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In late 2012, rumors swirled that Miley Cyrus had “stolen” a song from Beyonce thanks to mysterious tweets from a songwriter who claimed to have knowledge of the situation. The Bey Hive was furious. The internet was outraged. And this was before the allegedly swiped song had even been identified, much less recorded.
“Beyonce song now becoming a Miley Cyrus song?!!” English songwriter Sacha Skarbek said in a now-deleted tweet. “Good/bad? I don’t know??!!!!”
The fury died down, as it always does, but once “Wrecking Ball” became a certifiable hit (with Skarbek listed as a writer on the track), the controversy re-erupted. Radar Online did some basic digging in early 2014 and slapped one hell of an inflammatory headline (“DOES MILEY CYRUS OWE BEYONCE HER CAREER?”) onto a mostly benign post. It was enough to incite instigatory “content” from other outlets who could benefit from a Bey-Miley feud. Within 24 hours Hollywood Life had projectile vomited a string of erroneous Beyonce-bashing Miley quotes, claiming they’d appear in an upcoming LOVE Magazine cover story. To wit:
“I got the total package you know, the curves, the rhythm, and the voice. I’m just the best … As Beyonce grows in motherhood and all the crap it does to your body, it will create a vacuum for fresh young faces to rise up and no one else can properly fill that void right now … I’m the only white female singer that could fill that slot right now and do it right, you know? I’m just the total package, you know?”
LOVE quickly denied the quotes, and HollywoodLife deleted the post once the traffic spike was safely in their Chartbeat rearview.
Song-stealing outrage and fake quotes make for good artificial theatre. But the true story behind “Wrecking Ball” has more nuance and emotion than your typical diva battle, with much of the intrigue generated not by the performers, but by the considerable talent responsible for writing and composing the song.
The Beyonce Session
During a pair of concerts in the United Arab Emirates last week, Grammy- and Oscar-nominated composer and pianist Stephan Moccio offered first-hand insight into the writing session that produced “Wrecking Ball” — and how the song ended up in Miley’s hands rather than Beyonce’s toned arms.
On Tuesday night, within the walls of a 19th century open-aired desert fortress rich in Abu Dhabi history, Moccio settled in to play “Wrecking Ball” for an intimate group of local dignitaries. The cozy piano recital was part of the region’s Abu Dhabi Classics series, meant to expand Emirati exposure to the arts, and Moccio was taking delight in telling the stories behind his most famous pieces (including hits for The Weeknd and Celine Dion, as well as the theme for the Vancouver Olympics) before playing piano versions of each song. But as he prepared to play “Wrecking Ball” for the exclusive group gathered under the Arabian moon inside Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort, he seemed apprehensive about launching into this particular backstory.
As Moccio tentatively told it, his publisher, Universal Music Publisher Group, had put him in a room with fellow accomplished multi-hyphenates Skarbek (who’s written for James Blunt, Lana Del Rey, and Adele, among others) and Maureen “MoZella” McDonald (One Direction, Rihanna, Madonna, the list goes on).
The purpose of the session: To write a song for Beyonce.
“A Girl Who Was Freshly Bleeding”
Before they could get started, the room collapsed with emotion. “We didn’t know each other. And within 10 minutes of being in the room, MoZella was crying and we didn’t know what to do but console her and just hold her,” Moccio told the Al Ain crowd while tinkering with his microphone. MoZella was supposed to get married that week, but had aborted the wedding to liberate herself from the “toxic and mentally abusive” relationship she was about to be locked into. MoZella had no business being in the room, at least not as a contributor; she was present only “to escape the depression.” As Moccio put it: “It was a girl who was freshly bleeding.”
But distraction, when productively harnessed, works in mysterious ways, especially for creative types. After spending the early part of the session in support mode, the team, inspired by (and perhaps inspiring) MoZella’s resilience, had conceptualized and finished “Wrecking Ball” by dinner. “We wrote this song in an afternoon, and recorded it,” said Moccio. “It’s about heartache, it’s about toxic relationships, it’s about broken love.”
Miley Cyrus’ first #1 hit, a quintuple-platinum cultural smash, was completed in a matter of hours.
“Send It Off To Miley Cyrus”
Ryan Perry / UPROXX
Two nights after the Al Ain performance, before a much larger crowd inside the auditorium of Abu Dhabi’s plush Emirate Palace, Moccio again told the “Wrecking Ball” origin story. This time he had some friends on stage (Stephanie Carcache on vocals, plus the backing of the Young LGT Soloists string orchestra), and he elaborated on the Miley Cyrus handoff.
Once the piece was completed, it became clear it wasn’t a Beyonce track. So they never put it in front of her. Instead, MoZella reached out to an unlikely friend who, she believed, was a better fit.
“MoZella says to Sacha and I at the end of the day, ‘Would you mind if I sent this song off to Miley Cyrus?’ We said, sure. No problem,” Moccio relayed to the laughing crowd. “Send it off to Miley Cyrus.”
“Miley fell in love with the song immediately. She was going through the same thing in her life at the time.”
As Moccio launched into the raw version of the song he had helped write three years prior, with Carcache’s vocal veneer undeniably Miley, one couldn’t help but wonder how the song would’ve turned out had Beyonce gotten ahold of it.
In the same way that TLC turning down “Baby One More Time” made sense (“It’s good for her. But was I going to say ‘Hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!”) and helped launch Britney Spears into the stratosphere, Beyonce never getting a whiff of “Wrecking Ball” was probably good for everyone involved. The songwriters were right about it not being right for Beyonce, and it gave Miley her first No. 1 song.
Plus, it’s unlikely that Bey would’ve climbed naked onto a literal wrecking ball for Terry Richardson. Which means the song likely would’ve ended up stranded among Beyonce’s sea of hits rather than become a visual (and oft-parodied) phenomenon. They say one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, but when it comes to “Wrecking Ball,” the gold belongs to all of us. Besides, if Beyonce had gotten all those feelings out back in 2013 for “Wrecking Ball,” we might not have Lemonade in 2016. Everybody send Miley a thank you card for that one.