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Money Moves: Cardi B vs. Taylor Swift Made Us Care About the Billboard Hot 100 Again

“Bodak Yellow” reigns, besting “Look What You Made Me Do.” Why do we care so much?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Listen closely. Do you hear it? The clip-clip-clop of a nation doing a celebratory Shmoney dance in Christian Louboutin heels? That’s because THERE’S A NEW NO. 1 SONG IN THIS GODFORSAKEN COUNTRY, AND IT’S CARDI B’S “BODAK YELLOW.” This is, oddly enough, a very big deal.

A staggering number of people were emotionally invested in the Billboard singles chart last week. Prior to last week’s Hot 100 race, it was difficult to recall a time when people cared this much about the chart returns since the montage in That Thing You Do! where the Wonders watch their song climb the charts. And that was a movie. Cardi B is real life. There was a refreshing IRL intrigue playing out atop the Hot 100 last week, as Taylor Swift’s monotonous single “Look What You Made Me Do” held onto the no. 1 spot for a third straight week but faced a formidable threat from the-little-freestyle-that-could, Cardi B’s surprise smash “Bodak Yellow.” This week, “Look What You Made Me Do” falls all the way to no. 3, one spot below Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar.” My condolences, Taylor. Being bested by the guy behind “White Iverson” is perhaps a fate worse than falling off the charts entirely.

After last week’s close race, the respective fandoms kicked into overdrive. Interview magazine talked to some members of the Bardi Gang who were streaming “Bodak” on repeat to help their queen rise to no. 1. In the other corner, some of Nicki Minaj’s Barbz and Taylor’s Swifties joined forces (temporarily) to repeatedly stream “Look What You Made Me Do.” (Minaj’s “Anaconda” was the last song by a solo female rapper to climb that high on the charts, but it reached only no. 2, and some of her fans did not want Cardi to surpass it.) Cardi, to her credit, hasn’t had anything bad to say about her chart rivals—if anything, she’s been supportive. When one of the more benevolent Swifties tweeted last week, “if anyone takes the number one spot from Taylor, we want it to be Cardi!” she replied directly, “Awww that’s sooo sweet, I love me some Taylor Swift my freaking self.” This weekend, a video circulated on Twitter of Cardi singing “Look What You Made Me Do” in the back of a car, her tone expressing more appreciation than condescension. She was the underdog—it’s hard not to root for her.

Swift, on the other hand, has stayed silent on the matter. To be fair, she has made very few public comments about anything since putting out her two latest singles, and is most likely sequestered in the studio right now, finishing up her forthcoming album, Reputation. But Swift’s silences carry added weight these days—increasingly, they feel more strategic than her words. Swift has refrained from saying anything about Donald Trump’s election, which many critics read as a refusal to alienate the Trump-supporting members of her fan base. Cardi B, on the other hand, has been openly critical of Trump (and, in interviews last year, spoke admiringly of Bernie Sanders), and her criticisms of the man she calls “Carrot face” clearly did not compromise her song’s success. (She continued to tweet criticisms of Trump and his lack of support for Puerto Rico the week leading up to her song hitting no. 1, although she did take heat Sunday for directing an Asian slur at Kim Jong-un, in a tweet she’s since edited.)

During her ascension, Cardi B has achieved quite a few impressive milestones: She’s the first female rapper in 19 years and the second in history to have a no. 1 song without a featured artist (Lauryn Hill was the only other artist to do this, with 1998’s “Doo Wop (That Thing),”) and only the fifth female rapper ever to hit no. 1 at all. Cardi has a long way to go before she approaches the whopping 79 charting singles on which Nicki Minaj has appeared. But with her first, unlikely smash hit, Cardi B already finds herself in a rarefied league.

Rivalries between female artists are often reduced to catfights, but this story is bigger than that. What made the chart battle between Cardi B and Taylor Swift so interesting wasn’t that it was a battle between two female artists, but a duel between new and old definitions of chart success. Though she’s only a few years older than Cardi, Swift’s rollout has been strategically old-school: push for purchased downloads over streams, debut your video at the VMAs, orchestrate corporate partnerships that will make your song and album too big to fail.

Viral-sensation-turned-reality-star-turned-recording-artist Cardi came up a different, more serendipitous way—one so new that it wasn’t even fathomable the last time Swift sought chart domination with her blockbuster 2014 album 1989. The success of “Bodak” indicates how much the music industry has changed while Swift’s been away, and the ways in which she may have to adapt her approach to make Reputation as big a hit as its predecessor. Still, not everything has to be viewed as a competition, and if Cardi B and Taylor Swift are united in anything it’s the strange feat they both managed to pull off last week: making people care about the Billboard Hot 100 again.