The Song of the Pandemic Summer
Seven songs—six in a row—have spent only a week at No. 1. Which will prove the soundtrack for this turbulent season?
Summer, hard as it may be to believe, has not been canceled. But nothing about the summer of 2020 in America feels—can feel, should feel—normal. Our country is currently navigating contradictory compulsions to both gather en masse, for a righteous cause, and avoid one another, for a healthy cause. Even our sports have been disrupted, for good reason.
That includes the frothy sport that your humble chart columnist follows most avidly at this time of year: the battle for Song of the Summer.
Should anybody care about this long-overhyped skirmish among pop songs? Distasteful as it may seem, we do still have competition among summer hits, and Billboard’s stalwart Hot 100 still dutifully charts our top earworms every week. Come Labor Day, one song will take the prize on the magazine’s perennial Songs of the Summer chart. That’s even if most of us never actually heard that song—at our near-deserted beaches, or our shuttered amusement parks—or if we couldn’t hear it bumping from cars driving past us as we marched through the streets. If 2020’s Song of the Summer is the ultimate tree falling in an empty forest, why would any music star strive to be that tree?
And yet the competition at the top of the Hot 100 has, quite literally, never been more fierce. In the two months since the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” went to No. 1, seven songs have taken turns atop the chart, for a week apiece—including six in a row in the past six weeks, a record for the SoundScan Era. According to Billboard, the last time we saw this much turnover at the top of the Hot 100 was the fall of 1990, the year before SoundScan launched, when seven songs in seven weeks—from Nelson, Maxi Priest, George Michael, James Ingram, Janet Jackson, Vanilla Ice, and Mariah Carey—took turns on top. One more single-weeker this year, and we’ll tie even that pre-SoundScan record.
Among our seven recent revolving-door hits, which I will run down momentarily, five are still knocking around the Top 10. This includes the current No. 1 song, “Rockstar” by DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch. The seven hits—all contenders for SotS, to varying degrees—also have a freakish number of traits in common. Six of them are one-off duets between previously unaffiliated artists—including three double-female duets within a month, an all-time record, two of them in a row entirely by black women. At least two, and arguably three, of the songs would not exist if not for COVID-19. On top of that, among the contenders, we can’t count out the aging “Blinding Lights,” which is still lodged in the top three in its 27th week on the Hot 100 and currently the most-played song at radio.
In prior years, I have talked about how the Summer Song battle has been all sewn up before the Fourth of July. This year? With seven new No. 1s in two months, plus that tenacious Weeknd single, an epic—yet largely accidental—battle is shaping up. It’s a total jump ball.
This rapid turnover at No. 1 is the kind of freak occurrence we get on the charts from time to time, but it also reflects larger cultural and music-business forces. For starters, No. 1 debuts have become easier in the streaming era—of the 39 No. 1 debuts in Hot 100 history, 19, or almost half, have come just since 2013, after Spotify and YouTube data were added to the chart. So the industry is now using every trick in the book to launch new singles on top. This includes merchandising tactics that, until recently, were more common on Billboard’s album chart—we now live in the age of the “bundle,” where labels and artists will tie the release of a new album to all manner of merch that counts for the charts if the consumer receives music as an optional part of their purchase. (Travis Scott, in particular, is a master of this gambit.) The bundling concept has started to spread to the Hot 100, albeit in a purer form—artists are now issuing limited-edition physical copies of new singles, on formats as old-fashioned as the cassingle or vinyl seven-inch, to try to juice first-week sales numbers. Beyond all of these schemes, hit artists are also riding cultural trends more adeptly than ever: Again, several were directly inspired by or marketed around our ongoing pandemic. And practically all are begging to be TikTok’d. As I’ve said before in this long-running Slate No. 1 hits series: Welcome to the new era of hit-making.
Speaking of this series, a disclaimer. Since I took it over in late 2013, we have only skipped covering a handful of songs—due to scheduling difficulties—when these hits spent a single, fluky week at No. 1. This year, I haven’t written about any new No. 1s since “Blinding Lights,” partially because of Slate’s redirection of resources amid the recession and following the launch of our metered paywall—but also because all of these new hits have been fluky single-weekers! It’s felt weird for me to sit on the sidelines since April, while artists as mighty as Drake, Travis Scott, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga (plus some chart newbies I’ll discuss in a moment) have stolen the keys to the Hot 100 penthouse from one another every seven days. And yet, honestly, letting these 2020 pop gladiators go uncovered, until now, felt kinda appropriate—not only due to our national crises, but because frankly it was hard to tell how fleeting these flashes in the pan would turn out to be. Whichever of these songs winds up 2020’s Song of the Summer, that designation will give that song a legacy most of these hits currently lack.
So let’s catch up with the state of chart-topping pop since the early-pandemic era, by briefly running down all seven of these new No. 1s since April, then trying to handicap which one might be anointed Song of the Summer. In each case, I will address the song’s TikTokability and its corona-conversance, as well as any sales-juicing ploys.
Drake, “Toosie Slide”
No. 1 the week ending April 18
Of course Drake recorded a trend-hopping song about the coronavirus. And of course it’s melancholy, because Drake, and a humblebrag, because Drake. The Theo Skudra–directed video captures how the in-his-feelings Drizzy is self-quarantining in his palatial Toronto mansion, complete with giant kitchen island and original art by Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami. And naturally, music’s leading trend-hopper made it intentionally TikTokable: He teaches us a Hokey Pokey–like dance move—both in the lyrics (“Right foot up, left foot slide/ Left foot up, right foot slide”) and the video, wherein he shows you the move. And naturellement Drake hired dance influencers, ’cause that’s a thing now, to make the clip go viral. He even baked the name Toosie, the moniker of an internet-famous influencer, into the song’s title. All this market-priming totally worked and got “Toosie Slide” its inevitable No. 1 debut on the Hot 100. But the damnedest thing about Drake is his songs have legs. Like the languid “God’s Plan,” which was at first underestimated but wound up the top song of 2018, “Toosie” has proved surprisingly enduring. It’s still in the Top 10 (No. 6 this week), driven by radio airplay. Only Mr. October could make such a wintry hit a summer challenger.
Topicality: This song would literally not exist if not for COVID-19.
TikTokability: Utterly shameless, totally effective. And yes, #toosiechallenge accepted.
A chart footnote: After Drake knocked out “Blinding Lights” in mid-April and spent his single week on top, the Weeknd went back to No. 1 for two more weeks (four in total). So “Toosie” stands apart from our single-weeker streak. That run didn’t begin in earnest until early May, with the hit that knocked out the Weeknd, maybe for good …
The Scotts (Travis Scott and Kid Cudi), “The Scotts”
No. 1 the week ending May 9
Did I say Drake’s hit was self-referential? Not since Living in a Box’s 1987 No. 17 hit “Living in a Box” has a self-titled song, not album, done so well on the charts. (Honorable mention to the 2007 chart-topper “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy.) Prior to this year, the entity known as the Scotts was not a thing: Travis Scott (which is not actually his real name) invited Scott Mescudi, better known as rapper and longtime Kanye West collaborator Kid Cudi, onto a single that Travis claims is the start of a new group, maybe? If I sound skeptical, it’s because the project feels like a one-off: just two verses, one for each rapper, neither of which is either man’s best work. To this aging Gen Xer, the song’s best feature is its closing synth solo that’s less like trap than Tangerine Dream. Anyway, the reason the song exists was as a showpiece for Travis’ “Astronomical Concert” on Fortnite, a late-April live event within the online game. As if this wasn’t enough of a guarantee “The Scotts” would debut on top, Travis primed the market with limited-edition physical singles. Pandemic people, are you not entertained?!
Topicality: The lyrics, which probably predate COVID-19, nonetheless seem to allude to our collective lockdown: “We see the hype outside/ Right from the house/ Took it straight from outside/ Straight to the couch.” And of course, the choice of Fortnite as the song’s venue was catnip for quarantining young people now that the game is a major coronavirus pastime.
TikTokability: Not as premeditated as “Toosie,” but it seemed to attract its share of Toks.
Doja Cat featuring Nicki Minaj, “Say So”
No. 1 the week ending May 16
As I noted in my “Blinding Lights” analysis, 2020 has been a good year for retro dance music. Besides the Weeknd’s ’80s synthpop reboot, hits from Dua Lipa, SZA with Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga have all lovingly thrown back to ’70s disco. But no 2020 hit has sailed a Nile Rodgers–style Chic groove to greater success than “Say So,” the breakthrough for rapper/singer/online controversy magnet Doja Cat. The biracial Angeleno had been primed to break for years, ever since signing with controversial hit-maker Dr. Luke. (This was before Kesha’s allegations against the producer became public.) And “Say So” itself has been knocking around forever—it was such a TikTok sensation in late 2019 that Laura Dern was jamming to it with her daughter before Christmas. On its own, Doja’s lighter-than-air disco twirler broke into the Top 10 in early April, and that’s when Team Doja brought in the big guns: Nicki Minaj, the pink and proud MC, who’s essentially Doja’s style godmother. (Doja does rap on other singles, but on “Say So” she is a singer and leaves the bars to Nicki.) On the remix, Minaj’s deftly delivered boasts feel about as organically integrated into the track as a Post-it note, but the alliance was still enough to propel “Say So” to No. 1. Amazingly, improbably, stupidly, this also represented Minaj’s first-ever Hot 100 No. 1. Picture it: The top female rapper of the 2010s had to wait into the 2020s to top the chart. One month later, the remix is already old news: Billboard reports that radio has mostly stuck to the Doja Cat original, and the Nicki version is now selling and streaming modestly enough that they’ve removed Minaj’s name from “Say So’s” chart entry (currently, not retroactively). But the gambit did its job.
Topicality: The remix did provide an update to this carefree pre-COVID jam, but almost all of Nicki’s bars are about Nicki. However, her line late in the remix, “I got dressed just to sit in the house,” has been read as corona-related.
TikTokability: As noted above, Doja’s song was a TikTok smash months before it was a Hot 100 hit. Post-Nicki, Tokkers are having shady fun with the remix’s least interesting line.
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, “Stuck With U”
No. 1 the week ending May 23
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s “Stuck With U” has a lot in common with “Toosie Slide”: COVID-themed, socially distanced, and an inevitable smash, given the star power involved. Where this pairing of Baby Mariah and the Biebs parts ways with Drake’s lockdown jam is its earnest romance: “Stuck” is about couples who keep passion alive in quarantine. And it’s a charity song, benefiting more than the artists singing it. Though, of course, them too—it’s easy to be cynical about “Stuck With U.” It only exists because both Grande and Bieber are managed by Scooter Braun. It’s an obvious effort at Bieber-boosting at a moment Justin’s latest album and tour (pre-COVID) were falling short commercially. And the video has so many star cameos it feels like a politer version of that misbegotten cover of “Imagine.” But the cause—the unimpeachable First Responders Children’s Foundation—and the heartwarming song itself melt one’s icy heart. Rather like Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé’s 2017 smash “Perfect,” the Grande-Bieber duet is styled as a traditional slow dance, an ideal showcase for the winsome pair’s vocals. Thanks to the charity angle, plus some limited-edition physical singles, “Stuck” opened to the best weekly sales of any of these recent No. 1s, but it’s also had a sizable falloff. Of these seven new No. 1s since April, only “Stuck” and “The Scotts” are already out the Hot 100’s Top 10.
Topicality: As up-to-the-minute as it gets—at least, as of May, which already feels like multiple news cycles ago.
TikTokability: The crafty thing about the video is it’s filled with simple cameraphone footage of quarantining couples and families, inviting imitation. Many Tokkers have obliged.
Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé, “Savage (Remix)”
No. 1 the week ending May 30
Is there no career Queen Bey can’t improve? From the aforementioned Ed Sheeran, to Latin superstar J. Balvin, to rising hip-hop diva and Hot Girl Summer inventor Megan Thee Stallion, Beyoncé has been on a tear in the past three years when it comes to boosting others’ hits. The addition of Bey to fellow Houston native Megan’s original is no Doja-and-Nicki–style bolt-on. From its opening seconds, the reboot is slinkier, more sinuous, more R&B-flavored—even though Sasha Fierce is rapping more credibly than she has on any track since she and her husband released an album as the Carters. “Savage (Remix)” was issued during the same week as the “Say So” remix, and so this historic convergence of two all-black-female duets turned, for better and worse, into a head-to-head chart battle. At first, Team Doja-Nicki was the clear winner, as “Say So” flew to No. 1 instantly. But “Say So” was building on months of prior radio and TikTok momentum, whereas Megan and Bey were only getting started: “Savage (Remix)” grew into the No. 1 spot, three weeks after it dropped. And OK, that was thanks in large part to the belated release of some more market-priming limited-edition physical singles, but also a big leap in airplay. When it hit the top, “Savage” gave Beyoncé a chart milestone: No. 1s in three separate decades—’00s, ’10s, and ’20s—or four, if you count her first ’90s chart-topper with Destiny’s Child. As ever, we underestimate Ms. Knowles at our peril.
Topicality: Appropriately, given its joining of two Texans, the remix’s proceeds were earmarked for Houston disaster-relief organization Bread of Life, for COVID-19 relief.
TikTokability: Megan’s original track already had a refrain built for showing off one’s moves: “I’m a savage/ Classy, bougie, ratchet/ Sassy, moody, nasty.” And then on the remix, in a brilliant tactical move, Beyoncé sneaks a homonym of “TikTok” into her verse: “Hips tick tock when I dance.” That line may be a bit thirsty … but it’s totally working.
Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, “Rain on Me”
No. 1 the week ending June 6
Before I talk about this hit’s leading Lady, here’s a staggering chart fact about Grande: She now has four Hot 100 No. 1s, and all four were No. 1 debuts: “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings,” the aforementioned “Stuck with U,” and now “Rain on Me.” After waiting more than five years for a chart-topper, she now not only has a bushel, she’s beaten a record previously held by her forebear, Mariah Carey. You may recall that Justin Bieber, three years ago, was the magical pixie who could turn any hit—“I’m the One,” “Despacito”—into a chart-topper. That’s Grande’s role now, and she really worked some magic for Lady Gaga on “Rain on Me.” Over the past decade, even before her Oscar-winning turn in A Star Is Born, Gaga transformed herself from cutting edge to your parents’ favorite pop star. And even after Star put her back at the center of the Zeitgeist, her chart patterns became more oldster-centric: “Shallow” took half a year to reach No. 1, and the film’s soundtrack did better on CD than it did on streaming services. In the run-up to her ass-wiggling comeback album Chromatica, Gaga turned on the youthful fun again, and it seemed to be working: Lead single “Stupid Love” earned rave reviews and debuted at an impressive No. 5 on the Hot 100. But you know what’s more impressive than a No. 5 debut? A No. 1 debut, and the difference was Grande: “Rain on Me” rang the bell last week, powered by bigger opening streaming numbers than Gaga normally sees (and, yup, more of those physical limited edition singles—I told you everybody was using that gimmick). To be sure, the song is mad catchy—a double dose of nostalgia for both ’90s house and early-’10s EDM—and both ladies sing their hearts out, but it was Grande who made it open on top.
Topicality: Not so much—the slick music video is full of folks dancing right next to one another, a reminder that the COVID-delayed Chromatica campaign dates back to the Before Times.
TikTokability: It’s hard to find a clear “challenge” pattern with “Rain on Me” since videos are all over the map, but … hell, it’s a dance song, complete with professional choreography, in 2020. It’s doing just fine.
DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch, “Rockstar”
No. 1 the week ending June 13 (i.e., now)
I’ll go ahead and make a prediction: If the single-weeker streak on the Hot 100 is about to end, the song to do it is going to be this one from a pair of rising kings of Gen Z, post-SoundCloud rap: DaBaby, who already has two No. 1 albums under his belt, and Roddy Ricch, the man who brought you what is still the biggest hit of 2020, the 11-week chart-topper “The Box.” The standout track on DaBaby’s third album Blame It on Baby, “Rockstar” has strong echoes of the acoustic-flavored 2018 emo-rap smash “Lucid Dreams” by the late Juice Wrld. I am predicting that “Rockstar” will spend more than one week on top, because, even more than “Savage (Remix),” it has momentum on its side and needed far fewer gambits to get to No. 1. It topped the chart in its original album version, and there were no physical sales or coronavirus-related marketing stunts. Plus it’s got the most room to grow: While it has been the most streamed song in America for three weeks, it’s still only 36th at radio and rising. Moreover, “Rockstar” still doesn’t have an official video. If an official clip ever arrives, it will give the track another blast of chart points. Finally, as a song, “Rockstar” just seems to capture the national mood. Even in its original album-cut version, which long predated the current wave of protests, its fed-up lyrics seemed prescient from the opening lines: “Brand new Lamborghini, fuck a cop car/ With the pistol on my hip like I’m a cop.” Add all this up—plus a new remix that broke while I was writing this article—and an extended stay on top seems assured.
Topicality: Recently went from uncanny but tangential (see lyrics, above) to very direct (see remix, below).
TikTokability: You could probably write a whole thesis about this video by a white Southern guy in a cowboy hat and fuchsia pants who seems like an odd fit for the song but inspired all these answer videos. It’s … something.
So, come September, what song will emerge … um, triumphant, if you can call it that? As a pop phenomenon, “Savage (Remix)” feels right as a Song of the Summer. It has the sultriness of such past victors as “California Gurls” and “Fancy” coupled with the video-selfie irresistibility of such pre-TikTok faves as “Call Me Maybe” and “In My Feelings.” You can even make a case that it has some contemporary relevance: It was remixed for a COVID-19 charity. Plus the hit’s very existence feels like a Black Lives Matter statement, a declaration of black female self-possession and pride. If I had filed this article just a day or two ago, I might have given “Savage (Remix)” the edge over DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar.”
Ah, but then this happened overnight Friday, while this article was going to press:
On his “BLM Remix,” DaBaby wastes no time before getting to the point. In a new first verse, he lays bare his own lifelong experiences with racism, with lines like “As a juvenile, police pulled their guns like they scared of me/ And we’re used to how crackers treat us, now that’s the scary thing.” As if affirming the track was recorded, like, minutes ago, he even includes a line about being “No. 1 on the charts.” Musically, it’s a straightforward, no-frills remix, but the new verse is bracing, taking what was only implied on the original album cut, recorded months before the world lost George Floyd, and making it explicit. It’s the best kind of opportunism, the righteous kind: an insta-protest on wax akin to what Neil Young achieved in the spring of 1970 with the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young hit “Ohio.”
I respect anyone who still questions whether it’s appropriate to follow the Song of the Summer contest this year, but if 28-year-old Jonathan “DaBaby” Kirk takes the 2020 Song of the Summer crown—with a Black Lives Matter remix referencing his own pride at having the top song while his nation is raging—well, you kinda have to give it up: Chart justice was served.