Cyrus had no part in writing this song, but there was very real emotion behind it: she was going through problems in her relationship with the actor Liam Hemsworth, and the couple would split up not long after.
Some songwriters write specifically for an artist and try to relate it to her specific circumstance, but that wasn't the case here. The lyric was written by the Detroit singer-songwriter MoZella (Maureen Anne McDonald), who also co-wrote Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)" with Goonrock for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby movie. MoZella had just gone through a devastating breakup and channeled that into the song. It happened to sync perfectly with what Cyrus was going through: giving your all for love, but getting wrecked in return.
This was written in two parts. The musical underpinnings for the chorus came from a writing session with MoZella and guitarist, songwriter and producer Kiyanu Kim at his New York City studio. The song then came together in a single songwriting session that took place September 24, 2012 among MoZella, Sacha Skarbek and Stephan Moccio. Skarbek is a British songwriter who played a key role in the development of James Blunt, including co-penning the Worldwide #1 hit, "You're Beautiful"; Moccio is a Canadian composer whose credits include Celine Dion's 2002 hit "A New Day Will Come" and Nikki Yanofsky's official theme of CTV's 2010 Winter Olympics coverage "I Believe."
In our interview with Moccio, he explained: "MoZella was extremely emotional that day. She was very frail because she had broken off her wedding during that week. She almost didn't end up making the session. 'Wrecking Ball' in every way is about MoZella's toxic relationship and then the courage to say, 'I can't go through with this.'" So here we are, Sacha and I holding this girl together who was just very emotional, trying to comfort her."
"We all wanted a strong metaphor as a title and we were just throwing out words," he added. "I remember kind of shyly putting up my hand and saying, 'What about 'Wrecking Ball'?' And Sacha went, 'Yeah, 'Wrecking Ball,' that sounds good.' And MoZella kind of ran with that. It's when she got the line, 'I came in like a wrecking ball.' It was real collaborative."
This song was written for Beyoncé, but when it was finished, MoZella suggested she send the demo to Cyrus, deeming her a better fit. MoZella had been working on some other songs for Cyrus, so she was albe to get her ear. When Cyrus heard it, she loved the song.
This big emotional breakup ballad was released as a promotional single from Miley Cyrus' Bangerz album on August 25, 2013. It immediately rolled up to #2 on the iTunes sales chart in the aftermath of Cyrus' controversial MTV VMA performance joining "We Can't Stop" in the Top Five.
The American hitmaker Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald), who has written and produced for Katy Perry, Rihanna and Britney Spears, produced this track along with Cirkut (Henry Russell Walter), a Canadian producer who works for Dr. Luke's production company.
Dr. Luke and Cirkut also got songwriting credits for their efforts. The pair previously linked up with Cyrus when they produced the will.i.am track, "Fall Down," for which the former Disney star provided vocals.
Cyrus told Billboard magazine that she was excited about being able to show off her vocal chops on this power ballad. "A lot of people wanted to try to make me the white Nicki Minaj," she said. "That's not what I'm trying to do. I love 'hood' music, but my talent is as a singer."
Curus added: "We were inspired by OneRepublic, and the way Timbaland used to do those big ballads."
The song's music video was directed by fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who photographed Cyrus for the September 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar. The clip begins with a close-up of the singer standing in front of a completely white backdrop and shedding a single tear while performing the song, recalling Sinead O'Connor's iconic "Nothing Compares 2 U" visual. The video becomes more contentious as we see the former Disney star sitting naked on top of a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer amidst scenes of her demolishing a three-walled cinder block room.
Cyrus told New York's Z100 radio station that her fans need to understand that there is more to the racy visual than her riding around on a swinging wrecking ball naked and suggestively licking a sledgehammer. "I think the video is much more, if people get past the point that I'm naked and you actually look at me you can tell that I actually look more broken then even the song sounds," she said. "The song is a pop ballad. It's one of these songs that everyone is going to relate to, everyone has felt that feeling at one point."
Cyrus added that the filming of her singing straight to camera as a tear runs down her cheek proved to be a challenge. "If people can take their minds out of the obvious and go into their imagination a little bit and see kind of what the video really means and the way it's so vulnerable and actually if you look in my eyes I look more sad then my voice sounds on the record it was a lot harder to do the video then it was to record the songs," she said. "It was much more of an emotional experience."
Cyrus swung her way to a one day record for views across VEVO, as her video for this song accumulated 19.3 million views in its first 24 hours. The previous milestone was held by One Direction whose "Best Song Ever" attracted 12.3 views in one day in July 2013.
The song's elevation to peak position meant that Cyrus became the first member of her family to reach #1 on the Hot 100. Her father Billy Ray peaked at #4 with "Achy Breaky Heart" in 1992 and brother Trace climbed to #10 as part of Metro Station with "Shake It" in 2008.
Cyrus performed the track live for the first time during a four-song performance at the iHeartRadio Music Festival Village in Las Vegas on September 21, 2013.
Cyrus told Rolling Stone that the tear she sheds in the video was real - "My dog just passed away," she explained.
This was the first song called "Wrecking Ball" to hit the US Hot 100, but the phrase had been picking up momentum in the musical universe. Other acts who had seized the metaphor as a way to express figurative destruction include Lifehouse, whose "Wrecking Ball" came in 2010, and Bruce Springsteen, who used the title for his 2012 album and its title track. Also in 2012, Aubrey O'Day released a song with that name, and Jack's Mannequin gave us "Wrecking Ball Heart."
The close-up shot of Cyrus shedding a tear in the video was evocative of the 1990 Sinead O'Connor hit "Nothing Compares 2 U," where the Irish singer also cries what she claimed was a real tear. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Cyrus said of the "Wrecking Ball" video: "It's like the Sinead O'Connor video, but, like, the most modern version."
This statement prompted O'Connor to post an "open letter" on her website expressing concern that Cyrus was being "pimped," and was obscuring her talent. Sinead urged her not to let the music business "make a prostitute of you," adding, "Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited."
O'Connor also made reference to Cyrus licking a sledgehammer in this song's video and swinging naked on a metal demolition ball. "I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe, or encouraged you in your own belief," she wrote, "that it is in any way 'cool' to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos. Please, in future, say no when you are asked to prostitute yourself."
Cyrus reacted by calling attention to O'Connor's history of mental illness and public meltdowns by means of a screengrab of several tweets O'Connor sent out in the past asking for mental help and prescription medication, as well as comparing her to another celebrity with mental health issues, actress Amanda Bynes.
O'Connor did not take kindly to the reply and her response was to pen a second open letter, referring to Cyrus as "a danger to women" and threatening her with legal action over her "bullying" tweet.
Cyrus cut off communication with two more Tweets, the first explaining that she was too busy to write a letter as she would be appearing on Saturday Night Live (a show O'Connor was banned from for tearing up a picture of the pope on her appearance), and the second stating, "if youd like to meet up and talk lemme know in your next letter. :)"
This won Best Video at the 2013 MTV Europe Music Awards. Cyrus celebrated her award by lighting up a joint and taking a puff onstage. The event was held in Amsterdam, where marijuana smokers can't be prosecuted for possessing small amounts.
The music clip led VEVO's tally of the most-watched music videos of 2013, racking up 371 million views in total after reaching 100 million in only six days. "We Can't Stop" was second place in the list.
The song swung back to the #1 position on the Hot 100 after a nine week gap in December 2013 thanks to the viral popularity of a parody video by YouTuber comedian Stephen Kardynal. The nine-week wait for a second reign was the longest in the tally's history for a song in one chart run. Chubby Checker's "The Twist" led in 1960 and again in 1962 but that was over two different chart runs.
Miley's mom, Tish, is a fan. She tweeted: "Wrecking Ball could be my favorite song EVER!!! I've been listening to it for months on end and I NEVER get tired of it! Blows me away"
The visual won Video of the Year at the 2014 MTV Video Awards. Miley put a spotlight on homelessness when her award was accepted on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless American youths by former homeless Los Angeles youngster, Jesse Helt. He then directed fans to an appeal for donations to fund a new LA homeless center on Miley's Facebook page.
While everyone else was sure that "Wrecking Ball" would become a hit, Dr. Luke wasn't. In fact, he told Cyrus that if he was wrong and the song did top the charts, he would buy her a state-of-the-art Numi toilet like his own, which includes wireless Bluetooth music sync capability and a heated seat and foot warmer. "Contrary to what he thinks," Cyrus told John Seabrook, author of The Sound Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, "Dr. Luke isn't always right. Now he has to buy me a $10,000 toilet. I'll be thinking of him every time I go."
Now she is older and wiser, Miley admits that she cringes at the video's concept. "That's something you can't take away, swinging around naked on a wrecking ball lives forever," she told The Zach Sang Show in May 2017. "Once you do that (in the way) that I did, it's forever. I'm never living that down. I will always be the naked girl on a wrecking ball... (And) I just licked the sledgehammer."
"I should've thought (about) how long that was going to follow me around," Cyrus added. "My worst nightmare is that being played at my funeral... 'We'll always remember Miley' and then that."