From Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift: How pop singers get their revenge

Revenge is a dish best served loud. At least it is if you’re a singer eager to make an impression on the charts and re-establish your credentials as a top-tier pop star. That is the logic seemingly behind Miley Cyrus’s comeback single, “Flowers”. Pop’s one-time enfant terrible breaks a three-year silence with the release of the song on 13 January. That day is also the 33rd birthday of her ex Liam Hemsworth, whom she divorced in January 2020 after two years of matrimony.

Coincidence? Not if the snippet of lyrics she has shared on Instagram is anything to go by. “I can love me better than you,” sings Cyrus, her husky voice splintered with emotion. But is the urge to share her heartache the only motivation? Cyrus has never been an artist to do things by half measures, and will be eager to build on the acclaim won by her 2020 album Plastic Hearts. Does she hope to supercharge her return with a broken-hearted diss track?

She wouldn’t be the first to adopt that strategy (the single is followed by a new LP, Endless Summer Vacation, on 10 March). There is a secret history of pop stars using revenge songs to leverage their way up music’s greasy pole. If in doubt, goes the logic, rip your ex to shreds – and watch the public come running for more.

Consider many of your favourite pop stars – and then reflect on their best-known songs. Taylor Swift? Until last year’s early midlife crisis masterpiece Midnights, her biggest hits were invariably those where she took a blunderbuss to former beaus.

A case in point is “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, the vituperative bopper with which she brought down the curtain every night during her last major world tour (in 2018). This was her snarling salute to the ex who, in her telling of the tale, had treated her like an emotional rag-doll – to be picked up and tossed aside as required.

The rumour is it’s about Jake Gyllenhaal, with whom Swift was romantically involved for about three months in 2010. She has neither confirmed nor denied that speculation. That mystery notwithstanding, the lyrics are not afraid to get into specifics. Swift recalls, for instance, how her then boyfriend looked down on her songs – “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/ With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”.

“It’s a definitive portrait of how I felt when I finally stopped caring what my ex thought of me,” she told USA Today. “[He] made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to… So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio.”

You could fill an entire ledger with a list of Swift’s revenge tracks. They also include “Dear John”, reputedly about John Mayer, whom she dated in 2019 when she was 19 and he was 32. And “Bad Blood” – not romantic, but inspired by her beef with Katy Perry, with whom she fell out when they both tried to hire the same backing dancer for a tour.

Swifties believe their heroine is reinventing pop every time she steps behind a mic. The truth is that, in terms of demolishing lousy exes, she is perched on the shoulders of giants. One of those who went (slightly) before her is Beyoncé. Because while the Renaissance star is nowadays unchallenged as the Queen of Pop, early in her solo career that wasn’t the case. It took a cold, sharp revenge anthem to confirm her status as one of the great stand-alone artists of her generation.

B’Day, Beyoncé’s second LP, had floundered on release in 2006. Singles “Déjà Vu” and “Ring the Alarm” had come and gone without a trace. Questions were asked about the viability of Beyoncé the solo artist – especially with Destiny’s Child having come off a huge world tour 12 months previously. Was she better off sticking to the day job fronting a blockbusting girl group?

Then she released the wonderfully vindictive “Irreplaceable”. It’s a torch song about setting alight to the memories of a bad relationship and a cheating partner. “Everything you own in the box to the left/ In the closet that’s my stuff,” she declaimed over a sprightly Spanish guitar – and Queen Bae was born.

The potency of a good revenge track was not lost on Beyoncé. “Irreplaceable” paved the way for the definitive artistic statement that was 2016’s Lemonade. This was an epic flensing of her husband Jay-Z in the aftermath of his alleged infidelity. And it gave her the one prize she was, at that point, yet to receive – universal critical acclaim.

But perhaps the most explicit – and notorious – example of the commercial potential of revenge was Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, from 2002. A quintessential before-and-after moment, it sealed the transformation of the former ’N Sync leader from mere heart-throb to Serious Artist.

The criticism of Timberlake is that he revved up his career by sacrificing his ex, Britney Spears. The lyrics to “Cry Me a River” were inspired by his split from Spears. However, Timberlake made the implicit explicit in the accompanying video, which not only featured a dancer styled to look like Britney Spears, but was filmed in a way that suggested that Spears had been unfaithful to Timberlake (as rumoured in the tabloids).

At the time, the video served its purpose, painting Spears as the heartbreaker, Timberlake as the innocent and naive boyfriend. Twenty years later, the public shaming of Spears landed very differently.

Ed Sheeran’s song ‘Don’t’ is believed to be about an ex

Far from being seen as the wronged party, Timberlake was now viewed as a bully, washing his dirty laundry before all the world. He came round to that point of view too, and in 2021 publicly apologised to Spears. And yet, even here, he was not breaking new ground. His lack of generosity towards Spears was part of a tradition of male artists taking it out on their exes.

Bob Dylan mastered the art of the take-down early in his career,” says Helen Brown, The Independent’s music critic. “‘Goodbye’s too good a word, babe,’ he sneered on ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ (1963), probably addressing his on-off girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who appeared with Dylan on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the album on which the song appeared.”

Dylan got a taste of his own medicine, she continues, when another girlfriend, Joan Baez, wrote her own song about her time with “the unwashed phenomenon” in 1972.

“‘Diamonds and Rust’ exposed the future Nobel Prize winner as an emotionally unavailable lover who used his verbal dexterity for keeping things vague,” says Brown. “Although when Baez met Dylan she was the bigger star, by the time she wrote ‘Diamonds and Rust’ she was punching up, and that’s important if you want to bring the audience on board. And although Justin Timberlake helped launch his solo career with ‘Cry Me a River’ in 2002, using a video that strongly suggested that his ex and at that point the bigger star Britney Spears had cheated on him, he was forced to apologise to her after the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, accused him of ‘weaponising’ their split to raise his own profile in an misogynistic industry.”

Justin Timberlake was criticised for seemingly airing his dirty laundry with Britney Spears in public

Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ is one of the most famous revenge songs

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