(I Came In Like A) Wrecking Ball

Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is one of the most perfect pop songs of recent music history.

I could spend thousands of words detailing why and how Ms. Cyrus got it so right with her second Bangerz single (the construction! the D minor chord structure! the lyrics! the palpable heartbreak!), but what I’m more interested in is what happened (and continues to happen) to ‘Wrecking Ball’ when it is performed by other, non-Miley artists.

‘Wrecking Ball’ quickly became one of the most covered songs on the planet. The track was a go-to cover on BBC Radio 1’s ‘Live Lounge’ program, with both Haim (September 2013) and London Grammar (December 2013) performing their interpretations of Cyrus’ pop hit.

The Dixie Chicks covered the song in their 2014 tour shows.

And Angel Haze’s version of the song was heartbreakingly perfect.

One of the more recent covers came from Jerusalem-based band Tekoa, whose version included the use of wine glasses and beer bottles as instruments.

From the thousands of amateur covers uploaded to Youtube, the Sarah Blackwood / Jenni / Emily collaboration and the VoicePlay (feat. Sarah Vela) a capella version were among the best.

Even the Chatroulette Guy got involved, coming back from his wildly successful, bikini-and-beard-clad ‘Call Me Maybe’ lip-sync video to surprise users of the site with a re-enactment of the infamous Wrecking Ball clip.

But in April 2014, Australian indie-rock musician and Something For Kate frontman Paul Dempsey covered ‘Wrecking Ball’ for Triple M’s ‘Song Remains The Same’ segment – and this is where, for me at least, ‘Wrecking Ball’ covers get interesting. Dempsey has accrued a reputation for his cover songs – so much so, that his much-lauded 2013 ‘Shotgun Karaoke’ tour and album was comprised entirely of cover songs, originally performed backstage at Something For Kate gigs and uploaded to the band’s website.

‘Wrecking Ball’ was no different.

Both FasterLouder and Pedestrian.tv described the performance as “perfect.” FasterLouder noted that Dempsey, “transforms ‘Wrecking Ball’ from pop song to a gut-wrenching ballad that, frankly, wouldn’t sound out of place on in a Something For Kate setlist,” while Pedestrian.Tv summarised the performance a little more succinctly: “he fucking nailed it.” The cover was so good that it made mainstream news outlets, with News.com.au’s Andrew Bucklow writing, “There are thousands of covers of Miley Cyrus’ hit song Wrecking Ball … but none of them have ever been as good as this… Unlike Cyrus, Dempsey kept his clothes on for the performance.”

Loathe though I usually am to acknowledge the steaming, trolling cesspool of Youtube comments, some user responses to Dempsey’s cover are telling. ‘GM Wallace’, for example, commented, “This is what happens when you take a silly song by a silly girl (with silly video) and make something (much) better out of it…” while ‘Jason Spinks’ wrote, “It’s amazing how rock can make a crap song sound awesome!” The underlying message of both critical and user-based commentary was the same – ‘Wrecking Ball’ may be a Miley Cyrus song, but Paul Dempsey made it good.

Cyrus’ performative style (including her sartorial decisions and the racially-problematic twerking) can be a distraction from her music – though, I hasten to add, trying to separate music and performance is a fairly limiting means by which to analyse popular music. But what underpins the above commentary is two intertwined dichotomies – one of gender, and one of the rock/pop authenticity divide. As a young woman, Cyrus is inherently viewed as less ‘authentic’ in terms of musical credibility than someone like Dempsey; the connection between gender and musical authenticity goes as far back as the original rock/pop split in popular music in the late 1950s, and almost certainly earlier than that. Cyrus is a “silly girl” with a “silly song”, while Dempsey is (in the words of Bucklow) a “magnificent, beautiful bastard”. This authenticity label is further compounded by the fact that Cyrus is a pop star, with a team of songwriters and behind-the-scenes musicians crafting her work. Dempsey is a rock musician, albeit of the fairly indie persuasion. He plays his own guitar, and writes his own songs, and this – somehow – makes him a more ‘authentic’ musician than Cyrus.

For what it’s worth, this criticism (that pop stars are ‘less than,’ because other people help to write their songs) strikes me as a little bizarre. Songs, once released, no longer belong to the singer or the songwriter, but rather to the music culture within which the lyrics and music take on as many different meanings as there are listeners. It is also a criticism not flung at other genres of music – Broadway stars, for example, or opera singers, are not accused of being less talented than their rock music peers simply because their songs are scored by Sondheim or Wagner. Broadway and opera stars are virtuosos; pop stars are puppets.

It’s pervasive, boring, bollocks.

And finally, a confession. For as much as I am a rabid Something For Kate fangirl, and as much as I adore Paul Dempsey (to what some would describe as an unhealthy, fangirl-y degree), I prefer the ‘Wrecking Ball’ original. Miley Cyrus puts something into that song that Dempsey, brilliant though he is, does not. Miley 1, Dempsey 0.

You may send your vitriolic emails at will.

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