Nothing Breaks Like a Heart: Visual Jeopardy Meets Vocal Wizardry

When you watch Miley Cyrus sing Nothing Breaks Like a Heart live, on SNL or on the BBC, the visuals inject a circus high-wire level of jeopardy. Our attention is heightened by the shameful thrill of possible disaster:

There’s no accident to the visuals. Miley’s controlling our gaze. She didn’t forget her shirt on SNL or climb onto the BBC car roof in heels because there was just nowhere else to stand and sing. The lights focused onto the slippery shine of the car roof aren’t accidental, nor is her crouching down halfway through the song. It’s all there to keep our hearts in our mouths. She doesn’t skip down off the car roof like a mountain goat. She gets down very, very carefully. She doesn’t need our attention any more:
Our heightened attention spills over into the sound and, without knowing, we listen harder. It’s a bit like a magician making the magic happen while we’re looking hard at their hands. Our heightened, distracted attention makes us all the more receptive to the subtleties of Miley’s emotional message.
To pick out just two words from the many that Miley shapes to suit her song, how about breaks and broken?

 

When you say the English words ‘breaks’ and ‘broken’, I’d guess that  ‘breaks‘ has the stronger snap to its ‘k‘ sound. Breaks is a short burst of action, tipping its energy full forward onto the ‘k’, with the ‘s’ adding a cymbal crash of finality. That’s the sound you imagine and when you hear the title : Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, inside your mind you feel the powerful snap of breaks. We carry our personal vocabulary attached to feelings, not letters.

Placing ‘breaks’ and ‘heart’ together brings up an emotion in us all. Miley has to control and shape that emotion as she sings. How? She softens and deepens the cut of ‘breaks’ by building and rounding the vowel sound first, stepping back onto the beginning of the word, rather than rushing straight forwards onto the cut of the ‘k’. She applies the brakes, she stills the cymbal crash of the ‘s‘. She turns ‘breaks’ from a quick, single, simple action into something slower, definite, painful, sad and repeated. She makes sure that we understand ‘breaks’ in this song exactly as she wants us to understand it.

How about ‘broken’? As a spoken word, the ‘k’ in ‘broken’ cuts cleanly enough, but it’s muffled by the round ‘o’ and soft ‘en‘ sounds wrapped close around it. Miley Cyrus unmuffles it, to tell us to listen to it differently in Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.
She sings the word ‘broken’ four times. Twice as a standard version. But listen to the way she bends it the first two times. The first two times she sings ‘broken’, Miley adds a shadow syllable to the ‘o‘, changing the word just enough to catch our attention. Adding to the ‘o’ gives it a slight bounce, making it act as less of a blanket and more of a run-up, giving Miley room to jump clean and hard onto the ‘k’. The extra ‘o’ and the clean ‘k’ make ‘broken’ sound sweet, sad and all-enveloping. The final two times, Miley sings ‘broken’ just as you or I would say it, with its standard, rippling, dictionary sound. She gives a masterclass in shaping an English word to suit your song.

 

Nothing Breaks Like a Heart has 7 songwriters credited: Clement Picard, Maxime Picard, Conor Szymanski, Mark Ronson, Miley Cyrus and Ilsey Juber. The lyrics are deceptively straightforward, but when you listen closely they weave into the music perfectly and leave plenty of room for the singer to build more than a simple sad love song in the imagination of her listeners.

Whenever a particular sound is placed on repeat in a song, it lays a sound trail for the listener. It guides us to the ‘important word’.  All words in songs are choices.  Repeated sounds are important sounds, especially when they’ve been placed on purpose. Phone, both, know and smoking appear in the build-up to that first ‘broken’, not for their meaning alone, but, more usefully, to signal that the particular ‘o‘ of ‘broken’ is especially important. They’re set-ups, like the straight man in a comedy duo.

Repeated sounds are important sounds, but the most important sounds of all come when a singer has set up a clear, standard repetition pattern and then suddenly changes it. As with Miley’s first ‘broken‘. First she lulls us into a false sense of certainty, then she pounces. Like a top comedian with an unexpected punch-line.

By the time Miley has sung the first round ‘o‘ of ‘broken’, we’ve guessed the rest of the word to come. As we always do when people speak or sing to us. A lot of our listening is guessing.

Where else could the sounds of ‘we’re bro…’  lead to in English, but to ‘we’re broken?

Other English word possibilities that follow from the o vowel sound of ‘we’re bro…’?  There are three others:

‘We’re brooches’

‘We’re bromance’

‘We’re bromide’

Only ‘We’re broken‘ makes sense in the song. In a microsecond we flip through the other possibilities, dismiss them and choose ‘broken’. We don’t need to wait for Miley to sing the word right through to the end.

We’ve worked out which word Miley’s singing, half way through her singing it. We’re expecting broken. We’re ready for her to sing the rest of ‘broken’ in an ordinary way, but then she suddenly changes the sound of it. We’ve been wrong-footed and we prick up our ears for extra information. We listen harder. When Miley adds her shadow, extra ‘o’ to ‘broken’, it’s not just a Nashville, country music sound, it’s an emotional clue, a message. She hasn’t damaged the ‘o’ sound, she’s added an extra layer of melancholy to it. And phone, both, know and smoking have set us up to hear that melancholy loud and clear.

Broken only needs that particular emotional charge once. So Miley returns to the standard version when she sings it again. When broken reappears later in the song: broken silence, broken record, we listen, because we’ve been shown that the ‘o’ sound is important and that ‘broken’ is important. But this time Miley’s singing about things that have already been broken. An action that’s finished.

The first time, Miley sings broken into shape as a continuing state: ‘we’re broken’. She uses her voice masterfully to colour our understanding of we’re broken. Not broken by a single act, not completely broken, not hopeless, but trapped in a continuing cycle of desire and despair. It’s all there in the way she sings the word.

So much of Nothing Breaks Like a Heart uses ‘we’ in the present tense, we know that it’s about a relationship that’s not over, about a struggle that hasn’t come to an end. The fire is still burning.

But ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart isn’t just about a love affair in trouble. ‘We’ isn’t just Miley + A.Nother. The song moves between the personal and the universal.

There are clues to a bigger landscape dropped for us throughout the song. Choosing ‘things fall apart’ as a line, calls to mind both Chinua Achebe‘s book

and its title-inspirer, the W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The video contains even more clues to the wide reach of Nothing Breaks Like a Heart:  children, gun violence, religion, hypocrisy, taking a knee, paparazzi photographers chasing female singers for the sake of a sexy shot, Black Friday:
It’s interesting to me that Miley sings the song slightly differently when she sings it live on SNL. Singing live, on one of the first public outings of Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, she has to take our hands and lead us into the song through sound. On the video, the images are so arresting that we’re following our eyes, with Miley’s voice as a narrative.

 

By moulding that first ‘broken‘ into a shape that says sadness, tinged with existential weariness, Miley signals, early, that the title statement: Nothing Breaks Like a Heart might contain more than one interpretation. Without the textures of meaning, it wouldn’t be such an interesting song. We all know that hearts break. Tell us something new. When you choose an unarguable statement for your song title, you’d better tell your story in an intriguing way.

Miley has made it clear that she considers the song to be about more than a single romance gone wrong:

Once Miley’s established, through visuals and sound, that the song’s story isn’t simply, personally, romantic, it’s safe to shift back towards the vowel sound of heart as an ‘important sound’. As the song goes on, words like apart, dark, bar, scar begin to feature more and more. Repeating sounds are always signals, and Miley shapes each of the ‘ar’ sounds with attention. Heart is always an important word in a love song, but Miley’s saving the whole word till last.

You only hear the final ‘t’ of ‘heart’ in this song the final time Miley sings it. At the end of the song, Miley takes her time with the final ‘t’ of the final ‘heart‘ and sings it with cut glass, Mary Poppins clarity. That final ‘t ‘is all the more noticeable because she has ghosted the ‘t’ of ‘heart’ throughout,  concentrating on the curve of the central vowel sound it shares with scar, dark, apart instead.

Concentrating on the body of the vowel sound makes heart sound sadder. If you listen to the word, she subtly changes its texture each time she sings it.

Miley Cyrus is an impressive singer. We all know it. Watching her sing such a complex song live on Saturday Night Live, makes her commitment to the weave of the words even more inspiring. She could have sung the song straight through as ‘country disco’. She doesn’t. She doesn’t waste a single syllable. She colours them all, either as background or front and centre important. She pushes words like broken and heart into the spotlight, then pulls them back into the chorus line. It’s masterful.

If you’re going to sing Nothing Breaks Like a Heart:

  • Decide what the song means to you and what you want to communicate to your audience by singing it.
  • Choose and use the vowel sounds to add emotion.
  • Take none of the words for granted. None of them are there by chance. Shape them to your own meaning.
  • Respect the original, but only copy it exactly if you’re in a Miley Cyrus tribute band and you’re being paid to sound just like her.
  • If English isn’t your first language, find a reliable, written copy of the lyrics (not an internet guess). Listen to Miley first, but check that you know how the words she’s singing end. Endings are important. Heart with the final ‘t’ ghosted has a completely different shape to ‘har’. Miley always shapes the final ‘t’. Sometimes she mutes the sound, but the ghost of a ‘t’ is always there.
  • The same goes for ‘we both know it’ – the final ‘t’ is shaped but ghosted. If you sing what you can hear:  ‘we both know iii‘,  you will sound wrong and you’ll distract your listeners. Always check for final consonants and decide whether you want to ghost them or not. But always shape them. Words are chosen, fully-formed, for a reason.

© Sing Better English 2019

11 thoughts on “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart: Visual Jeopardy Meets Vocal Wizardry”

  1. Once again you amaze me with the details and nuances you glean from a single song! I’m curious, though: Do you think Miley is making these choices deliberately, or are they a side-effect of performing live? Either way, I had to listen to this video rather than watch it because I was so distracted about whether she was going to pop out of her costume. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment, Heide. I’ve changed the whole beginning of my post to address the visuals of Miley’s two live TV performances of Nothing Breaks Like a Heart – in the UK and in the US.

      The SNL open-jacket-without-a-shirt-underneath is an intriguing costume choice, isn’t it? She seemed totally confident in it, so I imagine she’d picked it out of a wide selection of other performance options. I have a feeling that jeopardy is part of the visual atmosphere of the song. On the Graham Norton show in the UK, the jeopardy is alive in her choice to stand, not on the floor, but on the roof of a car. She’s all covered up, clothing-wise, but those high heels, on that tiny, shiny, car roof, radiate jeopardy. You watch her sing and see her crouch down while a small voice in the back of your head keeps asking “Is she going to fall off the car?” rather than “Is she going to fall out of her jacket?” It’s a bit like watching a tightrope act or a knife-thrower at a circus. Total attention, intensified by the possibility of disaster:

      Yes, I do think that her choices are deliberate, in her singing as much as in her clothing. I doubt if the singing choices are conscious. Clothing is an external add-on. Singing comes from the heart. I don’t think any singer thinks “I’ll just add an extra ‘o’ to ‘broken’ here, to attract my audience’s attention to its existential context and to add a layer of melancholy”, though a producer, with an overview of the sound, might ask them to try it and be able to tell them if it sounded right. Miley needed to stretch the word broken slightly to fit the music and I imagine she sang it with that extra, country ‘o’ and it felt right to her, or Mark Ronson told her it sounded right. She could have stretched ‘broken’ differently to fit the notes – extending the ‘en’ more, rolling the ‘r’ a little bit more, singing a standard ‘o’ but leaving a gap between the ‘o’ and the ‘k’. She only needed to add a tiny, tiny bit extra to the standard word. Her choice works perfectly – the other choices would have worked differently. I’d guess she might have been messing around in rehearsal and settled on that way of singing the word. I doubt if she thinks of it as forensically as I’ve interpreted it, but that’s because she’s ‘inside’ the song as she sings it, trying to tell its story as clearly as she can. I’m looking in from the outside.

      The mystery of human choices, in the writing of songs and the singing of them, fascinates me, as you know. Tiny differences in sound make big differences in emotional communication. I think Miley Cyrus does a wonderful job of singing Nothing breaks Like a Heart and of bringing every word to useful life. Did you enjoy the song?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do indeed know (and share) your fascination with the mystery of human choices — in all creative pursuits. It’s fascinating to see or hear a completed work and not only contemplate all the other ways it could have gone, but also the “why” behind the ways it DID go. Like standing on a car roof, for instance! I must admit the open jacket made me considerably less nervous, ha ha. Interesting question, though: Did I enjoy the song? I don’t know! I enjoyed the craft of the songwriting, the lyrics, and even Miley’s voice. But somehow it rang hollow for me, for reasons I can’t even explain. Perhaps I’ll give it one more listen and see if I can give you a definitive yes or no.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. After listening a few times I get the distinct impression as she is singing ‘breaks’ – I’m hearing, Bah-r-aches with the emphasis on ACHES. Which to me adds further depth to the idea of anything being broken, and in her song; a heart – a broken heart aches.

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    1. Hi – thanks for that interesting comment. I listened again and I think you’re absolutely right – that emphasis in Aches is there for the hearing and it does deepen the pain within the word. It seems to hold the sadness of aches without running straight onto the complete cut of the k. Miley sings breaks slightly differently each time and each time is like a slightly different colour. The same with heart. And we react to it all. Whether we know why, or not.

      It’s the main reason why I started this blog – to remind singers, especially singers who aren’t native speakers of English, to step outside standard, exam-ready versions of words when they sing. To shade and shape words, as they shape notes, to suit their song. Non-native speakers are often trapped within the one ‘official’ version of English that they learnt at school. They’ve never had the opportunity to grieve, to argue or to fall in and out of love in English. So they struggle to bend English words into different emotional shapes or textures. Native speakers often take English, especially short everyday words, for granted. Singers like Miley Cyrus don’t.

      By the way – did you notice Mark Ronson’s guitar changing colour during the song when they appeared on Saturday Night Live?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting, isnt it? And it’s a real choice on Miley’s part. Chrissie Hynde makes slightly different choices when she sings her own 2002 song Nothing Breaks Like a Heart. Still sad, still adding to the aches vowel sound, but less existential angst:

      And The Seekers How it breaks my heart …” with Judith Durham choosing to sing breaks differently again – much less rounding out of that central vowel, much more straight through to the k. A cleaner cut:

      And look at Cilla Black singing breaks in a sad love song, but much more matter-of-factly:

      The word bends to the will of the singer. And it will just be tiny changes in the shape of the singer’s mouth, the amount of air they use etc, etc. None of it will be planned or programmed. It’s all intention expressed in sound and it reaches us, the audience, as emotion. That’s the thing I want to free singers to use – their own belief in the story of the song.

      By the way – I can see it’s hovering around -10 where you are. I hope you’re staying warm and cosy inside your beautiful house.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s likely the genre of the musical performer is also a heavy factor in how the dialect of words are being shaped/formed and enunciated.
        Cyrus leans toward a country music background and Hynde has both an American and British influence – cannot speak for the others you mentioned as I don’t know their work as well.

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      2. Hi Kate – I absolutely agree that genre influences the shape of words, but, within genre, the best artists step in and out of the expected shaping. I’d say that Miley Cyrus is making active choices from within her wide musical vocabulary. Her ‘Nashville twang’ gives her room to give the ar sounds of scar, heart, dark etc in Nothing Breaks Like a Heart an extra elastic feel. It’ll be interesting to hear other professional singers covering the song and how they shape the words, if they don’t go full on country.

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  3. Love the way you introduce this with the knife thrower. I couldn’t help but think of the person on the receiving end of those throws. I also couldn’t help but think about the persons who are fortunate enough to attend live musical events and who have found an opportunity to see a video or hear a song, whether for the first time or a cover of a song they know. The SNL performance was dazzling, too much so for me, at least the first time through. I, frankly, was distracted from the lyrics, so I’m grateful for your thoughts prior to watching it. I was drawn by the the long, drawn-out, heartache-laden, moaning sequences of “nothings” before “going to save us now.” I’ll be listening to this song again. Thanks for your posts. They’re always thought-provoking, and when I’m singing, I’ll be paying attention to word formation. I never know who will be listening and what will strike me or anyone who might be in my vicinity.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comments. Really glad you enjoy the posts. Even gladder to hear that you enjoy singing.

      I think your distraction was shared by the majority of the people watching Miley Cyrus on SNL, myself included. I was bemused by Miley’s outfit. It seemed like an odd choice for a live performance. It was only when I saw her and Mark Ronson on the BBC, performing live again, with Miley all covered up, but perched on the small roof of a very shiny car, in very high heels, that it clicked. I realised we were being consciously bewitched. Miley was drawing us into a heightened awareness through adding risk to the mix. Very clever. We didn’t see her get onto the car roof, but the careful way she got down makes me think she didn’t hop and skip up there on her own. She has a wonderful voice and I think the shock of the staging will call us to attention every time ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ comes on the radio or the music system in a supermarket.

      Did you notice Mark Ronson’s guitar changing colour on SNL as the song went on?

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