We Are So Back
The charts have been lacking something lately. A certain pizzazz? The spark of excitement that accompanies big-tent pop music at its best? As we reach the midpoint of 2023, it’s hard to remember a time when mainstream pop has been so bereft of zeitgeist-seizing giddiness — certainly not during the hottest months of the year, when big-name stars traditionally vie for Song Of The Summer status.
Until now, the de facto winner of that title is country superstar Morgan Wallen’s sullen lope “Last Night.” With 12 weeks at #1, it’s the longest-reigning chart-topper of the year and on track to become 2023’s biggest hit, and Wallen’s mammoth One Thing At A Time album has been even more dominant on the Billboard 200 albums chart. “Last Night” is not a song worth celebrating. For many, Wallen’s music remains a fraught subject two years after his racial-slur incident. Aside from those concerns, the song just kind of ambles along at midtempo without anything in the way of audio fireworks. Like so many Wallen hits, it’s as good as it has to be but far short of great — well-crafted and slickly produced, but lacking the punch of something like “Sand In My Boots.”
The year’s other biggest hit is Miley Cyrus’ Flowers,” a song so profoundly mediocre that I want to indulge conspiracy theories about why it caught on so resoundingly where prior Cyrus singles failed. A sort of country-tinged “I Will Survive” with none of the implied drama, “Flowers” finds our hero Miley flaunting her independence in the most generic possible fashion. (“I can hold my own hand”?) Yet society has rewarded her for dialing back her quirkiest, most dynamic qualities. Like so many of the songs popping off right now, “Flowers” is so competent-yet-uninspired that it crosses over into a rare plane of frustrating mediocrity. More than any other track, it exemplifies a low-energy sonic conservatism that has gripped the mainstream this year.
It isn’t that nothing interesting has happened on the Billboard Hot 100. The dearth of transcendent pop and rap singles has led to other genres breaking into the spotlight. Rema’s percolating Selena Gomez duet “Calm Down,” which has risen all the way to #3, is the highest-charting song by an Africa-based lead artist in Hot 100 history. Regional Mexican music has been surging into the spotlight thanks to hits like Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma’s “Ella Baila Sola,” which made it up to #4. But those songs are worth celebrating more for the inclusivity they represent than as musical achievements.
Similarly, this week’s historic incidence of country songs at #1 and #2 for the first time since 1981 would have been a lot more noteworthy if the songs weren’t “Last Night” and Luke Combs’ uninventive “Fast Car” cover. It was cool to see SZA snag a #1 hit after so many weeks at #2 with “Kill Bill.” I love to see a figure as fascinating as PinkPantheress making a dent in the charts. Metro Boomin’s “Creepin” is one of the catchiest Weeknd songs ever, even if it’s basically a cover of an old Mario Winans hit. But other one-week chart-toppers like the latest stan-supported BTS-member solo track and the Weeknd’s fluke TikTok bringback hit do not portend great things for the future functionality of the charts. Further down the top 10, “Karma” is one of the least impressive Taylor Swift singles in history, with or without Ice Spice. (“Me and karma vibe like that”??) In a year full of forgettable, risk-free hits, Toosii’s “Favorite Song” leaves less of an impression than most. I’d rather not acknowledge the existence of Lil Durk and J. Cole’s treacly “All My Life.” It’s brutal out here.
So I’m happy to report that Olivia Rodrigo, arguably the best new pop star of the 2020s so far (though Lil Nas X would like a word), has returned with just the jolt of electricity we needed. “Vampire,” the lead single from Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS, dropped at midnight. It’s too early to say how it will stack up against the hits from 2021’s SOUR, both on the charts and in our hearts, but on first pass this song is the marquee event single this year has been sorely lacking. The thing just builds and builds and builds, starting with “drivers license”-esque piano balladry and launching upward into musical-theater disco-rock splendor. You’d think that after a whole album of scorned breakup songs, Rodrigo would need to pivot to keep things interesting. Instead, she has found continued vitality by doubling down on her core themes and tweaking her signature style just so.
Amidst so much safe and sanitized fare, it’s so refreshing to hear a pop singer aiming for high drama and absolutely nailing it. At a time when algorithm-friendly waiting-room-core has established a firm grip on the pop charts, Rodrigo is unafraid to wail away on the mic. And with trusty collaborator Dan Nigro, she’s assembled a genuinely unique backing track that doesn’t adhere to trendy formats or hold anything back. “My favorite songs are high and low, and reel you in and spit you back out,” Rodrigo told Apple Music. “And so we wanted to do a song where it just crescendoed the entire time and it reflects the pent-up anger that you have for a situation.” Mission accomplished. This “Vampire” definitely does not suck.
The other big chart theme of the year has been rap’s retreat to the sidelines. No hip-hop album has yet topped the Billboard 200 in 2023, and no single from the genre has gone #1 either. Many critics have written about why that’s not a bad thing, arguing that a reversion to rap regionalism is healthy and that the genre doesn’t need crossover appeal to thrive. Maybe so, but I miss that 2010s moment when hip-hop was routinely yielding culture-altering hits and its A-list stars commanded huge audiences across demographics — something that, for reasons ranging from Young Thug’s legal troubles to Kendrick Lamar’s journey inward, hasn’t been happening lately. I love when rap is in blockbuster mode, and Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape might be the first true instance of that phenomenon in 2023.
I wasn’t sure Uzi could surpass the clout they’d amassed around the time of 2020’s Eternal Atake, but with the slow-build club-rap smash “Just Wanna Rock,” the Philly iconoclast reasserted their place as one of the most exciting and popular rappers of their generation. When Uzi showed up with anime hair at the end of the Grammys’ salute to 50 years of hip-hop, it was clear they could still command the world’s attention when they wanted. And Pink Tape is nothing if not attention-grabbing.
The album, which also went live at midnight, is nuts. It’s fucking insane. I haven’t been able to yet wrap my head around questions of genuine quality, but in terms of pure audacity, Pink Tape is a masterpiece. There is the hard-rock subplot: the “Chop Suey!” cover, the Bring Me The Horizon feature, the gleefully batshit Babymetal collab. There are wild samples and interpolations, from Justice to Gotye to wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura’s theme music. On “Endless Fashion,” Nicki Minaj sings, “I got a Republican doctor/ Make my ass great again, MAGA,” over music from Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” the same Eurodance hit that David Guetta and Bebe Rexha recently revived. Uzi remains a livewire presence capable of putting their giddy Auto-Tuned stamp on all kinds of production. And with their stock at an all-time high, don’t be surprised to see Pink Tape send several tracks to the top 10, the same way Drake and J. Cole albums often have.
Will any of them beat out “Vampire” for #1? Almost certainly not, but it will be exciting to find out which one comes closest. As a fan of both stat-nerd chart numerology and larger-than-life pop pageantry, it’s so nice to have these kinds of reasons to be enthusiastic about high-stakes pop music again. In the parlance of our times, for a while there it was so over, but thanks to Olivia and Uzi, we are so back.