SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Is a 4-Year-Old Taylor Swift Song No. 1?

How “Cruel Summer” assumed its rightful place at the top of the charts.

What do you get for the woman who already has everything—a billion-dollar-grossing tour, the keys to several cities, a smash movie, a strapping boyfriend? Some collectors are completists about their Beanie Babies or their Dickens first editions. But the perfect matched set Taylor Swift lacked was an unbroken streak of albums with No. 1 hit songs. With this week’s ascension of a 4-year-old Swift song to the top of the charts, she’s now filled in that gap too.

Since she first started recording pop albums, with 2012’s country-pop hybrid Red, every release has included at least one No. 1 song on Billboard’s Hot 100. Red spawned her first pop chart-topper, the pop-punk-adjacent snarkfest “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” She upped the ante on the follow-up, 1989, which eschewed country entirely and generated three No. 1s: “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and “Bad Blood.” (Say it with me: “Style,” a perfect song but only a No. 6 hit, got robbed.) The once-maligned, now-redeemed beef album Reputation spawned an insta–No. 1 with “Look What You Made Me Do.” Even LPs as seemingly anti-pop as Folklore and Evermore, Swift’s indie-folk pandemic twinsies, spun off one moody chart-topper apiece: “Cardigan” and “Willow,” respectively. And to no one’s surprise, last year’s Midnights generated Swift’s longest-running No. 1, the eight-week commander “Anti-Hero.” (By the way, for those keeping score: Her three early, all-country albums each generated No. 1s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart; so, in essence, Swift has been building a perfect chart-topping streak, whatever her genre of choice.)

There’s one album I didn’t mention above, the black sheep in Swift’s catalog of Eras: 2019’s Lover. Due to circumstances partially of Swift’s own making (choice of singles) and partially beyond her control (a looming global pandemic), Lover did not reach its full potential in the moment or match the hit-generation of its ’10s Taylor predecessors. It remained the only Swift album not to produce a flagship-chart No. 1.

But then 2023 happened, the year of Taylor’s revived imperial phase. And all of her material—the current Midnights stuff and the old stuff—came crashing back onto the charts. And finally Swift completed her Billboard Yahtzee with a chart-topper from Lover—a song that should’ve been a single in the first place. It’s as if she willed this song about summer to the top of the charts—and in [checks calendar] autumn. Holy pumpkin spice, does this woman now control the equinox too?


No relation to the superlative Bananarama Top 10 hit from 1984, “Cruel Summer” is an electropop banger about aching hot-weather romance, co-written by Swift, her frequent producer-collaborator Jack Antonoff, and art-rock queen Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent. The song made a brief Hot 100 appearance as an unpromoted album cut in August 2019, before tumbling off the chart within a fortnight. Fueled by streams from “Eras” tour–addled Swifties, it re-debuted on the chart in June 2023. Republic Records, Swift’s label, decided to promote the 4-year-old song to radio as if it were a new single, and it kept climbing. It is now—four years after it first arrived—the 10th pop No. 1 of Taylor Swift’s seemingly endlessly dominant career. Talk about a fever-dream high!

Hmm … a fan-favorite Taylor Swift song that charted poorly as an album cut, grew in acclaim over several years, then belatedly topped the charts: Does this sound familiar? Yup, it’s basically the story of “All Too Well,” which I chronicled for this No. 1 hits series back in the fall of 2021, when the supersized “Taylor’s Version” rerecording rang the bell on the Hot 100. The chart parallels are indeed remarkable, reinforcing the sheer depth of Swift’s song catalog—she has hits to spare, backup smashes just lying in wait. However, “All Too Well” and “Cruel Summer” are fundamentally different chart phenomena. “Well” re-debuted thanks to its doubling in length, its frisson of deathless celebrity gossip (see: Gyllenhaal, Jake), and a new, glossy music video directed by Swift and premiered on Saturday Night Live. “Cruel Summer,” by contrast, is the same song it was in 2019—it hasn’t been rerecorded or materially lengthened; it still has no official music video; and its lyrics only vaguely reference her former relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, which, anyway, appears to be no one’s reason for loving the song. (And for the record, Travis Kelce is a nonfactor here; the rise of “Cruel” into the Top 10 over the summer long predated the dawning of Traylor, aka Tay-K.) No, what brought “Cruel Summer” to new heights was the sense that “Cruel” really always should’ve been a single. It is, in other words, a second-chance hit, a phenomenon with a long history in the music biz.

Did you know that it took two tries to make David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” a hit? Bubbling under the Hot 100 in 1969 at No. 124, Bowie’s space-folk tale of Major Tom was reissued in 1973, after Ziggy Stardust had started to break in America, and this time it became Bowie’s first U.S. Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 15. That four-year gap is very similar to what Swift just did with “Cruel Summer,” but there are lots of other examples: The Moody Blues’ torch song “Nights in White Satin,” a No. 103 flop in 1968, became a No. 2 smash in 1972. Louis Armstrong’s standard “What a Wonderful World,” a No. 116 curio in 1968, turned into a No. 32 hit in 1988. Aerosmith’s power ballad “Dream On,” a No. 59 dud in 1973, turned into a No. 5 blockbuster in 1976. Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” a 1977 No. 97 flop, became a No. 3 camp classic in 1982. And of course, the subject of my podcast Hit Parade’s pilot episode, UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” went from a No. 34 hit in 1984 to a No. 1 megasmash in 1988. I could go on and on: “The Tears of a Clown.” “Send In the Clowns.” “Save a Prayer.” “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me.” “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” “Running up That Hill.” The reasons why these songs took years and/or multiple tries to connect vary widely—sometimes a TV or movie sync, sometimes a rogue radio programmer, sometimes the artist develops a higher profile—but some songs sound so much like they should have been smashes that the industry stubbornly won’t give up on them.

Finding these second-chance hits has gotten both easier and flukier in the streaming and social era. In fact, earlier this year, we already had a late-blooming No. 1 hit: The Weeknd’s “Die for You,” a deep cut from his 2016 album Starboy, reached only No. 43 that year on the Hot 100 as an album cut; then, in 2022–23, a TikTok wave spurred a re-promotion of the track, including a belated Ariana Grande duet remix, which took it to the top of the chart. Indeed, TikTok is giving all sorts of old hits second chances. A 13-year-old track by R&B veteran Miguel called “Sure Thing” (No. 36 in 2011) got a major boost from a sped-up TikTok trend and caught on at pop radio, reentering the Hot 100 and peaking at No. 11 in June as well as No. 1 at pure-pop stations.

That said, TikTok only partially explains Taylor Swift’s resurgence with “Cruel Summer.” To be sure, given her popularity across social media and the frenzy surrounding the “Eras” tour, the song has made waves on TikTok. Over the summer, there was a dance challenge themed around a sped-up “Cruel Summer.” And it’s still fairly popular there: On Billboard’s recently launched TikTok Top 50 chart, which tracks musical trends on the social video site but does not (yet) factor into the Hot 100, “Cruel” got as high as No. 11 back in September. Still, the dance challenge didn’t single-handedly reboot the song the way TikTok solely explains the reboots of “Die for You” and “Sure Thing.”

Basically, “Cruel Summer” had its own bespoke narrative. For one thing, it’s one of Swift’s best pop-qua-pop songs of the past decade, a throwback to country-era Taylor songs of teen longing but with more modern production. Over a throbbing, gurgling Jack Antonoff synth bass line, Swift sings about romantic yearning that feels both youthful and lived-in. “I wrote about the feeling of a summer romance, and how oftentimes a summer romance can be layered with all these feelings of, like, pining away and sometimes even secrecy,” Swift told iHeartRadio back in 2019. “You’re yearning for something that you don’t quite have yet—it’s just right there, and you just, like, can’t reach it.” Swift’s narrator is so bewitched by her paramour that the chorus devolves into babble: “And it’s new, the shape of your body/ It’s blue, the feeling I’ve got/ And it’s oooooohh, whoa-oh/ It’s a cruel summer.” I suspect that Taylor just left in a gibberish lyric when she couldn’t think of a rhyme there, but the gobbledygook feels authentic somehow. The song is rightly praised for its bridge, when Swift changes up the tempo to a cheerleaderlike chant and explodes with an erotic charge: “I’m drunk in the back of the car/ And I cried like a baby coming home from the bar/ Said ‘I’m fine,’ but it wasn’t true/ I don’t WANNA! KEEP! SECRETS! just to KEEP! YOU!” Apparently, Swift is very protective of that bridge—it’s the alleged source of her low-boil feud with Olivia Rodrigo, after Swift demanded and got a writing credit on Rodrigo’s “Deja Vu” for its own ranty bridge.

So, yeah, “Cruel Summer” is an exceptional song that sounds great coming out of a car radio. Fans wanted to make it a hit because they sensed that, like my beloved “Style,” the song got robbed back in 2019–20. And they maybe, possibly also wanted to redeem the entire Lover era. Though it sold predictably well to Swift’s loyal fan base—it was, in fact, Billboard’s top-selling album of 2019Lover had a bit of a checkered launch. Arriving under the long, brooding shadow of its predecessor Reputation, Lover took pains to present a brighter, shinier Swift who had moved past the grievances and online dust-ups of the mid-’10s (i.e., the last phase of the Kanye-and-Kim wars). After four straight Swift albums (Speak Now, Red, 1989, and Reputation) that opened to a million-plus in sales in their opening weeks, Lover opened to a merepause here to allow every other artist on earth to scoff—867,000. The perception at the time was that Taylor was rebuilding her fan base (beyond the reliable army of rabid Swifties) in the wake of her semi-cancellation.

And about those single choices: Each was understandable at the time, but all were fated to fall short. The Lover campaign led off with the pre-release single “ME!,” featuring Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie. He was coming off the massive 2018 hit “High Hopes,” so the teamup felt like a sure thing, but the thirsty “ME!” is nobody’s idea of a Taylor classic. It peaked at No. 2 in May 2019, stuck behind the juggernaut that was Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” (Want to read more about “Old Town Road”? I got you.) The 19-week No. 1 “Old Town Road” was so big it also foiled Swift’s follow-up “You Need to Calm Down,” her pro-LGBTQ+ bop that was timed for Pride month 2019 but also peaked at No. 2 behind Lil Nas X. Then, for the fall, Swift went with the album’s chilly weather–appropriate title track; “Lover” the song peaked at No. 10, about what you’d expect for a slow-dance ballad. And in the winter, “The Man,” spurred by an attention-grabbing video featuring Taylor in drag, got another push at radio, but it couldn’t top its original No. 23 peak from when the song had been an album cut.

All that time, Swift says, she was holding “Cruel Summer” back as a potential spring 2020 single that would crest around summer, as per its titular destiny. A radio push for “Cruel” around April 2020 would make total sense, just as Swift was headed out on the road for the Lover concert tour and “Cruel” was, one imagines, winning new fans as a live singalong. How great would that have been? But COVID shut down the world in March 2020, the entire Lover tour was postponed, then scrapped, and “Cruel Summer” remained an unpromoted album cut destined to never get its moment.

That is, until 2023. This year’s “Eras” tour is basically a supersized reboot of the ill-fated Lover tour, and—as you’ve no doubt noticed if you either shelled out for a concert ticket or caught Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour at your local Cineplex—Swift led off the set list with an entire Lover block, including very prominent placement for “Cruel Summer.” Given the pent-up enthusiasm among Swifties for Lover, this block reliably opened all of the “Eras” shows with especially high energy—which “Cruel,” naturally, benefited from. While all of Swift’s songs skyrocketed on Spotify and other DSPs thanks to “Eras,” none soared more than “Cruel Summer.” This spurred Swift and Universal to switch their radio-promo focus from the Midnights single “Karma” (whose Ice Spice remix couldn’t get it past No. 2 on the Hot 100) to the 4-year-old song that had never had its shot. The repromoted “Cruel” got as high as No. 3 over the summer—and then, when the Eras Tour movie pumped up streams for Swift’s catalog again in October, Team Swift took advantage by releasing a bunch of remixes of “Cruel” to get it the last mile. Thanks to those remixes, streams of “Cruel” swelled 35 percent last week and downloads soared 1,500 percent, finally sending the song to No. 1 at the height of sweater weather. Swift and Antonoff had a good laugh about that on Instagram.

Things move fast in the Swiftoverse. As you’re reading this, Swifties are already rabidly consuming her latest rebooted LP 1989 (Taylor’s Version), which dropped overnight. Soon enough, the hype surrounding pop’s reigning monarch will refocus on the new-old album’s bonus tracks and whatever Taylor’s doing in a football stadium next weekend. But while we have this moment, let’s raise a glass—maybe two: prosecco for summer, whiskey for fall—in honor of “Cruel Summer,” the song not even COVID could keep from meeting its destiny.

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