When people went apoplectic after Billboard changed its chart rules in 2012 and allowed spins on pop radio to count on the Hot Country Songs Chart, the worst case scenario in their minds wasn’t that a song like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” would get such an unfair boost from a remix with Nelly that it would ultimately become the longest-running #1 single in country history at 24 weeks. It wasn’t even that an artist like Sam Hunt who has nothing to do with country music, but still resides in the country industry, could release a pop song like “Body Like a Backroad,” and even surpass Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for the longest tenure at #1, coming it eventually an an incredible 34 weeks.
Both of these earth-shattering and history-rewriting accomplishments are dubious stains on the legacy of country music themselves, and are direct results of Billboard breaking down barriers between country and pop, and putting actual country music artists at a severe disadvantage. But neither of these instances even compare to having a dedicated pop star completely out of the purview of country music coming from out of nowhere and swooping into the #1 spot simply because Florida Georgia Line guests on the track.
“Just found out I’m officially the first female in the history of Country music to debut at #1 on the country billboard charts,” pop star Bebe Rexha tweeted out on Monday (12-5) after it was confirmed by Billboard that her song “Meant To Be” would emerge atop the Hot Country Songs index.
That’s right. Think about the scores of female country music performers who have dedicated their entire lives to the craft, including many mainstream country pop performers, who have never enjoyed a debut at #1, or a #1 at all. Were talking about names such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, who’ve been nominated for Grammy Awards and won CMAs, and have never even come close to sniffing a #1. And then a pop star you’ve probably have never heard of (I certainly hadn’t until a few weeks ago) shows up and is cresting country music’s top metric for songs without ever lifting a finger for the country cause.
And maybe the most scary thing about this is it is just the very, very start. This is a debut, meaning Rexha’s song “Meant to Be” could be at the top of the Hot Country Songs chart for months as it continues to climb both pop and country radio charts as its spins increase weekly, and more consumers stream and download the tune. Bebe Rexha and “Meant To Be” are already a super hit, are poised to become a bona fide phenomenon before this is all said and done, and this whole thing is still in its infant stages. We haven’t even fully digested how in the hell we even got here, and all of a sudden history is being made.
Only two other songs have ever debuted at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and they were both specialty cases. Never have we seen a pure single so early in its climb and promotional cycle receive this kind of recognition. The only two other songs to debut at #1 in country were the All-Star, cross-generational “Forever Country” song released ahead of the 50th annual CMA Awards, and “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” by Craig Wayne Boyd, boosted to the rafters by a win on NBC’s The Voice.
But both of these cases were short-lived runs. What’s so scary about “Meant To Be” is the incredible upside potential. Despite being #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, it’s still only at #48 on the Country Airplay chart, and #28 on the Pop Songs chart. But it’s rising fast on both, while it is being bolstered by streaming and download data. If “Meant To Be” takes the regular trajectory of a country song on radio, it could be climbing for months, and combining that data with its pop performance, it could be a fixture at #1 on Hot Country Songs well into 2018, even if it takes a week or two off in the interim. What’s going to knock it off? Right now the industry is winding down for the holidays, not ramping up to release big singles.
How did we even get here? How in the world is a pop artist named Bebe Rexha breaking records overnight? The short answer is the 2012 Billboard chart rules set the table for this, but the bigger question is how could Bebe Rexha and “Meant To Be” be allowed to ever register on a country chart? The song is not country, and the primary artist is not country. It is a pop song, from a pop artist, and the fact that it has turned what is supposed to be one of Billboard’s most trusted charts on its head should be proof enough the algorithm for how the Hot Country Songs chart is tabulated, and the litmus test of who gets to be on it, is completely out of whack.
This isn’t just about angry and disenfranchised traditional country fans blowing off steam. The chart manager for country music, and the editorial board of Billboard need to take a serious look at this matter, and issue a correction. And they better do it before this issue becomes even more difficult to correct. And when they’re re-evaluating who is country and who isn’t, remember back to February 2016 when they banished Green River Ordinance from country consideration because they were not country enough. Are you seriously going to make the case that Baby Rexha is more country than Green River Ordinance?
And of course people who make it a habit of avoiding the weekly charts will wonder what all the hubbub is about, but if you want to know how country gets turned into pop, this is a perfect example. If Bebe Rexha can come completely out of left field and snatch a #1, than anyone can. It’s completely feasible that more pop stars will now want to “collaborate” with country artists simply so they can receive play on country radio, and the recognition of appearing on country charts. It may not matter to you directly, but this issue is very fundamental to why country music has taken the direction it has in the last half decade and beyond.
And it all comes at a time when Florida Georgia Line is struggling mightily, which might give you the motive of why this song has made its way onto the country side of music, and the charts. The duo’s last single “Smooth” was their first ever to stall outside the Top 3 in radio, and the Top 10 on the Hot Country Songs chart, ending its run at #14 and #16 respectively. Meanwhile the duo’s name is mud at awards shows, despite their previous sales performance. Country and its fans want to move on from Bro-Country era talent, even if a few of those songs still make it out from newer artists. But Florida Georgia Line is showing every sign of staring a precipitous fall in their career arc. At least they were until this Bebe Rexha collaboration came along. Did Florida Georgia Line receive preferential treatment from Billboard via Bebe Rexha to help pull out of their tail spin?
“Meant To Be” as a song is an incredibly mild, mid-grade pop tune. There’s nothing country about it of course, but there really isn’t anything exceptional about it either. And with all the problems country music has promoting women and allowing them to find traction in their careers, what is the justification of taking a pop star and allowing her to hopscotch everyone else?
This isn’t just bellyaching. Individuals across the country industry, especially ones heavily invested in up-and-coming artists, should be angry over this issue enough to get active about it. This isn’t a nuanced discussion about what country music is or isn’t, or should be. This is an outright invasion of a pop star on a country chart that shouldn’t be allowed to stand.