The K-pop group’s “Butter” is the Song of the Summer, so why doesn’t it feel like it?
A year ago around this time, in our family car, I was auditioning my annual summer playlist for my teenage stepkids. The two Zoomers are a useful focus group for this Gen Xer, who’s trying to capture the peak of competitive hit-making season (something I’ve been doing annually since my 20s, in the actual mixtape era). A funny thing happened when my stepdaughter heard my Summer 2020 playlist, which included everyone from Harry Styles to Tame Impala, Doja Cat to Maren Morris. We hadn’t even gotten that deep into the mix—we were only through Tracks 1, Benee’s “Supalonely,” and 2, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s remix of “Savage”—when she remarked, “Ha! This is just gonna be all the songs from TikTok.”
Busted! In truth, I am not a heavy TikTok user; I visit the world’s favorite meme generator and dance instructor mostly for research purposes, especially for this Slate No. 1 hits series. But Anna’s comment got me thinking: Is TikTok now our metaphorical town square? What makes hit songs pervasive? When you play your friend a smash like the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” (now the longest-running Hot 100 hit of all time, by the way, outlasting the formerly cursed Imagine Dragons), and your friend says, “Oh, yeah, I know this song—that thing is everywhere,” what does everywhere mean? How does a song permeate the culture, considering how disparately organized it is nowadays?
For decades, that “how” has been radio. Especially during the summer—the whole point of America’s Song of the Summer is that the song is inescapable, like it’s following you wherever you go: a passing car, the beach, the state fair, a boardwalk food stand. All of these locales imply that a radio is playing. While it’s certainly possible that this booming jam was dialed up by a single Spotify user, odds are it’s actually being played by a professional: a Top 40 broadcaster, or these days, maybe an Apple Music programmer. But perhaps, especially in our second straight COVID summer, cyberspace now counts as the boardwalk. I’m still pondering this possible reality one year after my Summer 2020 mini–focus group, especially when I hear America’s latest No. 1 song—the first Hot 100 chart-topper of summer 2021 that isn’t by South Korean pop dominators BTS.
This new chart-topper, “Stay,” is by another rising pop act from the Eastern Hemisphere—Australia’s the Kid Laroi, with a bit of help from a certain omnipresent Canadian, Justin Bieber. “Stay” is an infectious pop confection, like BTS’s “Butter,” the song it replaced last week. But “Stay” is the kind of ambient smash that’s likelier to be consumed via radio stations nationwide, whereas the success of “Butter” has been fueled largely by BTS’s excitable, very online fan base. BTS fans have nothing to worry about: The K-pop septet has 2021’s Song of the Summer contest all sewn up. But there’s already clear evidence that “Stay” is a bigger U.S. radio hit. Does this more passive, wide-but-shallow consumption pattern make the Kid Laroi’s single less of a “real” hit than the one by the South Korean boy band with its own fan army? Or is Laroi’s hit—No. 1 for a fortnight so far—actually more pervasive, even though it stands no chance to win Song of the Summer? Is “Stay” here to stay?
Born Charlton Howard in Waterloo, a suburb of Sydney, just 18 years ago—it was his birthday this week!—the Kid Laroi derived his sobriquet from the Indigenous Australian nation Kamilaroi; his mother is of Aboriginal descent. Classified as a rapper, Laroi sounds less like prior chart-topping Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea, who drops bars the old-fashioned way. He’s from the post-SoundCloud school of singsong rapping. If there’s one thing in common between Laroi and Azalea, it’s that both Oz natives have carefully studied their respective American hip-hop gurus (Azalea was famously mentored by Atlanta rapper T.I.) to produce an uncanny facsimile. For Laroi, that means emulating the warbly croon of Juice Wrld, the late Chicago-based SoundClouder-turned-blockbuster, who was the Kid’s earliest supporter. After the Aussie opened concerts for him in 2018 and 2019, Juice, aka Jarad Higgins, took Laroi under his wing, even letting him live in his house; their collaboration “Go,” a No. 52 hit, helped break Laroi onto the charts. On that track and Juice Wrld’s posthumous hit with DJ Marshmello, Polo G, and the Kid Laroi, “Hate the Other Side” (No. 10, 2020), Juice’s and Laroi’s voices flowed into, and were often barely distinguishable from, each other.
Since Juice Wrld’s December 2019 death, the Kid Laroi has worked with a range of other collaborators. These collaborations have appeared on all permutations of his major-label debut, F*ck Love. (In now-standard streaming-era practice, it’s classified as a “mixtape,” giving the Kid and his label Columbia free reign to update F*ck Love with piles of new tracks every few months. Bet on it: There will be a Kid Laroi “debut album” sometime in 2022 or ’23, probably with another F-bomb in its title.) Over the course of the past 18 months, across three editions of F*ck Love, Laroi has sing-rapped alongside Machine Gun Kelly, Lil Mosey, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and in his highest-profile team-up, Miley Cyrus. Their duet reboot of Laroi’s track “Without You”—whose most memorable line, “Can’t make a wife out of a ho,” had already been trending on TikTok—brought the Kid onto the Saturday Night Live stage alongside Cyrus in May and into the Top 10 for the first time as a lead act (No. 8).
All of these pairings have set the Kid up nicely for his chart-topping breakthrough “Stay.” Bieber is Laroi’s highest-profile collaborator yet, which helps explain why it’s his first-ever Hot 100 No. 1. But it’s the song’s sound, a synth-pop ripening of the Laroi approach, that explains why it’s going to remain on the chart deep into fall. And it’s why you’ll likely hear it a lot more out in the world than you did our official Song of the Summer, BTS’s “Butter.”
BTS’s long chart command this summer reminds me—as so many things do—of a line from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. Remember the scene with Bruno Kirby’s limo driver, who quips at the metal band that Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes, I Can should really be titled Yes, I Can, if Frank Sinatra Says It’s OK? The story of The Kid Laroi topping the Hot 100 could be titled, Yes, I Can Get My First No. 1 Hit, if the BTS A.R.M.Y. Says It’s OK. “Stay” takes over from “Butter” after the latter spent nine weeks on top, the most weeks of any song this year (it edged out the winter’s eight-week No. 1 “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo). “Stay” didn’t so much topple “Butter” as “Butter” stepped aside, falling from No. 1 to No. 4 last week. “Stay” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in its fourth week, a bit sluggish at a time when so many songs debut atop the chart (Laroi and Bieber are now in their second week at No. 1). What made “Stay’s” arrival feel slow is that BTS had already racked up two back-to-back No. 1 Hot 100 hits this summer.
Hang on—two summer 2021 No. 1s for BTS? Yep, BTS was actually on top for 10 weeks straight: the nine weeks I mentioned for “Butter” and one week for “Permission to Dance,” the band’s latest English-language single (their third, after “Butter” and last summer’s “Dynamite”). What’s kind of fishy is that the boy band swapped places with themselves for one week in mid-July, and the whole thing felt rather … coordinated. For that one week, “Butter” fell from No. 1 to No. 7, and “Permission to Dance” debuted on top. The following week, “Permission,” in turn, fell back—coincidentally, to No. 7—and “Butter” flew back from No. 7 to No. 1 and stayed there two more weeks. It’s moments like this that make skeptics, like my fellow chart columnist Tom Breihan, so suspicious of ’20s fan armies and their impact on the charts. It also makes me look, 10 weeks later, a little naïve titling an article, “BTS Are Playing—and Winning—the Billboard Charts Game Fair and Square.” What’s fair-and-square about a fan army collectively handpicking which songs will top the Hot 100? BTS’s second summer hit now looks a little phony—“Permission to Dance” is already down to No. 55, less than a month after its single week at No. 1. (To be fair, several recent No. 1s, including hits by Taylor Swift, Tekashi 6ix9ine, and Travis Scott, had much larger and faster plummets out of the top slot.)
Still, there is an honest, straightforwardly mathematical explanation for how Team BTS pulled off this pas de deux between “Butter” and “Permission to Dance.” Consider the three pools of data that combine to form the Hot 100: streaming, radio, and sales. As I explained when “Butter” hit No. 1, BTS over-relies on sales. Its streams are solid but not exceptional, and at radio, BTS is always fighting an uphill battle with U.S. programmers. Yes, still: Back in June, I closed my “Butter” article with the observation that the song was off to a good start at radio, stronger than last year’s “Dynamite.” However, I spoke too soon: “Butter” eventually hit a ceiling at radio. For roughly the past month, it’s stalled on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart at or just below No. 20. (This is a comedown from “Dynamite,” which got as high as 10th at radio. Isolating just pure-pop stations, “Butter” climbed as high as seventh place, but that’s still not as good as “Dynamite,” which made the pop-radio top five.)
So BTS really does depend on sales for its U.S. chart performance—both digital downloads and physical goods. Overwhelmingly, these singles sell to the group’s fervent fan base. Every week that “Butter” was No. 1, the single sold at least 100,000 copies, sometimes two to three times that, and most of those sales were (real, chart-legal) repeat purchases by the same fans. Columbia Records, BTS’s U.S. label, boosted “Butter” Lil Nas X–style with constant remixes and updates. A Hotter remix came out in the song’s second week, Cooler and Sweeter mixes by the third week, all of them deep-discounted to 69 cents on iTunes. One week in July, the group finally shipped weeks’ worth of preordered vinyl and cassette singles, which meant another week at No. 1. Yet another week, Columbia issued a version of the digital single with a different cover (just a new screen image!) and even that spurred fans to buy the song again. The only week this summer “Butter” didn’t sell 100,000 or more copies was the week “Permission to Dance” arrived; in drill-formation fashion, the A.R.M.Y. switched its focus for that one week to “Permission,” and it sold 140,000 copies, outselling “Butter” about 3 to 1. Then, a week later, BTS fans went back to buying “Butter,” and the two songs swapped places. Because BTS’s sales are so much larger—often 10 times larger—than those of any other hit-maker (and in Billboard’s chart math, each sale counts about 150 times as much as a stream), whatever song the BTS A.R.M.Y. commits its dollars to in any given week is highly likely top the Hot 100.
This is all legitimate chart math, and it offers impressive evidence of the depth of BTS fandom but makes its breadth, at least in America, look rather limited. To be sure, BTS fans in the U.S. number in the millions, and one imagines that fan base growing all the time. But, to paraphrase someone else in Spinal Tap, their appeal remains selective. Since “Butter” racked up all nine of its weeks at No. 1 after Memorial Day, it’s a prohibitive, essentially unstoppable favorite to take Billboard’s Song of the Summer title for 2021 in a walk. But unlike such prior, official Songs of Summer as “California Gurls,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Blurred Lines,” “One Dance,” “Despacito,” and “Old Town Road,” this year’s presumptive victor is a song fewer Americans than ever are likely to have heard. That is unless, like my stepdaughter, you consider the online world to be the entire world—which, as we fight another COVID wave, might be fair. But a Song of Summer feels a little empty if it’s not bumping from a beach boombox.
Which brings me back, finally, to the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay,” which is quite literally the opposite kind of hit from “Butter”: anemic sales, blockbuster streams, and fast-growing radio airplay. In just under a month, “Stay” has sold only 55,000 downloads total, less than a typical BTS single sells in a week. But who needs downloads? Laroi/Bieber’s hit has been Billboard’s top streaming song for four weeks now, racking up tens of millions of streams and beating such Spotify titans as Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Olivia Rodrigo. And “Stay” already ranks 10th at radio, after just a month of airplay; remember, “Butter” hasn’t gotten past 20th at radio in three months. BTS fans will carp that “Butter’s” radio peak reflects bias, even racism, on the part of U.S. radio programmers. And yes, the elders who control the airwaves remain unfairly allergic to K‑pop. (I really don’t know what radio’s problem is; “Butter” is a bop, no more or less than “Dynamite” was.) But the faster start for “Stay” also reflects other factors: not only Bieber’s long-established stardom—funny that, a decade ago, radio programmers were avoiding him like they are now with BTS—but also how Laroi’s breakthrough hit cannily channels the sound that radio listeners across the genre spectrum have been gravitating toward for several years.
With “Stay,” the Kid Laroi’s career arc reminds me most, not of Juice Wrld or Machine Gun Kelly, but of pseudo-rapper Post Malone. Five years ago, Post developed a bespoke sound identified as rap but, as I’ve said about several of his No. 1 hits, really closer to emo-bro trap pop with woozy singing. Then, starting with his Spider-Man jam with Swae Lee, “Sunflower,” and accelerating with his breezy smash “Circles,” Post pivoted toward sunny techno pop—so light and radio-friendly that he was commanding both the Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary chart. In just two years, Laroi has moved in a similar direction: pivoting from whine-and-grind trap pop like “Not Sober” to the bouncy pure pop of “Stay.” (It’s telling that Billboard is not charting “Stay” on its Hot R&B Hip-Hop Songs chart, even after Laroi’s earlier, more trap-heavy singles like “Not Sober” were permitted on that chart.) “Stay” burbles and bubbles, riding a cycling synth pulse that encourages Laroi to sing more directly—not sing-rap—than he ever has before, with a perky ’80s cadence: “I do the same/ Thing I told you that I never would/ Told you I’d change/ Even when I knew I never could … I need you to stay/ Need you to stay, hey.” It’s got echoes of Post’s “Circles” and Bieber’s bubbly 2015 No. 1 “What Do You Mean,” as well as the Weeknd’s genre-busting techno-pop dominator “Blinding Lights”—all hits that brought these artists to a wider audience, from kids to their grandparents.
So don’t be surprised if the Kid’s smash with the Biebs is commanding adult-contemporary radio in a few months, too. What all these synth-pop confections, from Post Malone’s to the Weekend’s, have in common is the ability to charm or—I know this sounds like an insult—fade into the background. It’s not like BTS’s “Butter” is more demanding on the listener. But the perception, however unfair, remains that BTS is a phenomenon perpetuated by its devoted fandom. They dominated Song of the Summer this year by turning out their base: fans willing to pay (and pay again) to own their product. But the Kid Laroi, still in his teens, is likelier to generate streams and radio spins heard by folks who will bop along, then move along. He might own both TikTok and drive time, having his butter and eating it, too.