For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2023 all next week. First, a salute to the artist who made the most impressive comeback this year: pop icon Miley Cyrus, who found herself back atop the top 40 world for the first time in a decade.

Ahead of her Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party to ring in 2023, Miley Cyrus said in an interview that her new year’s resolution was to “listen” more. Well, does it count if more people than ever listened to her this year? 

Cyrus hit the ground sprinting in 2023, using her second NBC NYE special – during which she co-hosted with godmother Dolly Parton and duetted on an inspired mash-up of “Wrecking Ball” and “I Will Always Love You” – to announce a brand-new song called “Flowers,” along with the tagline “New Year, New Miley, New Single.” She seized on the sleepy January news cycle and sent fans into overdrive, as the Smilers eagerly pieced together clues to decode the instantly buzzy song’s meaning. The lyric teasers pointed to a post-breakup epiphany (“I can love me better than you can”) and the release date was Jan. 13 – which just so happens to be the birthday of Cyrus’ ex-husband Liam Hemsworth

But this song was so much more than just an Easter egg hunt around Cyrus’ high-profile love life — and, in the end, the song ended up arriving a few hours early, so the much-ballyhooed release date wasn’t even her ex’s b-day after all. While Cyrus has consistently released music over the years, this felt like her first truly must-listen moment of the decade — and indeed, it was about to be the biggest hit of her already-impressive career. 

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Greatest Pop Stars, Miley Cyrus

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“Flowers” – which Cyrus co-wrote with Gregory Aldae Hein and Michael Pollack, and was produced by Harry Styles’ sunshiny secret weapons Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson – was immediately embraced by a cross-generational cast of characters when it arrived alongside a glossy music video (which boasts nearly 650 million views on YouTube). There was Gloria Gaynor — she of the ultimate life-after-heartbreak anthem “I Will Survive,” a frequent point of comparison for “Flowers” — who told Cyrus via social media: “Your new song carries the torch of empowerment and encourages everyone to find strength in themselves to persevere and thrive. Well done Miley!” Then there was Diane Keaton, who posted a video dancing with her dog through tall grass and wrote to Cyrus: “YOUR INCREDIBLE SONG GAVE ME A REASON TO DANCE IN MY OWN BACKYARD!” 

Once the full song was released, fans continued their full-time investigation into all its Liam lyrical clues, like when Cyrus sings in the first verse “built a home and watched it burn,” seemingly in reference to the 2018 Malibu fire that claimed the then-married couple’s home. But the analysis also shifted to a new focus: the song’s clear link to Bruno Mars’ 2012 hit “When I Was Your Man.” (Bruno: “I should have bought you flowers.” Miley: “I can buy myself flowers.” Bruno: “Take you to every party ’cause all you wanted to do was dance.” Miley: “I can take myself dancing.”) In fact, it appears that “Flowers” is an answer to all the overly sentimental heartbreak songs that came before it – as Gaynor noted, instead of carrying a torch for her ex, Cyrus is carrying “the torch of empowerment.” 

And boy, did that message resonate. On Jan. 24, “Flowers” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 – only Cyrus’ second No. 1 on the chart, following the three-week reign of “Wrecking Ball” 10 years earlier – and also launched as the biggest song in the world, reigning on the Billboard Global 200 and Billboard Global Excl. U.S. charts too. On Jan. 19, it became the most-streamed song in a single week in Spotify history – only to rewrite the streamer’s record with an even bigger week 2. A sampling of other “Flowers” feats: It spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100; it has the longest No. 1 run ever on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary (34 weeks) and Adult Pop Airplay (17 weeks) charts; it’s the quickest song to hit 1 billion streams in Spotify history; and it was named the fourth-best song of 2023 by the Billboard staff.  

The way “Flowers” loomed so large throughout the year threatened to overshadow the rest of Cyrus’ 2023, during which she released her eighth studio album Endless Summer Vacation in March to a No. 3 debut (and her biggest sales week since the Billboard 200 switched from a purely album sales-based chart to one using equivalent album units in 2014). The album – which arrived with a music video for second single “River” (helping it reach the Hot 100’s top 40) followed the next month by “Jaded” (top 10 on Adult Pop Airplay) — landed in the top 20 on Billboard’s best albums of 2023 staff list, with awards editor Paul Grein calling it “one of the year’s finest pop comebacks.” 

And the Vacation wasn’t over yet: Cyrus had another top 10 debut on the Hot 100 (and a new Diane Keaton co-sign) with “Used to Be Young,” a wistful, raspy ballad that arrived as part of the deluxe digital edition of the album in August. In a nostalgic nod to Cyrus’ early days, “Young” just so happened to arrive the same week as Selena Gomez’s “Single Soon.” The Disney Channel alumnae played up the timing, as Wizards of Waverly Place star Gomez shared a clip of her own throwback Hannah Montana cameo with the caption: “@mileycyrus and I both have a SINGLE SOON and we are releasing on the same day. We have been friends since we USED TO BE YOUNG. Excited for August 25th!” More than three months later, “Used to Be Young” is still hanging around the Hot 100 top 40, and just topped the Adult Pop Airplay chart for the first time.  

But what truly stood out this year is the Recording Academy finally paying attention to Cyrus’ work. When the 2024 Grammy nominations were announced Nov. 10, Cyrus came away with six nods – triple the two she’d previously received over her more than 15-year career – including the Big Four categories of song and record of the year for “Flowers” and album of the year for Vacation. “It’s fun to be nominated & exciting to win but having my music be LOVED around the world is the real trophy,” Cyrus said in reaction to the nom news on social media. 

Despite starting the year with a television special, Cyrus was overall a little absent on the promotional front, and from the sounds of her May cover interview with British Vogue, she’s not sure she wants to tour again. “Like singing for hundreds of thousands of people isn’t really the thing that I love,” she said. “There’s no connection. There’s no safety. It’s also not natural. It’s so isolating because if you’re in front of 100,000 people, then you are alone.” She waited until Nov. 21 to finally perform “Flowers” in front of an audience for the very first time, but the invite-only crowd at LA’s Chateau Marmont probably didn’t even approach 100, let alone 100,000. A week later, as a thank you to fans, she shared a black-and-white video of the jazzy performance, backed by just a piano and sprinkled with cheeky ad libs (“I didn’t want to leave you … but I had to!/ I didn’t want to fight … but we did!”). 

In that new year’s resolution video at the top of the year, Cyrus was also asked by Today show host Hoda Kotb how she’s different now as a 30-year-old (Cyrus just turned 31 on Nov. 23) versus her younger days. “It’s somehow that I’m completely different and somehow I’m exactly the same,” she answered. That can really be said about her comeback success with “Flowers” too: The song is both the most grown-up and fully realized song we’ve ever heard from the Hannah Montana child star-turned-adult pop powerhouse, while still embodying the carefree, no-effs-given attitude that has made her such a firebrand throughout her career. 

The last time she topped the Hot 100, she came in like a wrecking ball. This time, she comes bearing flowers. But she’s still just being Miley. 


Andrew Unterberger
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