“Baby, lay on back and relax,” begins the biggest song in country-music history, gliding in on blocky faux-gospel piano chords, and genial finger snaps, and a kick drum deep and loud enough to crack a muddy Ford F-150 in half. “Kick your pretty feet up on my dash.” Like most of the genre’s smash hits in this young century, the vibe is bright and boisterous and yet chill to the point of inert, carefree to the point of aimless. “No need to go nowhere fast / Let’s enjoy right here where we at.” Where we’re at, specifically, is parked at no. 1 on the most important chart in country music. And we’ve been sitting here, laid on back and relaxing, since mid-December.
“Meant to Be,” a breezy speed date between the polarizing bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line and the nascent pop star Bebe Rexha, has spent 34 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Meaning, for the entirety of 2018, and counting. This ties the record for that 60-year-old institution, set last year by red-state internet boyfriend Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” Barring some kind of shock catastrophe — such as Taylor Swift hard-rebranding as pure country and dropping a new single in the next 24 hours — it will certainly break the record early next week, and rumble on from there indefinitely. Nobody, from established superstars like Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood to spry young contenders like Kane Brown and Luke Combs, has yet managed to dislodge it. The air is thick with resignation. For most of us. “It’s not gonna be no. 1 forever, or for all of 2018,” says Billboard charts manager Xander Zellner. “I can almost assure you of that.”
Careful. In early March, when “Meant to Be” notched a mere 14 weeks at no. 1 and broke the all-time record for a song with a female lead, Rolling Stone Country editor Jon Freeman wrote an article thoroughly exploring the fairly recent Billboard methodology changes that helped explain the song’s outlandish success. “I went back and read it yesterday, and I may have to eat those words from my last paragraph there,” he tells me now. “Because I said something like, ‘Oh, you know, this time next year it’ll all be different.’ And now I’m kind of wondering, like, uh, maybe it won’t. Maybe this song will just still be no. 1.”
This level of dominance is bizarre even in the context of Florida Georgia Line, the flamboyant and controversial duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, which rose to power with 2012’s “Cruise,” the Nelly-assisted megahit that itself spent a then-record 24 weeks atop Hot Country Songs and formally launched the bro-country revolution. That tune, with its wet-T-shirt-contest frivolity and vaguely rustic party-rap ambiance, didn’t sound so revolutionary on first contact: As critic Jody Rosen wrote for New York magazine in 2013, “The top country hit of all time may, in fact, be the most generic song you’ve ever heard.”
But what Rosen then described as “aggressive ordinariness” has proved to be FGL’s secret weapon. “Meant to Be” is their sixth single to top Hot Country Songs — the duo recently broke the record for total weeks atop that chart set by industry deity George Strait — and despite its soothing earworm chorus, it, too, hardly comes on as a world-beater. The vibe is breezy and innocuous if you’re a fan, and terminally generic if you are not. “It’s a reflection of the way the charts work, to me,” Freeman says. “So I think what you have here is a combination of a pop artist who has massive, massive streaming numbers, plus that being now a bigger factor in the way charts are compiled. As far as there being some kind of X factor in the song, I don’t really know. The first time I heard it, it didn’t really sound like this giant smash to me. It’s catchy, but is it, like, a classic? I don’t know.”
The Hot Country Songs chart launched in 1958, and for 50-plus years primarily measured airplay on country radio, itself an imposing and oft-frustrating cultural monolith. But in October 2012, Billboard started overhauling its chart methodology, putting more weight on streaming data, digital downloads, and in the case of the genre charts, crossover play on pop radio. The jarring result: “Gangnam Style,” the then-inescapable novelty hit from the South Korean rapper Psy, topped the newly created Hot Rap Songs chart despite virtually no presence on rap radio itself. This result caused much consternation among people who were not on a wedding-reception dance floor at the time.
History would be somewhat kinder to the inaugural victor of the revamped Hot Country Songs: Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which still slaps, and best exemplifies her transitional early-2010s pop-star-in-all-but-name phase. But that methodology shift — which put three Swift songs in that first top 10, with relatively little country-radio support — sowed plenty of discord by emphatically throwing its weight behind country stars willing to expand country’s borders, or cross them altogether. Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” parked at no. 1 soon thereafter and went on to set a record that seemed unbreakable until Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” broke it last year, setting a ludicrous new half-year-plus standard that itself seemed unbreakable until now.
But what makes “Meant to Be” so different, and so durable? “It’s one of those rare songs that’s really embraced by both pop radio and country radio,” says Billboard’s Zellner. (By contrast, “The Middle,” the 2018 smash hit toplined by EDM guru Zedd and pop-country belter Maren Morris, has not much pretended to be “country” at all, chartwise or otherwise.) “The fact that it was such a huge hit on both has really made it dominate our charts. It was a streaming success, too, which is pretty rare for a country song. But it actually was a country hit, too — it was also no. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, just for one week. So that’s really what’s helped it — it’s something that’s been embraced by both genres. Obviously, the Bebe Rexha tie really helped that. But it’s kind of a pop song just as much as it is country.”
Bebe Rexha, in fact, may be the single most confounding aspect of this. She’s a Brooklyn native previously best known for singing the hook on G-Eazy’s 2015 pop-rap hit “Me, Myself & I,” and she has not, arguably to her credit, made much of an effort to present herself as a country girl at all, even now. “Meant to Be,” the product of a brisk, last-minute L.A. writing session between her and FGL, first surfaced as an afterthought on her 2017 EP All Your Fault: Pt. 2, which also features guest spots from Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, and Lil Wayne. The song is likewise wildly out of place as the final track on her debut album, Expectations, which came out in June and otherwise conforms to the pleasantly muddled pop-rap-R&B-EDM hybrid known informally as “Spotifycore.”
Rexha does, indeed, have gargantuan streaming numbers — more than 722 million on Spotify for “Me, Myself & I,” and nearly 700 million on the service for her Martin Garrix collaboration “In the Name of Love.” But she is not, by a long shot, a first-tier pop star, and she has not exactly been universally embraced as a country star, either.
Nope. A collab with FGL?! That ain’t country, honey Sit down, be humble. https://t.co/zczKCTpQq8— Margo Price (@MissMargoPrice) April 27, 2018
It's total bullshit.....And such a disgrace. The music isn't my cup of tea, but I'm sure some people somehow like it. My issue lies with why don't they just market it to the correct kind of station? Why does "our kind of music" station have to be the melting pot for everything?? https://t.co/yfGxn3XH5f— SUNNY SWEENEY (@GettinSweenered) February 28, 2018
Margo Price and Sunny Sweeney are both critically beloved but commercially underserved singer-songwriters who serve as living proof that country radio, and the country charts in general, remain cartoonishly hostile toward women. In 2015, the country-radio consultant Keith Hill raised a ruckus by announcing, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” further dismissing them as “the tomatoes of our salad.” The resulting scandal (called “Tomato-gate,” of course) inspired both myriad think pieces and, courtesy of Martina McBride, a commemorative T-shirt. But in early July, in a blog post headlined “Misogyny in Country Radio?,” Hill doubled down on his three-year-old provocation, setting aside salad metaphors for what, in his view, was simple math:
My claim (and real world experience) is that women listen to country radio stations longer when the mix of songs broadcast is about fifteen percent female. When that percentage is higher without conscious thought they simply fatigue faster and automatically respond by listening less.
Hill does not reveal how, precisely, he arrived at 15 percent as the platonic ideal, but here’s the punch line: That would be an improvement. In June, The Tennessean reported that according to the industry chronicler Country Aircheck, the percentage of “purely female country songs” dropped from 13 percent in 2016 to 10.4 percent in 2017. “I know there has been some resentment among women in country music, because that is such a hot topic right now, because country radio, they’re playing maybe two, three women at one time,” says Rolling Stone Country’s Freeman. “And here you have a pop singer who’s had this huge smash. And there are other examples of this. Keith Urban has a song with Julia Michaels. It’s like, ‘Is that what it takes to get a woman’s voice on country radio?’ There have been some of those kinds of murmurs: ‘How is she allowed to have this huge hit, and nothing we do even gets a second glance?’”
Indeed, surveying the other women who made this week’s Hot Country Songs chart, there is one solo superstar in the top 20 (Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty”), one superstar in a supporting role (Miranda Lambert guesting on Jason Aldean’s “Drowns the Whiskey”), and two more minor-pop-star collaborations: Julia Michaels on Keith Urban’s “Coming Home,” and Tori Kelly on Chris Lane’s “Take Back Home Girl.” (Over on this week’s radio-specific Country Airplay chart, you’ll find all those songs in the top 20, plus Lady Antebellum’s “Heart Break.”) The outsiders are winning, and multiplying.
The argument, from Billboard’s perspective, is that the new chart rules better reflect objective reality. “It’s not really controversial here, because we know that Florida Georgia Line is a country act, and we know that ‘Meant to Be’ is a country song,” Zellner says. (Plenty of critics and artists, from Margo Price on down, would vehemently argue that FGL aren’t real country, but that battle has largely been fought and lost.) “Country radio’s playing it, it’s being promoted there. So it’s not really something where, obviously, we’re not disappointed by these things, because this is what people are listening to. What we always say is, ‘Well, people are listening to it, and that’s why it’s no. 1, that’s why it’s there.’”
Which is true, though, notably, you will not find “Meant to Be” anywhere on this week’s Country Airplay chart, which goes 60 songs deep. Nor will you find it, as I write this, on Spotify playlists like Hot Country or Country Gold. The institutions that propelled this song to record-setting greatness have largely moved on; it’s a ghost in the machine that has become the machine, its momentum both largely invisible and seemingly unstoppable. The answer here, most likely, is that a pop song that gets treated like a country song will always beat a plain old country song — as I write, “Meant to Be” appears on the current iTunes pop download chart twice, both the EP version (no. 13) and the album version (no. 173) — and there are way more people streaming Bebe Rexha songs than you’d think.
The bigger pop charts, meanwhile, have weathered their own traumatic changes and attendant controversies. In February 2013, the first track to top the revamped and more streaming-focused Hot 100 was Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” which was useless as a stand-alone pop song, but had inadvertently provided the soundtrack to a viral YouTube sensation. Memes can still propel a song to no. 1 today: See Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” in 2016, or Drake’s “In My Feelings” this month. And Drake, of course, is perhaps the single biggest beneficiary of all these new Spotify- and Apple-driven metrics: When his new album, Scorpion, dropped in late June, he landed seven songs in the top 10 of the following week’s Hot 100, where either “Nice for What” or “God’s Plan” has reigned at no. 1 for more than half of 2018 thus far.
Even a Drake fan, and/or an FGL agnostic, would concede that this new chart era is, if not outright dismaying, then at the very least not a little boring. But don’t blame the messenger. “What we always joke about, like when Drake was no. 1 with ‘God’s Plan,’ and then ‘Nice for What’ came in, we were like, ‘The only song that could beat Drake is another song by Drake,’” Zellner says. “That might just be the case for Florida Georgia Line, where the only song that can beat Florida Georgia Line is also by Florida Georgia Line.” The band’s new single, “Simple,” is breezy and insidiously catchy, and even without Bebe Rexha on board, it’s no. 4 on Hot Country Songs this week, and rising. Not the ideal spoiler candidate, obviously. But it might be the only chance we get.