not letting go until March or April. Roddy Ricch and Olivia Rodrigo scored massive career-making hits around this time in 2020 and 2021, respectively, while Encanto‘s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (and “Pushin’ P” from Future and Gunna featuring Young Thug) also swept through the culture at the beginning of 2022.
This year, that one song appears to belong to Cyrus. It’s not exactly running unopposed on the Hot 100 this week: SZA’s “Kill Bill,” a still-growing breakout hit from the R&B star’s December blockbuster SOS, and Shakira and Bizarrap’s “Bzrp Music Sessions, Vol. 53,” an internet-storming team-up that arrived a day before Miley’s return, are both also commanding space and momentum of their own. But those songs now appear to be in the chart shadow of “Flowers,” whose much-hyped arrival in a pop landscape still mostly cluttered with 2022 (if not even longer-ago) leftovers has it poised to dominate both the discussion and the airwaves for weeks, perhaps months to come.
3. Harry’s house crew. Speaking of dominating the airwaves, look up the credits for “Flowers” and you’ll find two names who spent most of 2022 doing just that: Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson. Those are the writer-producers who played a major part in shaping the sound of each of Harry Styles’ three solo albums to date, most recently co-helming last year’s smash LP Harry’s House. With a mostly upbeat and rubbery pop-soul vibe to the set, the two helped establish a signature sound for Styles that landed somewhere between a funked-up Paul McCartney and a more domestic Bruno Mars, and also made him unavoidable on radio for the months since its May release.
That sound has proven a match for Cyrus as well, with the lush, bass-led strut of “Flowers” feeling like the logical continuation of the sonic template established by Harry’s House and its singles. With that lane re-established on top 40 — and with more explicit disco throwbacks from earlier in the decade by Doja Cat and Dua Lipa also paving the way — “Flowers” grooved right into heavy rotation, debuting at No. 18 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart this week with 33.5 million radio impressions, according to Luminate. And if it grows from there into the first truly ubiquitous new FM hit of 2022, no one would or should be surprised.
4. Fan theories and TikTok. While Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” broke out in 2021 on the merits of its rock-solid songcraft and overpowering performance, what really poured gasoline on the fire of its initial virality was the implied real-life love triangle that fans assumed was at the single’s core. A great pop song will always find ears, but if you want to get headlines as well, it never hurts to have a narrative hook to hang the song on — particularly if said narrative is given a thin veneer of obfuscation that fans have to dig just a little bit to get through. (Though Shakira and Bizarrap’s more explicitly s–t-talking single also proved you can find top 10 Hot 100 success with a less-subtle approach.)
In any event, “Flowers” went the “License” route, with a post-breakup I Will Survive (And Thrive) lyric that many listeners assumed was directed at celebrity ex Liam Hemsworth, with whom Cyrus split in 2019. And Cyrus took it a step further by burying Easter eggs in the song and its video to further get her fans buzzing: Is the dress she’s wearing a reference to The Hunger Games and Hemsworth’s co-star Jennifer Lawrence? Are the lyrics seemingly responding to Mars’ “When I Was Your Man” because it’s a Hemsworth favorite? Was it billed as a Jan. 13 release because that’s Hemsworth’s birthday?
All these theories and more were of course widely circulated on TikTok in the days following its release, helping the song become a sensation on the platform, and contributing to a debut of 52.6 million official U.S. streams in its first full week of availability, easily the biggest number of Cyrus’ career. It also sells 70,000 — the largest one-week total since Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” last November — which suggests older fans, who are more likely to still be spending money on music, were as interested in the song as their TikTok-ing younger counterparts.
5. Just being Miley. Although Cyrus hadn’t scored a breakout hit on the level of her pair of Bangerz classics since 2013 — and in fact practically seemed to run in the opposite direction of doing so with that album’s follow-up, 2015’s experimental psychedelic romp Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz — public affection for her had never really waned, and her star never really shrank. Every big new single of hers still got a ton of media and fan attention, and made a splashy arrival, even though they tended to recede commercially from there. Still, if an artist as talented and recognized as Cyrus gets enough cracks at making a huge pop comeback, they’re going to have a pretty good chance at breaking through with one of them.
So maybe Cyrus was overdue for a song like “Flowers,” which plays perfectly to her soaring-but-gritty voice, her cross-genre adaptability, and her reputation as a fiercely individualistic artist. And while the loved-up pop-rock of “Malibu” and arena-ready synth-rock of “Midnight Sky” might not have quite met their moment, time and tide appear to be on her side for “Flowers,” which has enraptured all kinds of audiences, put up huge initial numbers in all three Hot 100 metrics, and seems well on its way to becoming one of the defining singles of 2023. If Endless Summer Vacation can keep her winning streak rolling, it might not be another decade before she has another hit like it, either.