On Tuesday, Miley Cyrus released the headline-grabbing video for “Mother’s Daughter.” The empowering clip for the lead track from Cyrus’ She Is Coming EP features a diverse set of cameos headlined by Cyrus’ own mother Tish, interspersed with messages like “Feminist AF” and “Virginity is a social construct.” It’s an appropriately big visual for the bombastic pop anthem, which features contributions from star producers Andrew Wyatt and Tay Keith and which debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 54 in June, and this week lands on Billboard’s Pop Songs airplay chart at No. 37.
The single might be on its way to becoming Cyrus’ latest hit. But it also might be on its way to getting lapped by another song of hers — one which she likely never would’ve expected to potentially end up as her biggest song of the summer.
Actually, technically speaking, “On a Roll” isn’t a Miley Cyrus song — it’s the credited work of Ashley O, the fictional artist Cyrus plays in the “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” episode of British sci-fi anthology Black Mirror’s fifth series. In the episode, Ashley O is a young pop star seeking to break out from the chipper dance-pop mold that brought her fame and fortune, much to the consternation of her domineering aunt/manager. Her signature hit is “On a Roll,” a subverted remake of Nine Inch Nails’ searing 1989 industrial missive “Head Like a Hole,” with lyrics like “I’d rather die than give you control” reimagined as “Ridin’ so high, achieving my goals” over a snapping electro-pop beat.
While the novelty of hearing one of alt-rock’s most brutal radio perennials reinvented as an aspirational Top 40 bop is obviously considerable, few would’ve predicted “On a Roll” to have much of a shelf life beyond the Black Mirror episode’s early June debut. But a month later, and the song is still gathering steam: Released in full to DSPs (with an accompanying video for YouTube) on June 14, “On a Roll” is starting to take off at streaming. Last week, the song netted 5.4 million streams, according to Nielsen Music — up 57 percent from the previous week — which is also the number of streams notched by “Mother’s Daughter” over the same period.
That number seems likely to improve this week, as the song has been steadily climbing the Spotify U.S. daily chart — from No. 82 (with 319,342 spins) on June 25 to No. 29 (with 591,778 spins) on July 2. It’s also currently placed fourth on Spotify’s popular Today’s Top Hits playlist, higher than the latest singles by Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and about 30 spots ahead of “Mother’s Daughter.” (On Apple Music’s The A-List: Pop, “On a Roll” is also listed higher than “Mother’s Daughter,” though the latter is the only one that appears on its Today’s Hits playlist.) Pop radio still clearly favors “Mother’s Daughter” at the moment, but as for which track Cyrus herself seems to be more invested in promoting, a source close to the situation tells Billboard that her team is currently promoting both songs without viewing either as an official impact single. (Miley is also still prepping two more EPs for later this year, She Is Here and She Is Everything.)
Why is “On a Roll” catching on like this? Well, obviously you can’t discount what a huge platform the enormously popular Black Mirror is to launch from, and both Miley Cyrus and Nine Inch Nails took efforts to capitalize on the song’s early momentum among fans — Cyrus by retweeting dozens of fans’ Ashely O-inspired memes and videos, and NIN by actually selling T-shirts featuring hybrid “Head Like a Hole” / “On a Roll” lyrics. The full-length “On a Roll” wasn’t even available at first, but that just seemed to help the song build hype and mystique, as fans assembled piecemeal music videos for the song from footage from the Black Mirror episode, and demanded the show (or Cyrus) release the full version. “On a Roll” initially existed as something of a Pop Twitter inside joke, something funny and weird to get disproportionately excited about.
But the longer the joke went on — and especially with the release of the full version in mid-June — the less the song’s popularity became about its novelty, and more about it just being a really fun throwback. Ironically, for all the show’s dystopic futurism, Black Mirror’s vision of Top 40 stardom is surprisingly stuck in the past: Ashley O is essentially an icon for the late ’00s and early ’10s, a moment when the winsome pop-rock sound and image of the Disney era had started to thicken and darken a little, thanks to the impact of mold-busting art-pop megastar Lady Gaga and the rising influence of EDM. It was a more carefree period in Top 40 music in general, and one that many listeners still have a great deal of affection for, as evidenced by the recent top 10 success of Ava Max, a modern pop singer-songwriter seemingly displaced from that era.
“On a Roll” has the kind of canned electro-pop sound — with just a hint of hip-hop in the bass and drums — that was enormous on radio at the turn of the decade, and the video splits the difference between “Bad Romance”-era Gaga and “California Gurls”-era Katy Perry in a way that would’ve certainly made it a YouTube smash. Cyrus, a Disney pop-rock survivor herself, dabbled in this sound at the time, but not with particular success — and by 2013, she had linked with trap kingpin Mike WiLL Made-It and would never be the same again. Ashley O is a version of Miley Cyrus that could’ve been, but never quite was, making it a gratifying alternate-reality vision of one of the most familiar stars of the 21st century.
And that level of familiarity also probably has something to do with why “On a Roll” feels so refreshing. She Is Coming, released just days before “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” is a diverse, compelling six-song set, but it’s one that can’t help but carry the weight of everything Miley’s been and done over the course of her career — all the sonic and visual transformations, all the public and private dramas, all the hits and all the misses. That shared history is part of the reason we love our longtime pop stars, but it can also become something of a burden: When your enjoyment of a pop song is passing through all these filters of understanding built up over the course of a decade-plus-long relationship with an artist, it can sometimes be hard to just enjoy it as a pop song.
That’s what’s so great about “On a Roll”: It’s Miley Cyrus freed from narrative. Sure, it probably helps your enjoyment of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” to consider how Cyrus’ own early career was shaped by handlers who didn’t necessarily have her own artistic vision or general best interests in mind, and how she ultimately felt the need to break out from that. But the song? It’s just A Bop, one that requires no knowledge of Pretty Hate Machine to appreciate its straightforward catchiness and motivational — if more than a little absurd — lyrics. You can enjoy it without having to reconcile it with Miley’s many transformations and what it says about her current place in the world, because it’s not really Miley in the first place: It’s Ashley O. (And at a short 2:34 runtime, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and even invites repeat listens — the one way in which the song does sound custom-designed for the pop world of 2019.)
Time will tell which of Miley’s two new songs is ultimately the one that catches on for the rest of the summer — if the radio support and buzzy new video for “Mother’s Daughter” can ultimately keep it from getting eclipsed by the viral sensation that is “On a Roll.” But it’s so unlikely that the latter would’ve already gotten as far as it has — and so much fun to watch it ride so high — that it’d seem unwise to bet against it getting what it deserves.