Understanding "Wrecking Ball," as Performed by Miley Cyrus

A theoretical analysis

Miley Cyrus performs onstage at Terminal 5 on November 28, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Max Shelton/FilmMagic). Max Shelton/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Wrecking Ball” is a song recorded by Miley Cyrus on her 2013 album . It was written by MoZella, Stephan Moccio, Sacha Skarbek, Lukasz Gottwald, and Henry Russell Walter. To see the lyrics, visit this site. This article will only make sense if you follow along with the lyrics, which are not included here due to copyright restrictions. Watching the video will also help; note that it includes adult content.

Here's another performance of it on Saturday Night Live, which is just the music, straight up.

“Wrecking Ball” is a good example of how many parts of a song work together to reinforce the song’s overall conceptual theme. In this case, the story is about the dual nature of unbridled passion as both a force for creation and destruction. The wrecking ball metaphor is both a sign of strength, but also, the devastation it can wreak. This duality of darkness and light shows up throughout the song’s harmony, form, lyrical rhyme structure, and other elements.

SONG FORM

The song form is a repeating structure of verse (a), prechorus (b), chorus (c), with a bridge (b) before the final iteration of the prechorus/chorus pair. There are two unique verses. So, the arrangement follows the form AA'BA'', or to break it down farther:

abc abcc’ d b’cc’

The sub-structure is in a state of constant variation, keeping the narrative fresh, but also increasingly relying on the image of the wrecking ball, as opposed to exposing more of the background story.

LYRICS and MELODY

The verse, prechorus, and bridge are dense with lyrics, with many eight notes and few rests. The chorus has notes of longer duration and wider space.  The higher vocal range and dynamic of the chorus make it a point of arrival, with the greatest energy and power.

The rhyme scheme of the song sections vary, though with enough similarities to weave them together and add to the song's overall cohesion.

  • Verse: xyzy
  • Prechorus: xyzy
  • Chorus: xyxzz and xyxz
  • Bridge: xyxyxyy

The variation gives the song an unpredictability, but arriving at the chorus with the repeated last line helps define it as a grounding force for the song’s central idea: how the narrator swung into the relationship like a wrecking ball, but ultimately ended up wrecked.

STORY

The story line is advanced by the two verses, the bridge, and the expansion/variation in the chorus starting after the second verse. In the lyric story, the singer addresses her partner after the relationship has ended, visiting its history and analyzing its meaning.

Verse 1 (“We clawed….”) describes the beginning of an impulsive and passionate love. The prechorus (“Don’t you ever say…”) clarifies that even though the narrator ended it, she still has strong feelings and perhaps regrets. The chorus (“I came in…”) reflects on the relationship’s mutually destructive nature.

Verse 2 (“I put…”) hints at the difficulties, the singer taking some blame for making her partner no longer someone she can stand being with, perhaps with her affections and praise becoming twisted and making him overly arrogant. The chorus repeats in variation to reiterate the vulnerability going into the relationship, and the destructive final result.

Similarly, in the video, she is now nude, riding the wrecking ball as it swings around the concrete walls (which were all she wanted to break down), furthering the sense of vulnerability.

So, the unfolding story is about the nature of this love becoming twisted and turning the relationship sour. The wrecking ball image is simultaneously one of both unbridled passion and a force of unstoppable destruction. The narrator struggles with finding strength and protecting her sense of self amidst these devastating forces.

The bridge (“I never meant….”) wrestles with the duality of the constructive and destructive dimensions of the love. Its following prechorus is abbreviated, refreshing the entrance to the out chorus(es).

HARMONY

The verse harmony is set in D minor, with the chord progression D– F  C G–.

This pattern of two major chords and two minor chords mirrors the balanced forces of construction and destruction that is the recurring theme of the narrative.  It repeats.

D–:

I– III VII IV–

I– III VII IV–

The prechorus harmony is in Bb major, with the chords Bb D minor F Bb, which repeats.

Bb:

I II– V I

I II– V I

The chorus harmony is in the relative major of the verse key’s D minor, now F major, in the progression F C D minor Bb. Thus, the overall harmonic motion in the sections is from minor to major, which again can be thought of as darkness moving to light, but ending at a point of vulnerability in the last chords of the chorus. The chorus progression repeats in a slightly expanded variation, in the form:

F:

I V VI– IV

I V VI– IV, VI– IV

Thus, it begins strong, explores vulnerability, is strong again, but then ends at a point of instability.

The bridge harmony picks up the chord progression of the prechorus, but this time proceeds to A minor after the F, which is a highly unstable chord that adds great momentum going first to the Bb of the repeated bridge harmony, but then moving to the Bb of the prechorus. The bridge’s harmonic rhythm is now half the speed of the other sections, which lends it weight and calms the energy down: whole notes instead of half notes.

Bb:

I III– V VII–

I III– V VII–

It then eases into the similar and familiar prechorus, and we now have a high degree of instability and momentum leading to the final chorus—the song's dramatic climax.

So, in this song, many elements are working together to create a similar effect. The variation in various structural elements creates instability, carefully constructed to lend momentum leading into each chorus. On a smaller scale, the balance of darkness and light within elements such as chord qualities and rhyme patterns help to underscore the central duality of what the song is about.