Features

Deconstructing the Worldwide Phenomenon That Was ‘Achy Breaky Heart’

Mercury Records

On March 23, 1992, the world stopped. On that day, Billy Ray Cyrus released “Achy Breaky Heart” and the world actually went crazy for it. Well, maybe not exactly on March 23. But just over three months later, on June 27, 1992, the song went to No. 1 on the Billboard country charts.

To this day, the song written by Don Von Tress remains Cyrus’ most popular track. It hit platinum status (the first country song to do so since “Islands In The Stream” nine years prior). And it also became a crossover success.

After all, the tune charted in more than 10 countries across the world, hitting top 30 in all of them. That includes No. 1 in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.

So how then, does this massively popular song also evoke such massive ridicule when talked about today? There’s nothing inherently funny or disgraceful about it. In fact, the song is remarkably well crafted both in terms of lyrical structure and melody. And yet in the court of popular opinion, the tune is a total eye-roller.

It only took Weird Al a year to record his parody, “Achy Breaky Song,” in which he implores a DJ to stop playing the tune. Yankovic knew the tune was more mean-spirited than his normal parodies, so he donated the proceeds to the United Cerebral Palsy Association.

A Brief History

Don Von Tress wrote the song in 1990, but had practically no tangible commercial success up until that point. The Oak Ridge Boys considered recording the song, but ultimately passed due to the phrase “achy breaky,” because it, you know, makes up a word.

So The Marcy Brothers from California recorded the song under the name “Don’t Tell My Heart,” in which they actually changed the word “breaky” to “breaking.” Their career lasted approximately as many years as members of their band (three), though they did chart six singles.

As you can probably guess, not a single one of them was “Don’t Tell My Heart.” It took Billy Ray Cyrus and his debut album Some Gave All to turn the song into a smash hit.

Why is it so easy to make fun of?

Well, that music video certainly doesn’t help. And let’s be honest, when a country song doesn’t age well, the video usually comes into play. Just think Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.”

In the video for “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus is mobbed by adoring women from the start. (Never mind he’s a brand new artist at this point, whom nobody has really heard of). He proceeds to rock out on stage with the world’s most questionable mullet. He kind of has this serial killer stare going as the camera pans across shots of pretty girls (and their chests). And don’t forget that super dramatic moment where he rips off his shirt.

 

The video also reintroduced the popularity of the line dance in clubs. How everybody in the crowd knew to dance, who knows, but it certainly took line dancing out of the barn and into the big city clubs.

A lot of the hate also probably has to do with the phrase “achy breaky” in the end. Cyrus even makes fun of it himself in an episode of Hannah Montana. He plays a character writing the tune in a diner in 1987. He calls the phrase “achy breaky” the dumbest thing he’s ever heard.

The Court of Public Popularity

Every song usually enters that “played so much everybody hates it phase.” It happened with songs like “Uptown Funk” and “Cruise” and pretty much all of Nickelback’s career. The song becomes inescapable, and that usually means the people who wouldn’t normally seek it out hear it. And when they do? Hoo-boy, they really start sipping the haterade.

But here’s the thing: all of those artists and songs still have massive followings. The problem with “Achy Breaky Heart” is that Cyrus never found another song with as much success. And yet 25 years later, if it comes on in any dance hall or grocery store, people sing along. But that doesn’t change the fact that we see it as the epitome of hokey club-hopping country.

For his part, Cyrus actually re-recorded the song for its 25th anniversary. He produced it and sang it more in the manner he hoped it always would’ve been recorded. The song has a much swampier, Southern rock vibe than the early 90s version.

 

Billy Ray says he always wanted to head more that direction with his career, but because the song came from his debut album, he didn’t get a whole lot of say in the matter.

And if you’ve heard his most recent album Thin Line, you’d be inclined to believe him. The album falls much more in line with his outlaw/Americana leanings and strips away a lot of the polish.

Though honestly, it’s way too late to save the reputation of the tune. Some things are just relegated to the “ridiculous” pile, and that’s where “Achy Breaky Heart” ended up. But while it’s there, it built a career for Cyrus and made a whole hell of a lot of money for a lot of people. So hey, it ain’t all bad.

Now Watch: 10 Best Country Karaoke Songs

recommended for you

Deconstructing the Worldwide Phenomenon That Was ‘Achy Breaky Heart’