Meet Me In The Middle: Country Music’s Latest Wave Of Aspiring Pop Stars Has Arrived
There is pulling a Taylor Swift, and then there’s pulling a Taylor Swift. Of the handful of country musicians who’ve briefly gotten a foothold in the pop mainstream — a list that in the past couple decades has included Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Lonestar, Lady Antebellum, and Carrie Underwood among others — Swift is by far the all-time champ, completely transcending her country origins on her way to taking over the world. Any country star who hopes to gatecrash the pop charts can study her career as a roadmap from Nashville sensation to global monolith. Maren Morris, so far as I can tell, is the only one who is following the formula so closely that she’s appearing in actual Target commercials, just like Ms. Big Reputation herself.
The occasion for this corporate tie-in is “The Middle,” an appropriately titled song on which Morris, one of the best young country singers going, plunges headfirst into electronic pop with all the vigor the genre demands. It’s a collaboration with Zedd, one of the superstar EDM producers who’s been able to adapt to pop’s post-EDM landscape, and with Grey, the rather anonymous production team of brothers Kyle and Michael Trewartha, with whom Zedd teamed for the charming Hailee Steinfeld hit “Starving” last year. “The Middle,” too, is a prime example of modern pop done right. Catchy, emphatic, effervescent — put simply, it’s a bop.
Ever since breaking through with the Foxes-featuring “Clarity,” one of the finest singles of that peak EDM moment, Zedd has scored his biggest successes serving up euphoric sugar-rush beats for female vocalists ranging from fluttery diva Ariana Grande (“Break Free”) to soulful, conversational Alessia Cara (“Stay”) to breathy chameleon and one-time flame Selena Gomez (“I Want You To Know”). He and Grey are very much in their comfort zone on “The Middle.”
It’s a bit of a surprise to hear Morris thundering across that chorus, though. Sure, her 2016 breakout hit Hero was full of tracks that could be perceived as backdoor pilots for a pop crossover — the 1989 synthesizers rippling across “80s Mercedes,” the loose hip-hop backbeat behind “How It’s Done” — but those were still country songs at heart. Sure, she recently added One Direction alumnus Niall Horan to a list of duet partners that also includes country stars Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett, but Horan’s version of pop is basically just soft-rock. None of her maneuvers suggested she’d be kicking off 2018 slinging digital bliss.
Man is it working for her, though — commercially as well as creatively. “The Middle” just became her first top-10 single, climbing to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Whether it portends further pop excursions from Morris remains to be seen. As it stands she’s positioned herself to become, if not the next Taylor Swift, at least the next Faith Hill or Shania Twain — or maybe, given her remarkable talent and distinctive songwriting touch, the first Maren Morris.
She’s not the only country act making forays into the pop mainstream lately. Foundational bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line previously crashed top-40 radio in 2013, when Nelly — who’d previously helped Tim McGraw achieve his biggest pop success with the ballad “Over And Over” — hopped on a remix of their debut single “Cruise.” The song, a garish party jam that interacted with hip-hop signifiers even before it featured a famous rapper, climbed to #16 in its original incarnation then made it all the way to #4 with Nelly in tow. It helped establish Florida Georgia Line as a pop-inclined country powerhouse, one of the few country acts even people who don’t listen to country could identify. But not until last year did they start making overt bids to cross over again, releasing singles with Backstreet Boys, Hailee Steinfeld, and Bebe Rexha.
Far more so than the others, “Meant To Be” with perennial underdog Rexha has taken off in the early months of this year; its success, concurrent to “The Middle,” has put two country artists in the Hot 100 top 10 for the first time this decade. Buoyed by airplay on both pop and country radio, “Meant To Be” reached a new #5 peak on the Hot 100 this week, positioning it to surpass “Cruise” as Florida Georgia Line’s highest-charting hit with a little luck. The song rediscovers the particular blend of styles that first put Florida Georgia Line on the pop radar, underlying twangy vocals and pedal steel with trap drum programming and production elements from the poppy side of rap. It rides the borderlines between genres so successfully that I’m surprised it took the duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley this long to score another hit on this level.
Statistically speaking, Florida Georgia Line are this decade’s second biggest country crossover success after their Big Machine label-mate Swift. Nobody else keeping one foot in the reigning Nashville sound has been able to so consistently gain a foothold outside of it, and up until last spring no country song had crashed the Hot 100 top 10 since “Cruise.” That streak ended with the #6-peaking “Body Like A Back Road” by Sam Hunt, who along with Morris is poised to make similar noise in the mainstream.
Hunt, a former college football quarterback, has been integrating aspects of pop and rap into his music since he emerged four years ago with debut album Montevallo. More so than any particular country singer, his primary influence has always seemed to be Drake, a guy who knows a thing or two about dissolving the boundaries between genres. Hunt’s breakthrough hit “Take Your Time,” which got some burn at top-40 radio and peaked at #20 on the Hot 100, transitioned from moody verses that veered between spoken-word and singsong to a bright-lights, big-city country chorus. His “Single For The Summer” was similar enough to “Marvins Room” that he began mashing up the two songs in concert — then, with last year’s loosie “Drinkin Too Much,” he went and made a “Marvins Room” of his own.
“Body Like A Back Road,” though, forgoes that pervasive Aubrey Graham influence in favor of a less melancholic, even poppier sound. There’s no mistaking it for anything other than a country song — the references to country roads and blue jeans, the tortured metaphor bringing them together, that creeping sensation of drinking Bud Light on a sweltering back porch somewhere in rural America — and in case you doubted its rootsy bona fides, the song broke a 55-year-old record for most weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. But it’s carried along by melodies produced to sound like neon squiggles and rhythmic flourishes out of a DJ Mustard track, including finger snaps and a syncopated “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Hunt simply took pop’s prevailing genre cocktail and nudged it toward Nashville.
Almost four years after Montevallo and more than a year after “Body Like A Back Road,” Hunt still hasn’t delivered a sophomore LP. Whenever it finally arrives, it will be interesting to see whether he can continue to make a dent in the pop market. Or maybe he’ll keep kicking out standalone singles and turning them into crossover hits, not beholden to traditional genres or album cycles. Morris, who opened for Hunt on tour last year, and Floria Georgia Line, who share his appreciation for Drake, are in a similar spot — only two years out from their most recent albums but seemingly in prime position to strike. Perhaps their ambitions aren’t so all-consuming, but for the first time since Swift herself, quite a few country acts could conceivably pull a Taylor.
Drake’s “God’s Plan” has been out for seven weeks, and for seven weeks it’s been #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart. Billboard reports that the song tallied 81.8 million US streams last week, the eighth biggest streaming week ever, giving “God’s Plan” seven of the 10 best streaming weeks in history. Congrats to Drake and his loved ones (namely, his bed and his mama).
Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” is back up to #2, while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” returns to #3. Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” falls to #4, while Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” reaches a new #5 peak, outpacing Rexha’s G-Eazy collab “Me, Myself, & I” to become her best-charting hit. At #6 is Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana,” followed by BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive” at #7. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” climbs to a new #8 high, becoming Zedd’s fourth top-10 hit and the first for both Morris and Grey. The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray For Me” holds at #9, and Migos close out the top 10 with “Stir Fry.”
Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, things are pretty slow, which enabled the Black Panther and The Greatest Showman soundtracks to pull off an historical anomaly: Film soundtracks are #1 and #2 for the first time in 20 years, since the days Armageddon and City Of Angels were holding it down. Black Panther, spending its third nonconsecutive week on top, tallied 76,000 equivalent album units, while The Greatest Showman put up 60,000.
Tory Lanez scores the week’s highest debut at #3 with 54,000 units and 15,000 traditional sales of Memories Don’t Die. The rest of the top 10: Migos, Ed Sheeran, Post Malone, Imagine Dragons, Camila Capello, Kendrick Lamar, and 6ix9ine.
Charlie Puth – “Done For Me” (Feat. Kehlani)
Puth has expressed his admiration for Adam Levine, and here he has his own answer to Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do,” critically acclaimed female R&B guest star and all. I didn’t mind the Maroon 5 song, but like all of Puth’s music, there’s something weirdly antiseptic about this track.
Jason Derulo – “Colors”
World Cup theme songs are always unbelievably corny, and in the context of that lineage, “Colors” ain’t half bad. It succeeds at making me want to move my hips, and the way that guitar riff intersects with the beat is something special.
Kylie Minogue – “Stop Me From Falling”
Country-fried monogenre Minogue is a flavor I could really get used to. After this and “Dancing,” she’s two for two.
Betty Who – “Look Back”
The moment this morphs from reggae-pop to disco-pop is something special.
Sophia Black – “Real Shit” (Feat. Kyle)
Lyrically, it’s pretty facile, and Kyle’s Chance The Rapper impression is strictly mediocre, but musically this digital hip-hop slow jam is surprisingly satisfying.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- At the Toronto Raptors’ “Drake Night” on Friday, Drake told the crowd he’s working on a new album “for the city.” [Twitter]
- Paramore announced a summer North American tour with Foster The People. [Alternative Press]
- Paramore also played Steph Curry’s birthday party alongside E-40. [Twitter]
- Demi Lovato might have referred to Nicki Minaj as a “complete bitch” in a Billboard cover story? [Vulture]
- Tim McGraw collapsed onstage in Ireland, but he will reportedly be fine. [ABC]
- Tove Lo, who is also co-headlining NYC pride, will headline LA pride alongside Kehlani. [Billboard]
- G-Eazy released a video for his Charlie Puth collab “Sober.” [YouTube]
- Harry Styles debuted two new songs at his tour kickoff in Switzerland. [Billboard]
- Halsey and Lil Yachty will voice Wonder Woman and Green Lantern in the Teen Titans Go! movie. [USA Today]
- Fall Out Boy, G-Eazy, and Bebe Rexha will play an anti-gun-violence concert before March For Our Lives. [Radio.com]
- Lil Pump reportedly signed an $8M contract with Warner Bros. after his original contract was voided on grounds he was underage. [Billboard]
- Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid broke up. [People]
- Taylor Swift shared videos of the dance rehearsals for her new “Delicate” video. [Taylor Swift]
- Pitbull will write an original song and voice a character in the UglyDolls movie. [Deadline]
- Madonna will direct a film on the life of dancer Michaela DePrince. [US News]
- Dua Lipa sang “IDGAF” on Ellen. [YouTube]
- Dua Lipa also scrapped her Australian tour dates opening for Bruno Mars to undergo “immediate dental surgery.” [Billboard]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HAWKING
Reminder that when Stephen Hawking was asked abt teen girls being upset over Zayn Malik leaving One Direction he gave the sweetest answer: pic.twitter.com/zqspMOH3Aw
— Mahou Shoujo Naifu (@sukebandeka) March 14, 2018
That one time a British morning show accidentally played Meghan Trainor over their tribute to Stephen Hawking pic.twitter.com/rJFMyejSy9
— Bob Marshall (@bobmarshall) March 14, 2018