The Revolving Door Between Country And Pop Keeps On Spinning
Press play on the year’s biggest country album and you might wonder if you’re listening to a country album at all. Thomas Rhett’s Center Point Road is the genre’s only release to hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart this year and enjoyed the biggest debut streaming week ever for a country album, with 33.59 million on-demand track streams. “Up,” its opening track, could easily be mistaken for the work of some George W. Bush-era frathouse troubadour like Jason Mraz or Gavin DeGraw; only Rhett’s loosely drawling vocal stands out as particularly country amidst blaring brass, an exultant gospel choir, and a tight adult contemporary groove. Then comes “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” Rhett’s hit collaboration with Little Big Town, which merges the boisterous lead guitar and flirtatious debauchery of modern Nashville with an ’80s funk rhythm something like sanitized Prince.
This isn’t so surprising. The likes of Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt have found massive success by venturing far outside mainstream country’s usual boundaries, but also, those boundaries have become extremely porous. Country has spent the past decade making nice with the rest of the FM radio dial, partaking in the mad rush to the stylistic center that has yielded some intriguing hybrids but mostly flattened out the sound of modern pop. It’s also not so surprising that Rhett has been enjoying Adult Top 40 airplay this year with “Look What God Gave Her,” basically the twangy version of a vacuum-sealed Maroon 5 hit. For one thing, Rhett already crossed over to that format a few years back with “Die A Happy Man,” which made it all the way to #21 on the all-encompassing Hot 100 singles chart. For another, every generation has its crossover country hits, from Charlie Daniels and Dolly Parton to Faith Hill and Shania Twain to Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift.
Sometimes the genre-jumping is more overt, and it works both ways. Last year, just as country star Maren Morris was crashing pop radio with an assist from Zedd, pop mainstay Bebe Rexha was bum-rushing the country charts with help from Florida Georgia Line. Rhett himself has toyed with the idea of jumping on a more overt pop song, name-checking pals like the Chainsmokers (who recently teamed up with former Rhett duet partner Kelsea Ballerini) and Diplo (who just conscripted the Jonas Brothers into his own campaign for a country crossover).
It’s a phenomenon familiar to the country star who had the last #1 album before Rhett’s. That’d be the young black country phenom Kane Brown. Like Center Point Road, Brown’s chart-topping Experiment exists along the blurry borderline between boilerplate Nashville tropes and more pop-minded easy listening fare. “Good As You” (#36 on the Hot 100) shares some DNA with Ed Sheeran, while “Lose It” (#28) more explicitly embraces a country sound with abundant banjo and fiddle in the mix. His biggest exposure outside the country bubble, though, has come through collaborations with two of the most genre-averse hit-makers of this moment.
Early this year Brown duetted with the richly soulful and perpetually somber young adult contemporary star Khalid on a remix of Khalid’s “Saturday Night,” an obvious aesthetic match. And he’s currently enjoying more crossover success with “One Thing Right,” a foray into country by the former EDM punchline Marshmello, who has released tracks with everyone from Chvrches to Lil Peep to Selena Gomez to Bastille to Logic. “One Thing Right” has climbed to #38 on the Hot 100, but perhaps more importantly, it just reached #1 on Hot Country Songs, where Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” stayed planted for months thanks to streaming success even after country radio stopped playing it. With its staying power across demographics, “Meant To Be” also came this close to hitting #1 on the Hot 100. So no wonder artists who could feasibly cross over are gravitating toward stars who’ve established a foothold in both the pop and country markets.
For instance, the soulfully folksy Irish balladeer Hozier, who has built a solid career for himself but hasn’t enjoyed a proper hit since his 2013 breakthrough “Take Me To Church,” hopped on a remix of Maren Morris’ “The Bones” this week. This is a travesty because “The Bones” is a perfect pop-country song. Creatively, the last thing it needs is 100% more Hozier. Yet Hozier clearly sees it as a chance to swoop some country listeners into his fan base, and with “The Bones” lingering near the bottom of the Hot 100, Morris likely recognizes the potential for another crossover moment. But in the race to blow up, it’s got nothing on the week’s other country-pop collaboration.
“10,000 Hours” matches #1 hit whisperer Justin Bieber with the exceedingly popular country duo Dan + Shay. In some ways the song represents a perfect match: Bieber has very publicly embraced Christianity, and the first time I heard Dan + Shay’s biggest hit, I was convinced it was a contemporary Christian song until I realized it was called “Tequila.” The duo specializes in sentimental goop expressly designed to make the leap to radio stations like my local easy listening hub Sunny 95. With “10,000 Hours,” they’ve weaponized midtempo dreck about holy matrimony with newlywed Bieber’s pop appeal and incomparable tabloid power. These dudes even put their wives in the video, a ploy Jonas Brothers already pulled off far better with “Sucker” this year. You know you’ve debased yourself when you make the Jonas Brothers look like beacons of compelling artistry by comparison. But like most of these crossover attempts, “10,000 Hours” is not designed to be great art. It’s a marriage of convenience.
DaBaby has his first #1 album. Per Billboard, Kirk enters the Billboard 200 on top with 145,000 equivalent album units but only 8,000 in sales. The majority of those units — 136,000 to be exact — derive from 181.7 million on-demand track streams, the fifth-best streaming week of 2019. Kirk is DaBaby’s second album of the year following Baby On Baby, which peaked at #7 and has thus far tallied 719,000 units.
After Post Malone at #2 comes the Beatles’ Abbey Road at #3 with 81,000 units and 70,000 sales off the back of a new deluxe reissue. The album peaked at #1 after its release in 1969 and hasn’t been in the top 10 since 1970, though it notably was at #71 last week and has spent more than 200 weeks on the chart since Billboard lifted its restriction on catalog releases in 2009.
Debuting at #4 with 70,000 units/10,000 sales is Kevin Gates’ I’m Him, his fourth top 10 album. Taylor Swift is at #5, followed by a #6 debut for country-rock band Whiskey Myers’ self-titled LP. The album logged 42,000 units and 39,000 in sales, figures bolstered by album-ticket bundling. It’s the first top 10 album for the band. The rest of the top 10 comprises Billie Eilish, Young Thug, Lizzo, and Lil Tecca.
Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” is America’s #1 song for the sixth straight week. The whole top five remains stagnant, actually, with Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” at #2, Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” at #3, Lil Tecca’s “Ransom” at #4, and Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” at #5. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” is back up to #6, followed by two Post Malone songs (#7 “Circles” and #9 “Goodbyes”) and two Lil Nas X songs (#8 “Panini” and #10 “Old Town Road”).
Niall Horan – “Nice To Meet Ya”
Everyone is talking about how this song has big Robbie Williams energy, but Niall is already a bigger deal in the US than Robbie ever was. And “Nice To Meet Ya” is way better than “Millennium” or what have you. So maybe Robbie died so Niall could live.
Camila Cabello – “Cry For Me”
Camila doing the 2019 version of ’80s Michael Jackson pop-rock on these new singles is extremely pleasing to me.
Summer Walker – “Come Thru” (Feat. Usher)
Walker is closely associated with Drake, whose appearance boosted her “Girls Need Love” remix to hip-hop radio ubiquity and who says her new song “Fun Girl” inspired him to write two new songs of his own. And it’s hard to imagine more of a Drake move than sampling Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” and getting Usher to sing on it. You crazy for this one, London On Da Track!
Yungblud – “Original Me” (Feat. Dan Reynolds)
Here we have the Warped Tour version of a 2013 blog-bait pop song from some Sleigh Bells wannabe signed to Columbia who just heard Fun.’s “We Are Young” and thinks they have a shot at alternative radio. Yungblud yelps like Perry Farrell on it, and Imagine Dragons guy bellows like Imagine Dragons guy. It’s a monstrosity, but a depressingly catchy monstrosity.
Jessie Reyez – “Far Away”
I continue to stan.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- On Instagram Live, Justin Bieber said he’ll have a new album out before the end of the year. [Billboard]
- Bieber, A$AP Rocky, and Troye Sivan are among the stars dancing through the decades in Calvin Klein’s 50th anniversary promo. [YouTube]
- Drake disputed his dad Dennis Graham’s claim that the rapper sensationalized aspects of their relationship because “it sells records.” [E!]
- Lewis Capaldi performed “Someone You Loved” on Ellen. [Ellen]
- Also on Ellen, Maroon 5 did their new single “Memories.” [Ellen]
- Ed Sheeran released a video for “South Of The Border,” his collaboration with Cardi B and Camila Cabello. [YouTube]
- Speaking of Cardi, she was criticized for sharing this media clapback on Instagram: “Access Hollywood, suck my whole dick. Suck a dick, I hope your fucking mom catch AIDS, bitch.” [Complex]
- Nick Jonas is joining The Voice as a coach for Season 18. [Buzzfeed]
- Frank Ocean bought a $6.3M ranch in Malibu. [Rap-Up]
- Here’s a promo for ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live. [Twitter]
- The photo collection The Rihanna Book is out today. It costs $175 and weighs 15 pounds. [The Rihanna Book]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
its-a me, your little venice bitch pic.twitter.com/YZLhX7KfZb
— Matt (@dogzaddy) October 10, 2019