‘Flowers’ Co-Writer Michael Pollack Shares Behind-the-Scenes Stories of the Miley Cyrus Smash
A sonic mirage? The mysterious reverb of distant guitar? A hazy musical apparition? However the ear perceives the initial seconds of Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers,” the six-week Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 and record-breaking streaming smash, the seed behind the runaway track was planted during a simple writing exercise.
“The idea really began with the word ‘flowers’ itself,” says “Flowers” co-writer Michael Pollack, speaking to Billboard from a music camp ahead of the release of Cyrus’ new album Endless Summer Vacation. “It’s been really incredible to watch,” he says of the fervent reaction to the song. “This is the kind of record you dream about having your whole career and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”
Pollack has enjoyed a charmed rise. When he was just a student at Vanderbilt University, he accompanied his idol Billy Joel on the piano during an audience Q&A (he asked to come up to the stage, Joel accepted, and the subsequent video went viral). Since that auspicious introduction to the public sphere a decade ago, he’s been a close collaborator to artists like Lauv, Ben Platt, Justin Bieber and Maroon 5. For the latter band he co-wrote “Memories,” and with Bieber he collaborated on his Justice track “Holy.” As a result of Pollack’s prolific discography, he shared the title of songwriter of the year for 2022 at the BMI Pop Awards, tying with fellow chart-topper Omar Fedi.
When it comes to Pollack’s harmonious musical relationship with Cyrus, the two first met in May 2021 during a writing session. “We started working together periodically then, but really hit our stride in January of 2022,” Pollack says. “There’s an endless list of what makes Miley special as a collaborator, but one of her greatest strengths is her taste. Miley has impeccable taste. She listens to and loves such a wide breadth of music. Because of that, I don’t have to guess if something is great or not when we’re writing. If Miley says something is great, I trust her wholeheartedly.”
Pollack, who says he almost always writes on the piano (“It’s where I feel most comfortable and it’s where my best ideas have come”), is credited as a co-writer on “Flowers” alongside Gregory “Aldae” Hein and Cyrus. When it comes to the song’s birth, the songwriter says the majority of the track easily came into view.
“Compared to other songs, the lyrics for ‘Flowers’ came relatively quickly,” he notes. “The only line that gave us trouble was the end of the pre-chorus.” Pollack is referring to when Cyrus potently muses, “I didn’t wanna leave you, I didn’t wanna lie.” “I think it was really important to contrast the empowerment of the chorus with a little bit of sadness and vulnerability, and that line ‘started to cry, but then remembered I’ does exactly that. I also love that the sentence is incomplete. It’s a subtle cliffhanger to take you to the chorus.”
Perhaps that’s why “Flowers” soars with its singular sound, presenting a blend of genres that simultaneously compete and gel together. While a friend told him it brought to mind Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (alluding to its crescendos, disco violins and empowering theme, no doubt), many have also pointed out similarities to Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man.” Pollack won’t comment on the connection (perhaps that’s Miley’s story to tell), but any listener can detect that the song boasts a chorus that is the inverse of what Cyrus sings on “Flowers.” (Bruno croons, “I should have bought you flowers and held your hand.” Interestingly, Mars’ co-writer Philip Lawrence once said that “When I Was Your Man” was inspired in part by the artistry of Billy Joel.)
Pollack will say that the original chorus was initially less empowering than what it evolved into. “I remember singing the tagline with the lyric, ‘But I could never love me like you can,’ and Miley and Greg wanted to flip the script and say, ‘Yeah, I can love me better than you can.’ Once we had the tagline established, the rest of the lyric came rather quickly.”
With that, a breakup anthem morphed into a hardy independent roar as opposed to something sorer. According to Pollack: “That was without a doubt one of the biggest moments of the writing process.”
Riding that inspiration, an ephemeral and anthemic moment in “Flowers” comes in the form of a cacophony of voices where Cyrus proudly announces to the world, “I can love me better, baby, I can love me better.” Pollack says the discovery of that puzzle piece was his favorite moment in the (excuse the metaphor) blossoming of the song. It came late in the process. “We had finished writing the entire song and sang it down to see how it flowed from top to bottom,” he recalls. “After the second chorus, Miley freestyled the post-chorus (when she says “I can love me better”), but the way she originally sang it was in this cool, talky tone. That section brought a sexiness to the record that we didn’t even know it needed.”
While Pollack said he “felt the magic” on the demo he recorded with Cyrus, the songwriter was taken aback by its success. “We were also so engulfed in the writing process for the album that I didn’t really overanalyze any of the individual songs we made, but instead just focused on what we were going to write next.”
In addition to other cuts on Endless Summer Vacation, Pollack has other major tracks floating around, ranging from the melancholy (Selena Gomez’s “My Mind and Me”) to the romantic (“Marry Me” from Jennifer Lopez and Maluma). But it’s the record-breaking success of “Flowers” that has grown highest; not just on the charts, but to become one of the biggest success stories in Cyrus’ already blockbuster legacy. (Rolling Stone went so far to say that “Miley’s whole career has been building to this moment.”)
“I think they’re all easy types of songs to write, as long as there is a genuine emotion to tap into and an authentic muse,” says Pollack. “I personally struggle to write songs when no one in the room can tap into the source of the emotion. Each of these songs is rooted in truth.”
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