Release Radar: Miley Cyrus and SZA on Empowering Breakups

Tom Walker

Contributing Writer

Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” may sound like a simple pop song upon first listen, but the song draws from a rich history of music and culture. The song features light synthesizer chords that are prevalent in the pop genre, but also incorporates multiple elements of disco music. Specifically, the song’s pulsing bass line and chorus of background vocals give it that distinctive feeling that makes you want to dance. The chords in the song’s hook also pull from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” which sports similar themes of empowerment and is likely the most prolific disco song of all time. But, simply listening to the accompanying elements would miss the focus of the song. At its core, “Flowers” is a deconstruction of modern love songs; specifically, Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man.” “Flowers” interpolates (or reuses) the melody of Mars’ song but changes the lyrics to reflect her own perspective. Instead of Mars’ line “I should’ve bought you flowers,” “and held your hand,” Cyrus changes the lyrics to, “I can buy myself flowers and hold my own hand.” By using elements of a classic modern love song, Cyrus directly attacks modern messaging around romance, concluding that, “I can love me better than you can.” 

Photo courtesy of Smooth Radio

In a similar vein, SZA’s “Kill Bill” explores the idea of a breakup but through the lens of SZA planning to murder her ex-boyfriend. “Kill Bill” also features a synth melody, however, SZA’s melody sounds almost discordant and reminiscent of sirens. This feeling mimics the artist’s own emotional state as she sings about the murder saying, “if I can’t have you no one should.” The song also focuses on its historical predecessors; though not from the history of music. Rather, SZA draws from film, specifically Quentin Tarentino’s film Kill Bill (of which the song gets its name). In the film, The Bride, the film’s protagonist, seeks revenge on her own ex-boyfriend due to his murder of her husband. In this way, SZA compares herself to both the film’s protagonist and antagonist since, like The Bride, she wants to kill her ex-boyfriend but, like the film’s antagonist, she is unwilling to see her prior partner happy with anyone else. By referencing film history, SZA is able to create a complex perspective where the listener simultaneously understands her motivations but also recognizes that she is wrong. 

Photo courtesy of Smooth Radio

While the two songs’ commentary about the topic of break-ups somewhat contradict, both songs’ focus of loss is reflected in their respective album cover. In both, the artist is depicted alone, center frame, on a blue background. SZA’s cover feels reflective as her back is turned to the camera and she sits on a diving board facing an endless ocean. On the other hand, Cyrus’s cover feels rebellious and bold with her facing the camera hanging from a trapeze. In both cases, the covers represent the mood and feel of the pieces. Like the songs themselves, the covers rely on many of the same fundamental building blocks but feel entirely different.