The Meaning Behind “The Climb,” Miley Cyrus’ Hit Hannah Montana-Killer

Miley Cyrus got the best of both worlds when she released “The Climb” early in 2009. The power ballad, with its aspirational lyrics and serious, country-leaning sound, served as the musical lynchpin for Hannah Montana: The Movie, the teenager’s leap to the big screen after half a decade headlining her popular Disney Channel series. 

Videos by American Songwriter

The song did more than anchor the movie’s soundtrack, though—it also certified Cyrus’ prospects for a successful music career—as “Miley Cyrus”—after retiring the tween sitcom persona that had made her a household name. 

Hannah Montana premiered on Disney Channel in March 2006, and with it, Cyrus was introduced as both an undercover pop star and the head of a new class of Disney Channel stars that eventually included Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers. Along with her precocious spirit and Tennessee twang, the then-13-year-old had the advantage of coming into the spotlight with a famous last name; her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, had been a country heartthrob in the early ‘90s with tunes like “Could’ve Been Me” and the ubiquitous mega-hit “Achy Breaky Heart” under his boot-scootin’ belt. 

[RELATED: The Best Miley Cyrus Albums to Fit Your Different Moods]

For those who, perhaps, haven’t revisited Hannah’s big-screen adventures since the late 2000s and need a refresher, the film follows Miley Cyrus’ inventively named character Miley Stewart on a trip home to the fictional Crowley’s Corner, Tennessee, after her dad decides she’s getting a little too comfortable with Hollywood life (brawling with Tyra Banks over a pair of heels, stealing the spotlight at her best friend’s Sweet 16 by showing up as Hannah—you know, benign pop star problems). 

Back in her hometown, Miley reconnects with her roots in between falling for a cute ranch hand played by Lucas Till. This leads to a massive line dance to the “boom-de-clap-de-clap” perfection that is “Hoedown Throwdown.” And then Miley even saves the town from a greedy developer who wants to build a giant shopping mall. The character also finds time to get back to her musical roots as well, and spends much of the film’s latter half chipping away, guitar in hand, at the song that eventually becomes “The Climb.”

In real life, though, the song was actually written by Jessi Alexander and Jon Mabe. It was initially inspired by their experiences in the country music industry. “I just had this melody in my head,” Alexander told Country Weekly in 2009. “And I couldn’t get to…my guitar fast enough because I just wanted to play what I was hearing.

“The lyrics kinda started to come,” she continued. “I think for both of us, being kinda underdogs in the business… My co-writer was a song-plugger, just turned songwriter, and I’d had record deals and ups and downs in the music business. I think for both of us, we just came from a place of, you know, ‘It’s not a race.’”

The song’s meaning changed, however, after director Peter Chesolm hand-picked it for Cyrus to record for Hannah Montana: The Movie. As the on-screen Miley struggles to come up with lyrics, her love interest, Travis, tells her, “It’s not bad, it just wasn’t…about anything. It doesn’t tell me anything about who you are or what you feel.”

And the cowboy isn’t wrong, considering Miley’s initial attempt at putting words to music includes a stanza with lines like, It’s kinda funny / Sorta kinda funny how / That voice inside your head’s sayin’ / You’re just a dummy.

Miley then finds herself inspired by another nugget of wisdom Travis rattles off during a pep talk: Life’s a climb, but the view is great. This mantra helps the character turn “The Climb” into an anthem about striving to reach your goals and the importance of never giving up. 

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb

In an oeuvre that included tweeny-bopper fare like “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Nobody’s Perfect,” and “Who Said,” “The Climb” was clearly the most serious and personal song the fictional Miley had ever “written,” and the ballad came in handy when the time came to remove her blonde wig and reveal her identity as the girl behind Hannah Montana to the entirety of Crowley’s Corner for the film’s grand finale. (Don’t worry, the townsfolk promise to keep Miley’s big secret—and without even signing NDAs!—allowing the show to run for two more years on the Disney Channel before its series finale in January 2011.)

“The Climb” may have played a pivotal role in the universe of Hannah Montana, but it also had a major impact on Cyrus’ burgeoning career in the real world. At the time the song dropped, she’d already piggybacked off Hannah’s popularity to release two solo albums, Meet Miley Cyrus (2007) and Breakout (2008). Both had rather impressively bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, but “The Climb” catapulted Cyrus to new heights on the singles chart by peaking at No. 4. At the time, it was the singer’s highest entry on the Hot 100, though it was soon surpassed by “Party in the U.S.A.” (at No. 2) and later her Bangerz-era singles “We Can’t Stop” (also No. 2) and “Wrecking Ball” (her first No. 1).

15 years after “The Climb” helped open the door for Cyrus’ post-Hannah solo career, the superstar reflected on the song’s themes during her 2022 Disney+ special, Miley Cyrus: Endless Summer Vacation (Backyard Sessions), which also celebrated the global success of her latest worldwide chart-topper, “Flowers.”

“The journey is usually the part that you remember anyways,” she said in a confessional to introduce “The Climb,” after revealing during soundcheck that she and her band had lowered the song’s key after 15 years. “Usually, the getting-there, once you’re there, wherever that may be, you’re like, ‘This is what I’ve been expecting?’ And usually you look back and the journey was actually the part that was what makes up your life.”

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Jimmy Buffett’s First Holiday Album ‘Christmas Island’ Gets Vinyl Release