SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why America Was Finally Ready for Selena Gomez to Have a No. 1 Hit

2019 is the year women figured out how to take back the pop charts.

One year ago—52 weeks, on the button—an accomplished, social media–commanding pop star scored her first-ever No. 1 hit by portraying herself as the graceful heroine of her story and revealing just enough about her personal life to establish a sense of intimacy with millions of listeners. It probably shouldn’t have taken this vocalist until 2018 to top Billboard’s Hot 100; you might have guessed she’d visited the penthouse multiple times in a half-decade of recording. But after racking up a long roster of hits, Ariana Grande’s patience was finally rewarded.

Another year, another November, and … thank u, next. America’s new No. 1 song is by a woman who’s only a year older than Grande but waited about twice as long for her chart coronation. Selena Gomez—like Grande, a former kids’ TV star who pivoted to music a long time ago—has been around a deceptively long time for a 27-year-old. After spending the ’10s fronting a band, pursuing a fairly serious film career, committing herself to forthright celebrity activism, dating several fellow famous millennial boyfriends, and … oh yeah, scoring some of the sharper pop singles of the decade—Gomez finally, less than two months before the decade’s end, rings the bell on the Hot 100 with “Lose You to Love Me,” a momentous ballad that sounds hard-earned, because it was.

What took so long? Prior to this week, Gomez had never reached higher on the Hot 100 than No. 5, and she seemed to reside at the top of pop’s second tier: famed, acclaimed, respected, even in many corners worshipped—she has at times been the most followed person on Instagram and currently resides among the social network’s top five—but not the sort of pop star your parents know as well as, say, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. Judging by her brassy musical return, Gomez is no longer content to be an also-ran pop star. This fall she came to play, serving up not one but two of her most polished singles to date and basically rematerializing like a grande dame worthy of an Adele-level entrance.

Speaking of Ms. Adkins … what was I saying in this space just a week ago? This is the second straight week the Hot 100 is commanded by a largely drumless, piano-based ballad in the still-absent Adele’s stately idiom. By hurtling 14 spaces to No. 1, “Lose You to Love Me” ejects Lewis Capaldi’s mournful torch song “Someone You Loved” after just one frame on top, fulfilling the prediction I made in the closing paragraph of my article on Capaldi’s hit. (As I have said many times before in this long-running Slate series, pop chart predictions are a mug’s game. I won’t let it go to my head.)

Unlike Capaldi’s Hot 100 topper, Gomez’s leads the chart’s metrics nearly across the board. “Lose You to Love Me” is both the top-selling and top-streaming song of the week. The song was already the top digital download the week before, debuting at an impressive No. 15 on the Hot 100 with only two days of sales—she dropped the single on a Wednesday, an unusual release strategy that gave her only a day and a half to win Billboard and Nielsen’s tracking week. In this, its second chart week, she holds atop the Digital Song Sales chart. On the streaming side, “Lose/Love” shoots from the 20th-biggest streamer the week before (again, misleadingly low thanks to that Wednesday release) to the top of the Streaming Songs chart. Finally, in its first full week of airplay, Gomez makes a solid Radio Songs debut at No. 41, higher than Grande did at this point in her “Thank U, Next” cycle. By the way, one year ago, Grande’s “Next” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, because it launched closer to the start of a tracking week. If Gomez hadn’t released “Lose/Love” on a Wednesday, she surely would have debuted at No. 1 in a single week, too. In short: You got really lucky, Capaldi.

Where Capaldi’s and Gomez’s back-to-back, chart-topping “New Stark” ballads differ is in their apparent lyrical specificity. As discussed last week, “Someone You Loved” was an all-purpose How could you? lament, but “Lose You to Love Me” is more, How could you, Justin? I needn’t go too deep into the celebrity analysis that the tabloids and beyond have eagerly engaged in since Gomez’s single arrived in late October. Yes, the song is very likely about Gomez’s on-then-off-then-on-then-totally-off romance with a certain Mr. Bieber. In probably the best all-around dissection, for Vulture, periodic Slate contributor Craig Jenkins points to Bieber but adds: “It’s not your typical accusatory breakup song. It’s a rearview assessment of two people drifting apart that assigns blame to both parties.”

Basically, Gomez’s new smash crosses the sonic approach of Adele and Capaldi with a version of the lyrical approach of Grande’s “Thank U, Next.” Co-written by Gomez with Swedish producers Mattman and Robin and ’10s pop wunderkinds Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, “Lose/Love” opens with only piano and Gomez’s voice, then grows ever more stirring with plucked strings, a choir of backing vocals, and, more than halfway through, a subtle heartbeat thump that’s the closest thing to a beat in the whole song. As for those lyrics, in a decade where big hits are supposed to project intimacy across the social media feeds of millions, Gomez, cleverly, appears to bare her soul without revealing much at all. As Billboard writer Tatiana Cirisano smartly points out, Gomez is in fact the opposite of Grande in terms of disclosure. Unlike Grande’s very public airing of her feelings about her experience in the 2017 Manchester, England, concert tragedy, the death of her ex Mac Miller, and her 2018 breakup with Pete Davidson, Gomez only feints at personal subjects. Either way, the result was the same: Both ladies scored their first-ever No. 1s with universally applicable singles about learning from pain.

But the triumph of “Lose You to Love Me” also has something to say about the state of hit music. Given the back-to-back success of Capaldi’s and Gomez’s musical telenovelas and, early in the year, No. 1 power-belters by Halsey and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, it’s tempting to call balladry the trend of 2019. But Gomez’s success, not just near the end of ’19 but of the 2010s, says something louder to me. Centrist pop—or just “pop,” as music fans reductively call it in contrast to rock or rap—is back in a way it hasn’t been since Barack Obama’s first term.

In a paper I presented at last year’s Pop Conference, I analyzed hit music of the 2010s through the prisms of technology and gender. I was trying to figure out how the charts transitioned from the female-centric electro-dance-pop of the early ’10s to the bro-tastic downbeat rap era of the late ’10s. I focused on the charts’ transition from the dollar download—the 99-cent-to-$1.29 digital single, sold largely by Apple’s aging iTunes—to streaming, led by Spotify. Spotify arrived in America in 2011 and was added to Billboard’s charts in 2012. It wasn’t until the mid-’10s that streaming began to overtake downloads as the biggest Hot 100 factor.

Though popular-music trends are cyclical, and correlation does not prove causation, in my PopCon paper, I found remarkable data alignment between the download and female-driven centrist pop, and the stream and male-driven hip-hop. Using a custom data set provided to me by Nielsen Music, I sorted the top-selling downloads of all time by artist (digital sales, not streams) and found female artists ruling the list. This contrasts with streaming, which has been overwhelmingly commanded by male artists. The reasons for this gendered technological correlation have been hard for music industry observers to pick apart, but the predominance of rap on streaming services has a lot to do with it, whereas the download, at its early-’10s peak, seemed to correlate with the singles-driven aesthetic of female pop stars: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Kesha. So: When downloads were selling well, pop-qua-pop did well. (And it wasn’t always led by women: LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”—all massive downloads, all centrist-pop smashes.)

What does this have to do with Selena Gomez? With her long hit-making career, she’s a fascinating test subject for the cyclicality of pop in the ’10s. In the pop-heavy early part of the decade, Gomez was a sizable but second-tier pop star. Having graduated from acting on the Disney Channel to recording her first young adult pop singles, Gomez formed an eponymous band, Selena Gomez and the Scene, and began cracking the Top 40. While the quintet fronted like a rock band, the Scene mostly delivered frothy electro-pop that was irresistible but essentially indistinguishable from Gomez’s solo work. It took another two years and the “breakup” of the band for Gomez to begin cracking the Top 10 with tracks like 2013’s No. 6 hit “Come and Get It.” In this period, female pop stars reigned over the charts, culminating in a two-month period in late 2014 when women swept the Hot 100’s entire top five. In this early-to-mid-’10s period, Gomez attained the status of a B-plus–level pop star, alongside the likes of Demi Lovato or (to that point) Ariana Grande. Such was the strength of women’s performance in the first half of the ’10s that this second tier was so potent. Between 2010 and 2015, Gomez racked up 14 gold- or platinum-selling digital downloads, all without ever going higher on the Hot 100 than 2015’s No. 5 hit “Good for You.”

Gomez then rode out a shifting chart wave. The 2014 chart peak for women and centrist pop was like the stock market in 1929: a bubble before a crash. Around 2015, when Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ peacocking R&B jam “Uptown Funk” spent four months at No. 1, dudes retook the charts as streaming overtook the Hot 100 formula. The era of the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Migos, and of course, Drake (a guy who had no lead-artist No. 1s in the first half of the decade and now has four) had arrived. By 2017, women were locked out of the Hot 100’s No. 1 spot altogether for three-quarters of the year. One week in April 2017, women were absent from the chart’s Top 10 for the first time in three decades. Wisely, Gomez picked this period to release one-off singles and no albums, still managing to sneak into Billboard’s Top 20 occasionally with hits like 2017’s Marshmello collaboration “Wolves” and the utterly superlative, Talking Heads–sampling “Bad Liar.”

Which finally brings us back to 2019 and “Lose You to Love Me.” It’s the lead single of what Gomez says will be her first album in four years—an album she’s been sitting on for at least two years. So confident is Gomez that she dropped two new singles in rapid succession—her up-tempo, relentlessly catchy, stuttering electro-pop track “Look at Her Now” debuts at No. 27 on the Hot 100 this week. (The first lyric in the song is about summer, and if her team can wait to promote this second single to radio for about six months, it’ll sound great at the beach come 2020.) Both of these Gomez singles are powered not only by dollar downloads but also streams: “Lose/Love” is, to reiterate, the top streaming song of the week, and “Look” ranks 18th, very respectable for a new single not even being pushed on the radio yet.

This is the news flash: Centrist pop is starting to rule the streaming charts, consistently, basically for the first time. It’s been happening all year. The top streaming song each week in 2019 has been a pure-pop song at least as often as it’s been hip-hop—maybe more often, depending on how you classify Post Malone or the record-setting, genre-spanning “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. (Is it pop? Rap? Country? Yes.) Compare this year with just one year earlier: In 2018, hip-hop or rap-adjacent tracks led the streaming charts virtually every week of the year, whether they were by Drake, XXXTentacion, Juice Wrld, or Kodak Black. To be sure, in 2019, hip-hop tracks do continue to maintain dominion over Spotify and, many weeks, the rest of the streaming landscape. September and October were dominated by Lil Tecca’s “Ransom” and Travis Scott’s “Highest in the Room.” But this year, the streaming charts have been just as likely to be led by the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” or Ariana Grande’s hybridized “7 Rings.” Indeed, with 20/20 hindsight, Grande’s savvy “Thank U, Next” now looks like the pivot point—the pop hit fused with rap attitude that, one year ago, may have transitioned the Hot 100 from a half-decade hip-hop–and–bro-pop boom into pure pop’s next wave.

In her press rounds for the release of “Lose You to Love Me,” Gomez has said her as-yet-untitled next album had to wait out some heavy personal turmoil: “wrapping up a chapter” after her Justin Bieber breakup and getting out of her “negative space.” She told Ryan Seacrest, “[I]t’s actually perfect timing, because I was going to release it two years ago and none of the words that I’m speaking would have existed.” Oh, it’s perfect timing, all right. I truly don’t doubt that her personal motivations are real. But I can also imagine the conference room conversations that took place between Gomez and her managers and record label over the past two years, as they watched female pop titans like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift run headlong into unprecedented chart resistance. Unlike those ladies, Gomez has never actually been an all-out pop dominator. But in the closing weeks of the 2010s, Gomez has deployed her “Hello,” and the pop audience is welcoming her like a conquering hero. Timing really is everything.

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