One Big Pop Star + One Big Pop Star = an Easier Path to No. 1
If you’re looking for a single week to capture the history of pop music this year – or maybe make big hits in the streaming era – zoom in on April 26, 2020.
Since March, the time has passed cloudy. So if you need a refresher, this was the week America officially topped a million cases of Covid-19. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work after his own battle against the virus and White House officials reassured the American public that the President of the United States had not actually proposed injecting bleach into the bloodstream.
In the music world, the news was more benevolent. On April 29, Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion released a remixed, collaborative version of “Savage,” the boastful Megan solo track that had already taken TikTok by storm. Two days later another came: Doja Cat’s summery “Say So”, now with additional verses from her stylistic ancestor Nicki Minaj. Billboard watchers embarked on an epic chart fight, if only because everything else in the world was unimaginably depressing.
After the numbers for the Hot 100 table on May 16 were determined, Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So” prevailed, with Megan and Beyoncé’s “Savage (Remix)” finishing in second place. It was a victory for everyone four: This marked the first time four black women finished top two on Billboard’s Hot 100 table. And two weeks later, when “Savage (Remix)” rose to number 1, this feeling of a shared coronation was even more noticeable.
Uniting the fan army, these high-profile duets were the latest iteration of one of the top pop trends of the year. From May 16 through August 8, every song that topped the Billboard Hot 100 was a paired collaboration. In a year that sanctioned social distancing and loneliness, our pop stars banded together like never before.
OK, maybe not like never before. Musical collaborations are common in every era, and it’s no coincidence that all three of the longest-reigning No. 1 Hot 100s of all time are the product of multiple artists: the country rap handshake of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus 2019 Remix “Old Town Road”; The global juggernaut “Despacito” from 2017, originally published by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, then received an English-language boost with a remix by Justin Bieber. and Mariah Carey and Boyz II. 1995 All-Star Tear Rider “One Sweet Day,” a Voltron-like union of two R&B powerhouses from the 1990s.
If a single genre can address multiple gen reformats, cultural backgrounds, and fandoms, it has the potential to shift more units – that’s just simple math. But in a pop music moment dominated by streaming numbers, passionate Stan communities, and algorithmic skill, it becomes even clearer why A-list collaborations have proven to be the safest chart betting. Let’s call it the Avengers era of pop music.
Take “Rain on Me”, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s house-pop team, for example, which ranked # 1 on June 6th, a week after “Savage (Remix)”. This was the second single from Gaga’s album “Chromatica” after “Stupid Love”, a dance floor thumper that scored respectably, if not spectacularly, on the Hot 100 and reached number 5. “Rain on Me” easily topped it. It now more than doubles the tracks on “Stupid Love” on Spotify (474 million versus 213 million for the first single) and is rapidly approaching the number of games on Gaga’s biggest hit, “Bad Romance” (485 million). What’s better than Lady Gaga’s little monsters gathering behind a single? Little monsters and grandes arianators gather behind a single one.
Alone or in twos, Grande has been an exceptionally successful artist in the streaming economy, which also means she’s a desirable power duo partner. Justin Bieber found this out when “Stuck With U,” their quarantine-themed charity single, topped the list on May 23rd (the week between remixes “Say So” and “Savage”). Someone who didn’t feel particularly benevolent to the song was rapper and provocateur 6ix9ine, who heavily criticized Billboard when his comeback track “Gooba” debuted two spots after jail, despite being the weekly list who led streaming songs.
Billboard weighs more purchases than streams, but 6ix9ine accused Bieber and Grande of trying to “buy” their way to # 1. Included in the rapper’s otherwise insignificant review was the challenge that faced any solo artist who was now to compete with affiliated duos of superstars and the combined strength of their fan base. When it came time to release his next single, “Trollz”, 6ix9ine called his most famous ally, Nicki Minaj, to work on a remix and, of course, to summon the support of her fearsome, almighty fan army. the Barbz. Punctually, the couple’s “Trollz” remix debuted at the top of the charts on June 27, giving 6ix9ine its first No. 1 career.
Neither “Trollz” nor “Stuck With U” stayed at # 1 for more than a week. But one song that managed to balance attention and perseverance is perhaps the mother of all 2020 collaborations, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s wonderfully libidinal “WAP”. As the third No. 1 hit of the year with two black women, “WAP” was a strong show of solidarity between two contemporaries who – had appeared a generation or two ago when many people in the music industry believed in themselves A fulfilling lie, that only one successful female rapper could exist at a time – possibly being played off as rivals against each other. Instead, “WAP” shows that they show their different but complementary musical personalities and that they survive the reactionary, conservative backlash to the track more mildly than they could have done on their own.
“Empowerment” is one of the most virtuous buzzwords in modern pop music, and it’s easy for labels to turn these collaborations into naturally positive feel-good narratives of mutual support. And given how white and masculine the Hot 100 has been skewed over the past few years, it’s certainly refreshing to see so many black and female artists triumph while supposedly rejecting the idea that they are inherently competitive others are. But, especially in a year when touring wasn’t a viable source of income, collaborative hits also seemed like smarter business strategies in the streaming era of falling returns.
The ultimate testament to the ubiquity of the power collaboration is the way certain fan communities boast of the opposite. For example, when BTS’s first English-language single “Dynamite” hit # 1 later in the year, it was a frequent failure to wonder why they’d made it without “Features”. Most pop actions react in the same and opposite ways. Perhaps the next trend or next year’s most coveted hit flex is solo # 1.