HomeWorld NewsWhat Do We Make of This Summer in Pop Music? – Billboard
What Do We Make of This Summer in Pop Music? – Billboard
August 29, 2023
With just one week of summer left — at least by Billboard calculations, with our official Songs of the Summer chart closing after next week’s Sept. 9-dated listing — it seems like a good time to look back at what has been an extremely unusual summer of pop music on the Billboard Hot 100.
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For one thing, unlike any other summer in recent memory — in some ways, unlike any in Hot 100 history — the chart has been absolutely dominated by country this year. Between Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, Jason Aldean and now Oliver Anthony Music, country has been holding down one or more of the top spots on the chart for the whole season. But we’ve still gotten plenty of more traditional pop, in the form of hits by Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and the Barbie soundtrack cast, as well as hip-hop smashes from Gunna and Toosii, and global sounds from Rema & Selena Gomez, Fifty Fifty and Eslabon Armado & Peso Pluma.
How do we evaluate this summer on the whole? And do we anticipate the country takeover to last for the rest of the 2023 calendar? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” has been No. 1 on our Songs of the Summer chart for all 13 weeks of its existence so far — do you feel that’s an accurate reflection of how the song has (or hasn’t) dominated the summer?
Katie Atkinson: It’s hard to argue with its chart run given the data reflects the song’s unstoppable shelf life, but I can (and will) argue that it didn’t soundtrack my personal summer. That banner belongs to Taylor Swift’s surprisingly resurgent (or, I guess, just surgent) 2019 song “Cruel Summer.” I love how Swift had three concurrent hits (“Summer,” “Karma” and “I Can See You” were all top five on the Hot 100 this summer) as her Eras Tour positively dominated the pop culture conversation. It was fitting for the summer of 2023, and I especially love that her concert-opening “Cruel Summer” finally had its moment in the sun.
Stephen Daw: Yep. Love it or hate it, “Last Night” was the song of the summer in 2023. If there were a checklist for what makes a song the summer song, Wallen’s runaway hit checks all of the boxes; huge crossover appeal, chart domination and a level of inescapable ubiquity that almost begins to feel Lovecraftian in its scope. As much as some (myself included) may want us to collectively move on from this song, it doesn’t change the fact that “Last Night” monopolized summer listening this year.
Jason Lipshutz: Definitely. On the Hot 100 this summer, “Last Night” has functioned a lot like Harry Styles’ “As It Was” did last summer, piling up week after week at No. 1 and never too far from the top spot when something else momentarily knocked it out. Maybe Wallen’s smash wasn’t as culturally omnipresent as summer songs of the past, but that speaks more to the fragmentation of popular culture more than anything to do with “Last Night.” As it stands, Wallen clearly had the biggest hit of this summer, and when 2023 wraps up, maybe of the year, too.
Joe Lynch: I suppose it’s hard to say no, because them’s the numbers. Unlike some No. 1s from this summer, “Last Night” is huge at radio and streaming and doing well in downloads, so you can’t chalk its success up to a coordinated base of supporters influencing the charts. But as huge as country is right now (it occupies the top three slots of the Hot 100), there are plenty of music fans who still haven’t hitched their wagon to that genre’s horse. We find ourselves in an unusual spot where this summer’s biggest hit isn’t resonating across all demographics.
Andrew Unterberger: Eh. As an adult living in New York, it felt imminently ignorable in a way summer-conquering No. 1s rarely have. (Most of the conversations I had about the song were of the “Can you believe it’s still No. 1?” variety.) But if I were a teenager living in Tennessee? I’d probably feel pretty differently.
2. Country music has dominated this summer in many different forms — do you see that lasting for the rest of the year, or will it prove mostly a warm-weather-month phenomenon?
Katie Atkinson: With the genre finally catching up in streaming, I think country’s command of the Hot 100 is just getting started. We’ve seen in the past couple of months how right-wing virality can boost a song (see: “Try That in Small Town” and “Rich Men North of Richmond”), but “Last Night” and “Fast Car” are just traditional, sustained hit songs with undeniable reach. I expect more of both varieties of hits from the country world – and I also expect hip-hop to find its way back to the top after an unfathomable yearlong absence.
Stephen Daw: To me, it’s pretty hard to look at the last few years’ worth of chart metrics and try to justify calling the country music explosion we’ve been experiencing a summer-specific phenomenon. Country music is taking streaming more seriously than it ever has (as detailed in this excellent piece by Billboard‘s Steve Knopper), it has a coterie of young stars that are connecting with a multi-generational audience, and it’s gained enough attention and momentum over 2023 to make this inarguably the biggest year in recent memory for country music. That trend isn’t just going to disappear once the weather cools down a bit — if anything, I see the country boom continuing well into the fall — especially with a massive (and very good) album from Zach Bryan fresh on the mind.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s hard to say, because it will likely depend on the upcoming music. Zach Bryan’s newly released self-titled album has flooded streaming charts this week, but will those songs impact the Hot 100 for weeks on end? Will upcoming projects by Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj dominate the fall? What else can Taylor Swift and 1989 (Taylor’s Version) contribute to an already gargantuan year? And are there more out-of-nowhere country success stories like Oliver Anthony lurking in the autumn? With so many high-profile question marks, whether or not country music’s blockbuster summer continues beyond the season is anyone’s guess.
Joe Lynch: I don’t think country’s chart surge – fueled in part by the genre’s core fans finally catching up the streaming era – can be waived away as a summer phenomenon. There are few signs of Wallen waning, and if anything, I expect that we’re increasingly likely to see established names such as Jason Aldean or new voices topping the Hot 100 in the next 12-18 months.
3. Looking at the chart this week — are there any older songs you’re in mild disbelief were still big enough the past few months to be Songs of the Summer?
Katie Atkinson: It has to be “Anti-Hero.” The Midnights lead single came out way back in October (10 full months ago!) and spent eight nonconsecutive weeks atop the Hot 100, surpassing “Blank Space” as her longest-running No. 1 song — so it’s not like it toiled away in obscurity before climbing up the charts. The fact that “Anti-Hero” still has the legs to be one of the 20 biggest songs of the summer — after definitively being one of the biggest songs of the fall, winter and spring that preceded it – can only be credited to the power of Taylor Swift.
Stephen Daw: Part of me wants to be in shock that “Cruel Summer” is staying strong at No. 4 this week, but I know better than to doubt the power of Swifties. But getting to watch SZA’s “Snooze” keep creeping up the Hot 100 after coming out in December has been a continuously delightful surprise for me. “Snooze” has all of the elements of a crossover summer hit to me, and I’m glad to see SZA still getting her flowers for putting out one of the best albums of the last five years.
Jason Lipshutz: Six months after its February release, FIFTY FIFTY’s “Cupid” has not only become the rare K-pop single to cross over to U.S. streaming and pop radio without a household-name artist behind it, but after 23 weeks on the Hot 100 and a climb into the top 20 of the chart, the song has turned into one of the most successful hit singles by an Asian act of the entire decade. “Cupid” rules, but I wouldn’t have seen that coming! And I’m still surprised that it’s endured on the chart long enough to crack the Songs of the Summer tally.
Joe Lynch: Obviously “Cruel Summer” is four years old, so it being a huge summer hit in 2023 is wacky, but it comes with an explanation (endless fan requests that led to a full-on label/artist push). For me, the fact that Rema and Selena Gomez’s “Calm Down” and Miley’s “Flowers” are still summer staples is the most eyebrow raising, simply because it feels like they came out a lifetime ago in terms of pop releases. But it tracks: turn on the radio and just try to avoid ‘em.
Andrew Unterberger: No offense to The Weeknd, 21 Savage or Metro Boomin, who have collectively been responsible for a fairly high percentage of my favorite hit singles of the past decade — but what the hell is “Creepin’” still doing on this list. And I liked “Creepin’!” But really already.
4. What’s one song you had hoped would be bigger this summer whose chart success (or lack thereof) hasn’t quite panned out the way you’d wanted?
Katie Atkinson: Jason picked Coi Leray’s “Players” as a front-runner back in March, and I was thrilled by the idea of one my personal favorites climbing higher than its No. 9 peak and gaining steam over the summer – but it just never did. Maybe it needed a buzzy remix beyond the Busta Rhymes and David Guetta versions, like a guest verse (or verses) from Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and/or other high-profile players.
Stephen Daw: I really thought “Rush” was going to be Troye Sivan’s ticket back to the upper echelons of the Hot 100 this summer. He hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since “Youth” all the way back in 2016, and “Rush” felt like the perfect opportunity for him to climb back up the charts. It’s got that up-tempo, ecstatic groove that you want from a sweaty summer banger, and it was certainly having a semi-viral moment on TikTok that seemed like it could blow up. Now, a No. 77 debut on the chart is nothing to shake a stick at; it’s Sivan’s highest-ever debut on the listing. But to see it quickly fall back off of the charts was a disappointment — especially because it’s been the staple song of every queer club I’ve attended throughout the summer.
Jason Lipshutz: In retrospect, my way-too-early song of the summer predictions from March were pretty solid this year – “Last Night” and the “Calm Down” remix were both listed as front-runners, and they’re currently in the top three of the Songs of the Summer chart. Also listed as a front-runner: Ed Sheeran’s “Eyes Closed,” a single I still really like from a pop radio mainstay, but simply didn’t connect the way Sheeran’s past smashes did. Maybe it was too contemplative for summertime, or maybe Sheeran should have gotten Luke Combs for this remix instead of for “Life Goes On.” Either way, Ed’s already on to the next project – perhaps Autumn Variations will fare better in the cooler months.
Joe Lynch: For all the organic ubiquity of Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” in the queer community – it was certainly the most inescapable viral hit on LGBTQ social media this summer – I was hoping it would at least enter the Billboard Hot 100. But unless you’re Dua Lipa, pushing dance-pop to U.S. radio is tough these days. And when you consider the industry’s entrenched ageism toward women in particular, it’s hardly shocking that “Padam” failed to get a real crossover foothold.
Andrew Unterberger: I remember the mid-July thrill of discovering Troye Sivan’s “Rush” and Myke Towers’ “LaLa” in quick succession and thinking that maybe this Hot 100 summer still had some surprise thrills left in store. Then they stalled in the 70s and 40s on the chart, respectively, while Oliver Anthony Music zoomed well overhead of both. As Sandy Olsson would say, it turned colder, that’s where it ends.
5. As a pure fan of pop music, grade the collective hits of this summer on a scale from 1 to 10.
Katie Atkinson: I’m going to go 3, mostly because of the Barbie soundtrack infusing some much-needed variety into the chart mid-summer. Otherwise, things have been pretty stagnant. Is it too much to wish for a more literal Song of the Summer again, like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” in 2010 or Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” in 2002?
Stephen Daw: It’s a 4 for me personally. This summer felt like a mixed bag when it came to straight-up pop hits — though shoutout to Olivia Rodrigo, Jung Kook and the entirety of the Barbie soundtrack for doing their best to deliver some bonafide pop winners during the sweaty season.
Jason Lipshutz: A 6. This wasn’t my personal favorite summer-song collection, but I danced along to “Calm Down” in my car when catching it on pop radio, bobbed my head to Gunna’s “Fukumean” while walking my dog, and sang karaoke to Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” just as the song was re-ascending the Hot 100. The delights may have been unexpected, but they were still there.
Joe Lynch: That’s a tough one. Looking at the tunes on our Songs of the Summer chart, I like the majority of them – and I even love a handful. But when you think back to summer songs that resonated across damn near every part of the population (“Old Town Road,” “Despacito,” “Call Me Maybe”), it’s an underwhelming crop. Let’s say it’s a 3.
Andrew Unterberger: I’ll say a 5. Can’t say I particularly enjoyed Morgan Wallen’s endless run on top, or having to repeatedly re-enter the culture war fray for Jason Aldean’s and Oliver Anthony Music’s reigns, or the way Taylor Swift’s massiveness occasionally blocked out the sun for the rest of the top 40 world. But there were still a decent number of quality pop, rap, R&B and country jams to be had, and with Zach Bryan’s new album out this week and Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore LP on the way, it’s (hopefully) better times ahead. No pop summer is ever really below a 5 anyway.