SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why a “Canceled” Country Star Has America’s No. 1 Song

Two years ago, Nashville tried to cut ties with Morgan Wallen. Now he’s scored the genre’s first real chart-topper in decades.

When I was in fourth grade, I got into a magnet public school on the other side of Brooklyn, and two other kids and I had to get there by carpool. The local mom who had the dubious honor of driving three 9-year-olds kept us pacified with the radio. So I have especially vivid memories of the big hits from the fall of 1980 through the spring of 1981. While navigating traffic on the Belt Parkway, we grooved to Diana Ross’s “Upside Down,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love,” and anything by Blondie. But I recall the car really jumping off when this perky toe-tapper came on the radio, from a country singer armed with little more than a guitar, fingersnaps, and handclaps:

It was called “I Love a Rainy Night,” and it was all herky-jerky energy, echoey atmosphere, and homespun poetry—“I love to feel the rain on my face/ Taste the rain on my lips/ In the moonlight shadows.” It wasn’t disco, but you could dance to it, and the chorus was irresistible. The singer’s name was Eddie Rabbitt, and little did we know that he too was born in Brooklyn, decades before he decamped to Nashville. Rabbitt picked the right moment to be a pop-friendly country star. Arriving just months after John Travolta’s smash 1980 movie Urban Cowboy and hitting No. 1 directly after Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (we loved that one, too), “Rainy Night” sounded like it belonged on our New York Top 40 station alongside Diana Ross, Queen, and Blondie. It didn’t feel odd at the time—this was a song for everyone: kids, carpool drivers, urban bullriding clubgoers.

I couldn’t have guessed in the winter of ’81 that it would take 42 years for another solo male country singer to top Billboard’s Hot 100. The song that does it, in the winter of 2023, is almost as perky as “I Love a Rainy Night.” It even uses subtle rhythmic and production tropes to lure in post–hip-hop–era listeners, much the way Rabbitt made his ditty conversant with a post-disco radio universe. But numerically speaking, this new song is not topping the charts by uniting disparate audiences. It’s not (yet, maybe ever) a song for everybody—and whatever its musical merits, you get the sinking feeling it’s being boosted by an audience that’s trying to prove a point, and maybe even … own the libs?

Our nation’s new No. 1 is “Last Night” by Morgan Wallen, country’s standard-bearer for the 2020s. It’s not only the first song by a male soloist to top both the country and pop charts since Rabbitt more than four decades ago. If you don’t count some essentially pop-driven songs by Carrie Underwood in her American Idol moment or Taylor Swift in her Max Martin and Taylor’s Version periods, “Last Night” is basically the first straight-up country song to top the all-genre Hot 100 since Lonestar’s “Amazed” in 2000, making it arguably country’s first real Hot 100 topper of the 21st century. If anyone was going to pull this off, it makes a kind of sense that it’s Wallen—even if the guy sings in a thick, coastal elite–repelling twang and proudly rocks a mullet. Simply put, Morgan Wallen is the Garth Brooks of his moment, a star of country, but bigger than country.

Not unlike Rabbitt, Wallen could easily have been something other than a country singer. Though he was born in Tennessee, country wasn’t where he started. According to an admiring 2020 New Yorker profile, Wallen, born in 1993, came of age on a steady diet of butt rock (Breaking Benjamin, Nickelback) as well as Southern hip-hop anthems like Lil Wayne’s “Steady Mobbin’,” and his audition song on The Voice was a cover of the indie-pop strummer “Collide” by Howie Day. As hilarious as this now seems in retrospect, when he made his media debut as a contestant on that NBC singing competition in 2014, he styled himself as a goateed rocker and tried to downplay his Southern accent. After he fell out of The Voice early in its sixth season, Wallen belatedly gravitated toward country music—he says he only became a country fan after hearing Eric Church—but infused his country with the grunge-rock growl and hip-hop beats he’d grown up with.

That genre-blurring is readily in evidence on “Last Night,” which is far from the best Morgan Wallen song but might be his most archetypal. It’s on top of the pops right now because it happened to be Wallen’s current single when he dropped his third album One Thing at a Time last week. The album’s opening streams were so massive, all of its songs made the Hot 100, and one of those songs was going to wind up atop of the pile. “Last Night” had already been rising and leaped from No. 5 on the Hot 100 to No. 1. That said, I don’t want to sell the song’s crossover intentions short. YouTube music critic Todd in the Shadows calls it “Maroon 5 with a drawl—Maroon Wallen,” and I’d say that’s about right.

Among “Last Night’s” four songwriters, two hail primarily from the world of country (John Byron and Ashley Gorley) and two from pop and hip-hop (Jacob Kasher Hindlin and Ryan “Charlie Handsome” Vojtesak). These four men’s output is just the sort of covering-all-bases hybrid you might expect. Opening with a ’90s-style downtuned guitar arpeggio that could’ve been on a Soundgarden or Gin Blossoms record a generation ago and cycles through the song like a digital loop, the song wastes no time getting to Wallen’s sung refrain: “Last night, we let the liquor talk—I can’t remember everything we said, but we said it all.” A lot of Wallen songs have a bit of enjambment or double meaning to them (“Wasted on You,” “Don’t Think Jesus”), and “Last Night” has a bit of that, too. The titular phrase is about hungover memories of the previous evening, but it’s also a rumination on relationship finality: “Baby, something’s tellin’ me this ain’t over yet—no way it was our last night.” By the time Wallen gets to the first verse after the opening chorus, he’s singing in a double-time cadence that would be called “rap” if Post Malone did it. By the time the chorus comes back a second time, a trap thump has popped up, ensuring this song could plausibly get played on Top 40 radio alongside Miley Cyrus, Sam Smith, and the Weeknd. Which, by the way, it is—Billboard ranks it 32nd this week at pure pop stations, currently earning spins everywhere from Chattanooga to Seattle to Minneapolis. It’s much bigger on country radio right now, but it’s not inconceivable that it could grow with pop listeners, too.

If you aren’t a country listener and only know Wallen’s name from the cultural controversies that have attached to him in the past two-plus years (more on that in a moment), you might not appreciate just how big he is. His dominance on the country charts has been near-total since the end of the ’10s: In five years, he’s racked up 10 No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country or Country Airplay charts, from 2018’s “Whiskey Glasses” through 2022’s “You Proof.” But his sales and streams are massive for any genre. On the album chart, Wallen has the footprint of a Harry Styles or Drake—One Thing at a Time opened this week to a half-million in sales and streams, about as big as the first week of Harry’s House and bigger than Drake’s recent Her Loss. Wallen’s previous LP, the quadruple-platinum Dangerous: The Double Album, spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard 200 in 2021 and was the No. 1 album of that year—among all albums, of any genre. Even more remarkable has been that 2021 album’s longevity. Since it debuted, Dangerous has set an all-time record for most weeks in the Top 10, a staggering 110 weeks and counting. Among the LPs it surpassed months ago were Adele’s 21 and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Just last week, Dangerous outlasted the 1965 soundtrack to The Sound of Music and is now second only to the original cast recording of My Fair Lady on the chart’s longevity list. Dangerous is still in the album-chart Top 10 this week, even as One Thing makes its debut.

You have to dig behind the numbers a little to explain how Wallen has pulled all this off. For starters, Wallen is the first major country star to stream more than he sells—that’s what I mean when I compare him to Drake or, more recently, Bad Bunny, artists who’ve streamed their way to megastardom. Country was basically the last major genre to see its listeners transition away from CDs and downloads to streaming, long after pop, rock, rap, and Latin music shifted there. Country’s shift to the cloud was accelerated by the pandemic in 2020, which is when Wallen’s career went supersonic. When he dropped his single “7 Summers” in August 2020, it not only debuted at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs but also No. 6 on the Hot 100, fueled by then-record streams for a core country star. Wallen then leaned into his high Spotify profile, juicing the stats by packing his albums with tracks on tracks on tracks. The reason why Dangerous was subtitled The Double Album was to call attention to its 30 tracks—more akin to a rap album than country, which used to limit its artists to 10 songs per disc. In the streaming era, more tracks not only means more royalties, it means more data for the charts, which explains why Dangerous has sat stone in the Top 10 for two years. Not to be outdone, the new One Thing at a Time has an utterly ridiculous 36 tracks, which makes it less like an album and more like an overlong movie franchise sequel. Critics have called the album a slog, but clearly Wallen’s fans don’t mind.

Indeed, there’s a lot that Wallen’s fans don’t mind. Maybe you first heard about Wallen in late 2020, when he got himself momentarily banned from Saturday Night Live for violating masking protocols the week he was scheduled to perform on the show. That was a speed bump: SNL rebooked him just weeks later and even let him poke fun at himself in a sketch. But the red-vs.-blue overtones of Wallen’s anti-mask brouhaha were thrown into much harsher relief in early February 2021, when Wallen was caught on tape by TMZ casually, drunkenly calling a friend the N-word while staggering home from a bender.

Remarkably, immediate condemnation came not only from the mainstream media but also the Nashville Industrial Complex, which moved swiftly to exact consequences for Wallen’s transgression—at first. Among the immediate sanctions, promotion for Dangerous, then just weeks old, was halted as his label suspended his recording contract; Wallen’s songs were buried on streaming services and pulled entirely from country radio; and he was uninvited and/or ruled ineligible to compete for major 2021 prizes like the ACMs and the American Music Awards. It was the swiftest pulling of a country act since the Chicks in 2003, and this time for a reason other than offending a Republican president. (Another difference: The Chicks never had a country radio hit again.) Arguably, Wallen’s best moment in this whole mess came early, when he posted an earnest apology video on Instagram taking ownership of his actions, recounting meetings with Black community leaders who explained why his utterance was so hurtful, pledging to try being sober, and—most impressively—asking his fans not to rush to his defense.

Yyyyeah, about that last part: Rush to his defense is exactly what Wallen’s fanbase did, and they voted with dollars and clicks. Not only did Dangerous remain No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart for seven more weeks after the incident, but even as Wallen’s radio spins plummeted, sales and streams of his music went up, massively. In a remarkable breakdown of the data by Billboard a couple of weeks after the incident, the magazine concluded that, even as Spotify and Apple Music were yanking Wallen’s songs from their preprogrammed playlists, fans were overcompensating so much with their individual plays, Wallen’s streams didn’t go down at all. By the summer of 2021, Wallen’s music was edging its way back onto country radio, driven by overwhelming fan demand. He has scored half of his 10 Country No. 1s since mid-2021. And Wallen’s interest in “doing the work” seems to have dissipated quickly. Other than a mealy-mouthed Michael Strahan interview on Good Morning America in July 2021, he hasn’t directly addressed how he is atoning for his actions since his initial apology, though reportedly he did make some donations to Black charities, checking boxes on the crisis communications agenda. From the jump, country music scholars and critics were expecting, and preemptively decrying, this depressingly predictable outcome. In Slate, less than two weeks after the incident, Country Soul author Charles Hughes astutely noted that Wallen was “the latest beneficiary” of  “country music’s tendency toward weaponizing reconciliation rhetoric against calls for deeper change.”

Two years after all this went down, how are we to interpret Morgan Wallen’s gargantuan return to the charts—not only setting a new record for most simultaneous Hot 100 hits, beating Drake, but also, most especially, scoring country’s first serious crossover pop chart-topper of the millennium? Is the ascension of “Last Night” a sign of Wallen’s wholesale acceptance by music listeners nationwide? Or is it a kind of niche-driven data activism, by the sort of reactionary fan who chants “Let’s go Brandon” at a Wallen concert?

Let’s be fair about a few things. For one, even Wallen’s critics agree there was a path back from so-called “cancellation” for him. Few think he deserved permanent purgatory for his drunken utterance. Instead, they are more decrying what Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky called Wallen’s “What is the absolute least I can do?” approach to redemption. Also, the charts have long welcomed back stars, from R. Kelly to Chris Brown, whose transgressions go well beyond even the most hurtful words. And Wallen’s popularity was deep and real long before he became a red-state cause célèbre, some of it driven by some genuinely strong records. Finally, although we’ll obviously never know, I do not believe red-state political activism alone drove Dangerous to two solid years locked in the album chart’s Top 10. Few fans put on an album every day, for years, to indirectly prove a point to some lamestream media reporter or lefty protestor. Wallen fans are primarily motivated by his song hooks, their cultural affinity with him (pre- and post–the incident), or maybe even his status as an unlikely sex symbol.

On the other hand, 110 weeks is an awfully long time. And there’s still not much evidence Wallen fandom has broken far beyond his—admittedly huge—core fanbase, which is overrepresented in these chart results. “Last Night” is No. 1 this week overwhelmingly due to streams, 47.5 million of them. Though the song has, as noted above, scored some modest but measurable pop radio airplay, that plus his much bigger country-radio spins still weren’t enough to get “Last Night” onto the Radio Songs chart, the all-genre airplay component of the Hot 100. If I may make an analogy, the data that got “Last Night” to No. 1 this week is no less driven by one impassioned group of fans than the Belieber-driven consumption that got Justin Bieber his first hits in the early ’10s or the ARMY-driven downloading that got BTS to the top in America. But Bieber and BTS are fundamentally pop acts. Wallen’s rise to No. 1 on the pop chart is, in a way, more culturally improbable.

In my Hit Parade episode on the ’90s rise of Garth Brooks, I chronicled in detail how Brooks turned around the fortunes of country music a decade after the Urban Cowboy boom fizzled. Brooks did it by not courting Top 40 listeners or the pop charts. Like Morgan Wallen, Brooks was savvy enough to embed formerly pop tropes (Eagles, Billy Joel, James Taylor) into his music, but then he refused to promote those songs to pop radio, trusting that urban pop fans would come his way and buy his full-length CDs. And it worked like gangbusters, despite the fact that Brooks’ songs hardly touched the pop Top 40 at all. Wallen, by contrast, is taking advantage of streaming-era rules to score piles of Hot 100 hits that, by the evidence, aren’t pulling many pop fans over to country.

This is why this week’s news about Wallen’s chart milestone made me nostalgic for Eddie Rabbitt. When Rabbitt recorded catchy ditties like “I Love a Rainy Night” or “Drivin’ My Life Away,” he believed he could have everybody. Garth Brooks believed he could have everybody too, by building a tent big enough to welcome listeners not accustomed to tuning into country music. Morgan Wallen doesn’t seem to be pursuing either strategy. He is making sonic feints in pop fans’ direction while carefully avoiding offending the post-Trump “never apologize” sensibilities of his hardcore. He’s not a uniter, he’s a triangulator—and when you zoom out, his seemingly crowded tent still looks awfully small.


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