Illustration of Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa by Marlowe Pody for an article on Prisoner

Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa Are ’80s Rock Vampires in ‘Prisoner’

The two artists break free from the prison of their exes in the campy, rock ‘n' roll themed music video.
December 4, 2020
8 mins read

Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa’s new music video for “Prisoner” begins with Cyrus’ floating mouth in the center of the screen, singing the lyrics in a way reminiscent of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Black and white frames flow in and out like a documentary of an ‘80s rock band, showing the duo dancing and singing in front of the camera. The shots, seemingly filmed by an old camcorder, complete the rock vibe with fishnets, barbed wire tattoos and Cyrus’ mullet.

The first verse transitions with an ‘80s rock synth beat, with Cyrus and Lipa driving a tour bus while jamming out. Once they reach the back of the bus, things get steamy as they simultaneously change outfits and dance with each other before their performance. Juice from a jar of maraschino cherries spills on Cyrus as she drinks from it, mimicking blood, and they lick and bite it off each other, imitating vampires as they give suggestive glances toward the camera.

Mey Rude from Out Magazine described the video as “dirty and hot and tons of trashy fun.”

The video was released on Nov. 19, with over 22 million views to date. Fans were elated to hear that Cyrus was releasing her rock-inspired album, “Plastic Hearts,” after she trended online for singing rock covers with her rough, powerful voice. “Prisoner” is Cyrus’ second single from the album. Mixed with Lipa’s smooth vocals, the song instantly rose in the charts.

Rude went on to write, “Cyrus’s rock rasp wonderfully contrasts with Lipa’s smooth and rich voice, and the beat sounds like it was written by John Carpenter for a horror movie he never filmed.”

The beat and rhythm of the song compares to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” from 1981, as many fans have noted in the comments of the video. The chorus of “Prisoner” evokes the iconic lyrics, “Let’s get physical, physical.” The music video demonstrates this physicality by Cyrus and Lipa’s steamy closeness as they lick and bite each other, their bodies close together throughout the duration of the video.

Cherries, a symbol of sex and female chastity, are unmissable. Cyrus pours the juice into her mouth and down the front of her shirt, which remains stained throughout the rest of the video. Cyrus and Lipa eat the cherries, licking the juice from each other’s skin like sensual vampires. The choice of cherries shows them claiming their own sexuality. They’re destroying a symbol of feminine purity as they consume and play with the stems and juice. Both of the pop stars being women further disrupts the normalized heterosexual view of female sexuality as they assert their own autonomy.

Similarly, the spider that showed up a few times in the music video, which symbolizes feminine energy and creativity, nods to Cyrus co-directing the video and creating it herself.

In the post-credit scene, iconic drag queen Divine, from the 1974 film “Female Trouble,” says, “I’m a free woman now and my life is ready to begin,” much like Cyrus in this new era of music and fashion.

The music video references other cult classic films, such as “Little House of Horrors” (1986) with the scene inside a mouth, and “The Runaways” (2010), a movie based on the iconic all-female rock band from the ‘70s, known for their hit song “Cherry Bomb.” The Runaways were known for paving the way for all female rock artists in a male-dominated genre of music, and Cyrus pays homage to them with the use of cherries, her outfits and the all-female presence. Not to mention how much Cyrus and Lipa look similar to Cherie Currie and Joan Jett.

Images of “Jennifer’s Body,” a film about a succubus (Megan Fox) who seduces and feeds on the flesh of her male classmates, are present in the video, with the front of Cyrus’ shirt looking like Fox’s outfits after killing her victims. In this case, Cyrus acts as a succubus for her exes, becoming more powerful and independent with every heartbreak she suffers from.

The music video gives off campy, kitschy vibes because of its many references to well-known cult classics and rock music. It is its own comedy horror movie, with the duo having fun singing and dancing to their song.

Alyssa Bailey from Elle summarized “Prisoner” as “a dark song that captures what it’s like to be trapped in an unhealthy, manipulative relationship where their partner keeps pulling them back.”

The lyrics of the song capture the feeling of addiction to a person and all of the feelings associated with being with that person. However, knowing that they are a prisoner of the person, they sing about the push-and-pull dynamic of a manipulative and toxic relationship: “You keep making it harder to stay / But I still can’t run away / I gotta know, why can’t you, why can’t you just let me go?”

In an interview for Apple Music, Cyrus spoke about how “Prisoner” could also reflect on the feelings of being in quarantine. She said, “We’re just trapped in our emotions right now. I mean, really, there’s no escaping it. It’s like, ‘Locked up, can’t get you off my mind.’ Anything that you’ve tried to suppress or compartmentalize at that point, it’s coming up. It’s yours to own, to own it or release it.” This song and music video for Cyrus was her way to release her feelings from quarantine about her past relationships and emotions, and she definitely owned it.

The image of a heart surrounded by barbed wire is shown at the beginning and ending of the music video, representing a guarded heart. After the duo rocks the stage, Lipa flips off the audience, and the spiky heart appears on the screen, showing the words, “In loving memory of all my exes” and “Eat s—,” which coincides with the fly being swatted at the beginning of the video.

Cyrus and Lipa’s grungy, rock ‘n’ roll themed music video for “Prisoner” sends a message of independence and sexual autonomy after a toxic relationship with its many symbols and late ‘70s and early ‘80s Easter eggs.

Samantha Havela, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Samantha Havela

University of Michigan
English and Women’s & Gender Studies

Samantha Havela is a passionate senior studying English and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She loves writing almost as much as she loves her dog.

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