Miley Cyrus and the History of the Wrecking Ball

A consideration of the iconic metal sphere, from demolition tool to pop-music metaphor

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Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Relativity Media

Miley Cyrus attends the premiere of Relativity Media's "Paranoia" on Aug. 8, 2013, in Los Angeles

The latest pop-culture salvo from Miley Cyrus, her new single and video “Wrecking Ball,” is only a day old—but it’s already dominating conversation about the demolition device. Do a quick online search for the term “wrecking ball” and the top hits are all Cyrus-related. It’s easy to learn that she’s pretty much naked in the video, in which she sits astride one such sphere. It’s easy to learn that the song might be about her sometimes-beau, Liam Hemsworth. It’s easy to learn that the video is directed by controversial photographer Terry Richardson and that the clip has broken the record, previously held by One Direction, for the most views in one day on the online music-video network Vevo.

Here’s what’s less easy to learn: what’s the deal with wrecking balls?

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The difficulty of answering that question is due to more than Miley Cyrus’ Google-algorithm chops; wrecking balls actually have a kind of complicated history, considering the idea behind them is pretty simple.

For one thing—perhaps not surprisingly, given the “duh” factor of the concept—there’s disagreement about who invented the first wrecking ball.

The British metals company Henry Bath, for example, is one firm to take credit: they claim to have developed the tool in 1889, when the company was in the business of breaking iron ships to sell for scrap. According to their records, when confronted with their largest ship yet, the SS Great Eastern, the company realized that the labor costs invested in destroying such a large vessel the old way could not be recouped by the metal salvaged from the project—especially since the metal hull of the ship seemed impervious to hand tools. Henry Bath set up a crane with an engine that would pull a metal ball high enough that, when released, it could damage the hull: thus, the wrecking ball was born.

Another claimant to wrecking-ball fame, according to Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition by Jeff Byles, is Jacob Volk of New York City’s Jacob Volk Wrecking and Shoring Company. That theory dates the invention to about 100 years ago and involves destroying buildings, not ships. The salad days of demolition were in the early 20th century, when rising New York skyscrapers required the destruction of the buildings that had stood in those spots before. In The Years with Ross, the author James Thurber described writing about Jacob Volk for The New Yorker: “a building wrecked out of Herculean mythology, who tore down two hundred and fifty big structures in Manhattan during his lifetime and never passed the Woolworth Building but what he dreamed of the joys of razing it.” (Despite his support of Volk’s claim as the first, Byles gives credit elsewhere for the most flamboyant—pre-Miley—use of a wrecking ball: in 1959, Toots Shor Restaurant in New York was destroyed by a ball painted with baseball stitches.)

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The need for wrecking balls grew as time frames for demolition projects shrank, with the iconic iron sphere (and its later not-quite-spherical cousins) growing in popularity around the 1940s. Their speed, however, doesn’t mean that wrecking balls work the way cartoons might suggest they do. Wrecking balls are meant to break up a structure, not to knock it over completely. A ball wielded with too much force, or striking in the wrong place, could lead to a big, dangerous mess; the goal instead is to make what was once a huge slab of concrete or metal into something that can be dismantled and carted away in bite-size pieces.

Still, a giant ball of metal isn’t exactly a precision instrument. That’s part of the reason why they’re not the destruction method of choice for urban demolition, where doomed buildings butt up against ones meant to stand. These days, new technology and equipment has made the tool much less common overall.

There’s just one area where wrecking balls are as popular as they ever were: metaphor.

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Miley Cyrus is far from the first artist to embrace the double meaning of demolition. It’s a convenient way to express the feeling of being either powerful or destroyed, and—even when the actual device is no longer a common sight—it’s easy to understand the idea of a heavy thing hitting a solid surface and reducing it to rubble.

Accordingly, Bruce Springsteen made it the title track of his latest studio album:

As did Emmylou Harris in 1995 (though in this case “The Wrecking Ball” seems to be the name of a bar, and Neil Young sang the same song in 1989):

There’s a Gillian Welch song from 2003…

But that doesn’t mean that Miley Cyrus hasn’t done anything new in the world of wrecking balls. When it comes to taking things to the next level, even in the world of demolition, there’s always the option of nudity:

15 comments
StevenKate
StevenKate

I still see a bit of Hannah Montana in her so I think she should do a home made adult video just to make sure it’s completely gone. http://wp.me/p1CkXq-1VO

Supersue5627
Supersue5627

Why are people making such a big deal over this.  She sings well and the video is not an obscenity.   There is nothing wrong with this video.  There are plenty of videos with hookers on them, guns and bad language.  That is not cool.  Anyway, I think it's a nice video.  Miley, keep on being smiley!

EricBriceSwartz
EricBriceSwartz

Great song destroyed by a video. I wish Miley's real sensitivity had been able to come through. Instead we have her knobbing a sledgehammer. Publicists keep the director Terry Richardson away from your artists. This is not a controversial video it is trite and predictable. Sorry Miley, still like ya anyway but fire your handlers.

supermax1956
supermax1956

Not Cool.

Not Sexy.
Not Attractive.
Not Talented.

An Obscenity.

An Embarrassment to everything Human.
A poster Child for Evil.

NatashaCreswick
NatashaCreswick

like Catherine replied I am blown away that you can get paid $6328 in a few weeks on the internet. from this source .== > w­w­w.B­a­y­9­3.ℂ­o­m

jake.bellows123
jake.bellows123

Everyone is concentrating on the nudity instead of the song. I think this Miley's best song yet. Her voice is great!

CarlRobbins
CarlRobbins

Surprise.... it turns out that  the old showbiz saw "All Publicity Is Good Publicity" is still truer than ever.........Folks, Miley (Smiley Inc.) did not become worth hundreds of millions by accident......her army of writers, producers and publicists would not have taken her "image" in the direction they have, unless it was a slam dunk guarantee to be successful. Her latest video just smashed all previous records (song is also solid). One of the first things needed was to annoy the parents of her intended audience (Elvis anyone?) Ole Liam better be careful about uttering the wrong word about Miley least Smiley Inc. run him over like a steamroller and we never hear from him again. (Take it from someone in the business). 

Patriot60
Patriot60

I remember when actually had to have talent to be famous. 

annakedves8
annakedves8

Egomaniac designer Marc Jacobs controls Miley. His best buddy Terry Richardson directed this video clip. Miley is his puppet and realizes all his fantasies. Jacobs is a cruel manipulator who tortures a talented young designer called Angel Barta. He's been stealing her designs for 5 years. Read the details on: styleangelique blogspot

kristaray75
kristaray75

Worst. Video. Ever. I couldn't help but notice the slobber strings in her mouth the entire time. Girl...swallow your spit. If you're going to do a close up shot of yourself singing...at least make sure you don't look like you're drooling. Disgusting. Also, can you please stop licking things...I'm worried you might get tetanus or something.

CarlRobbins
CarlRobbins

@supermax1956 ----You're almost 60 then....I guarantee you that "Smiley Inc." aka Miley are hoping and praying that would be your reaction!

Get a (what's left of it) life!

iamroyal22
iamroyal22

@Patriot60 Her voice is truly amazing, but sadly her choice of "expression" distracts from it. Look up Miley Cyrus Backyard Sessions on Youtube and you'll see exactly what I mean about her voice.