"Wrecking Ball" received generally favorable reviews from music critics, who appreciated its lyrical content and overall production. However, some critics questioned if Cyrus' emotional delivery was genuine, since she had recently generated controversy for her increasingly sexual image. Having originally been serviced as a promotional single through the iTunes Store, it debuted on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 at number 50. However, after officially being released as a single, it became Cyrus' first number-one single in the United States after the release of its controversial music video; it retained the peak position during the following week. Nine weeks later, the track returned to number one, and consequently had the largest gap between number-one sittings in Billboard Hot 100 history. As of January 2014, "Wrecking Ball" has sold three million copies in the United States. Internationally, the song charted strongly; it topped the charts in Canada and the United Kingdom, and charted in the top-ten throughout much of Europe and Oceania. The track appeared at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart.
An accompanying music video for "Wrecking Ball" was released on September 9, 2013. It featured close-up scenes of Cyrus tearfully singing, reminiscent of the clip for "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinéad O'Connor, interspersed with footage of a nude Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball. Critics were divided in their opinions of the music video, feeling that it was more provocative than the clip for her previous single "We Can't Stop". "Wrecking Ball" currently holds the Vevo record for the most views in the first 24 hours after its release, and the record for being the fastest clip to reach 100 million views on the service. Cyrus has performed "Wrecking Ball" during several live performances, including the iHeartRadio Music Festival and an episode of Saturday Night Live.
Before directly stating that "Wrecking Ball" was originally written with Beyoncé in mind, songwriter Sacha Skarbek tweeted "Beyonce song now becoming a Miley Cyrus song?!! Good/bad? I don't know??!!!! [sic]" in December 2012. His representative commented that ""Originally, the [songwriting session between Dr. Luke and Sacha] was booked to write a song for Beyoncé. But as the song ['Wrecking Ball'] progressed, the songwriters realized the song would not work for her." The song, and the cover of its parent album Bangerz (2013), were unveiled on August 25, 2013, before Cyrus' performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. She released the cover artwork for "Wrecking Ball" on September 6, which shows Cyrus dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and underwear while swinging on a wrecking ball. The song was serviced to contemporary hit radio stations in the United States on September 17. It serves as the second single from Bangerz, following the lead single "We Can't Stop", which was released in June.
"Wrecking Ball" is a pop ballad; according to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Kobalt Music Publishing America, it is set in common time with a tempo of 60 beats per minute. The track is written in the key of D minor and follows the chord progression Dm–F–C–Gm. Miriam Coleman of Rolling Stone noted that it begins with a minimalist keyboard instrumentation, which puts emphasis on Cyrus "anguished vocals", and also described it as a "heartbroken counterpoint" to "We Can't Stop". Its lyrics discuss the deterioration of a relationship, as mentioned in the lines "Don't you ever say I just walked away / I will always want you / I can't live a lie / running for my life / I will always want you." The track has been widely speculated to be directed towards Cyrus' former fiancé Liam Hemsworth.
Writing for The A.V. Club, Marah Eakin provided a favorable review, calling it a "solid ballad" and describing it as "a modern day "My Heart Will Go On" that discussed a deteriorated, shortlived young romance. Kitty Empire from The Observer opined that "the heartbreak section of Bangerz mostly repays your attention" and mentioned "Wrecking Ball" to be a part of it. Although he found the song "predictable," Evan Sawdey of PopMatters gave it an overall positive review and complimented its production and the build up to its chorus, calling it "the kind of broad mainstream song that shows how you how to properly build up to a chorus before hitting us over the head with it. Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone felt that it "[rides] the hunger and confusion that make great coming-of-age pop." Writing for AllMusic, Heather Phares considered the track to be a standout from Bangerz. Writing for Digital Spy, Robert Copsey questioned Cyrus' decision to premiere a ballad in the midst of controversies regarding her "salacious exploits", but enjoyed the song itself and opined that it "proves that there's method behind the madness." In a more mixed review, Joseph Atilano from the Philippine Daily Inquirer appreciated the lyrics for seeming heartfelt, but felt that its production was "comparatively weaker" by comparison to her earlier projects. Mikael Wood of Los Angeles Times felt that the track proved that Cyrus "isn't just a twerk-bot programmed to titillate", but suggested that her "singing throbs with what feels like an embarrassment of emotion" and found it peculiar that the song discussed the singer's relationship with Hemsworth when her public behavior seemingly suggested that she "couldn't care less about" it.
Before officially being serviced as a single, "Wrecking Ball" debuted at number 50 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with 90,000 two-day downloads, and reached number 14 the following week with 201,000 downloads. After its official premiere as the second single from Bangerz, the track peaked at number one in the United States in its fourth week, heavily assisted by online streaming credits from its recently released music video; this gave Cyrus her first number-one single in the country. It sold 477,000 copies that week, becoming the third-highest single sales week of 2013, behind the 582,000 units moved by "I Knew You Were Trouble" by Taylor Swift and the 557,000 units moved by "Roar" by Katy Perry. In December, "Wrecking Ball" returned to the peak position with assistance from a viral parody video and consequentially became the largest gap between number-one sittings in Billboard history. As of January 2014, "Wrecking Ball" has sold three million copies in the United States. The track peaked at number one on the Canadian Hot 100, and was later certified triple-platinum in the country. It reached the peak position on the Mexico Ingles Airplay, and was recognized with a platinum certification.
"Wrecking Ball" charted strongly throughout Europe. In the United Kingdom, the song and Bangerz both debuted at number one on their respective charts in the same week, making Cyrus the first artist of 2013 to achieve a "chart double" in the country. It was later certified gold by the British Phonographic Industry. In Belgium, it respectively reached numbers four and five on the Belgian Ultratop in the Flanders and Wallonia regions, and was eventually awarded a gold certification. The track peaked at number six on the German Media Control Charts, and was later certified gold. It charted at number three on the Italian FIMI chart, and earned a platinum certification. In Oceania, "Wrecking Ball" charted at number two on both the Australian ARIA Charts and the Official New Zealand Music Chart. It was certified triple-platinum in the former country, and was given a platinum certification in the latter.
A screenshot of the music video for "Wrecking Ball", where Cyrus sits nude on a wrecking ball.
An accompanying music video for "Wrecking Ball" was directed by Terry Richardson, and was premiered through Vevo on September 9, 2013. The clip presents close-up footage of Cyrus emotionally singing to the camera against a white backdrop, having been inspired by the music video for "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinéad O'Connor. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Cyrus licking a sledgehammer and swinging on a wrecking ball. At first, she is shown dressed in a sleeveless shirt and underwear; as the video progresses, she is then shown wearing only Doc Martens boots.
"I think the video is much more, if people get past the point that I'm naked and you actually look at me you can tell that I actually look more broken than even the song sounds. The song is a pop ballad. It's one of these songs that everyone is going to relate to, everyone has felt that feeling at one point. If people can take their minds out of the obvious and go into their imagination a little bit and see kind of what the video really means and the way it's so vulnerable and actually if you look in my eyes I look more sad than my voice sounds on the record it was a lot harder to do the video than it was to record the songs. It was much more of an emotional experience."
— Cyrus defending the concept of the music video.
The clip received generally mixed reviews from critics, who were divided in their opinions regarding Cyrus' increasingly provocative image. Writing for Billboard, Jason Lipshutz stated that the "nude Cyrus shown straddling a swinging wrecking ball" was the most surprising piece of the clip. Amelia Proud from Daily Mail provided a mixed review, commenting that Cyrus delivered a visual that was more provocative than its "boisterous" predecessor "We Can't Stop" and questioned if she has "finally gone too far this time". The staff from Entertainment Weekly joked that viewers would be "scandalized/titillated/disappointed in Billy Ray Cyrus' parenting skills" after seeing his daughter nude and "fellating a sledgehammer. [sic]" Writing for The Guardian, Michael Hann criticized Cyrus' attempts to distance herself from her innocent Hannah Montana image, a former television series in which Cyrus portrayed the primary character Miley Stewart, a middle school student who led a secret double life as pop star Hannah Montana. He disapproved of the manner in which she transitioned into a career beyond her childhood success, specifically panning her for "exploring the iconography of porn."
Andrew Sims of Hypable felt that the visuals depicted in the video were too sexual and did not relate to the "emotional, serious message" of the song itself. James Montgomery from MTV News noted that the controversy surrounding Cyrus' nude performance in the video was "to be expected" given her recent controversies, and complimented Richardson "for toning down the salacious scenes (if only for an instant), and allowing the softer, more genuine sides to shine through." In a more positive review, Madeline Boardman from The Huffington Post felt that the clip provided fans with "a more vulnerable look at the singer." Mikael Wood of Los Angeles Times opined that the music video tried to paint Cyrus in a more serious light with its scenes of her emotionally singing and crying.
With 19.3 million views in the first twenty-four hours of its release, the clip holds the record for having the most views in that time-frame across Vevo platforms. After reaching 100 million views in six days, it also set the record for being the fastest music video to attain a Vevo certification. In doing so, Cyrus beat the previous record of thirty-seven days, established by her music video for previous single "We Can't Stop". A director's cut of the music video was released on September 24, which features only the close-up footage of Cyrus singing against the white backdrop. Vanessa White Wolf from MTV News noted that "the only time Richardson cuts away is at the very end, where, after a quick director's credit page, we see Terry and Miley laughing and mugging for the camera."
Engineered at Conway Recording Studios (Hollywood, California); Luke's In the Boo (Malibu, California); Monster Island Studio (New York City, New York); Maison de Musique (Toronto, Canada); Harmoney Studios (West Hollywood, California); Capitol Studios (Hollywood, California)