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Brandon Loving

Halsey, Lil Nas X, Taylor Swift & More: Who Will Win Song of Summer? Billboard Staffers Debate

As pop’s sunniest season kicks off, Billboard staffers debate the early contenders to crown the annual Summer Songs chart -- the obvious favorites, the dark horse picks, and the wild cards that could still shake up the whole thing. See our discussion below. 

Andrew Unterberger: So in the last month, we've heard from a handful of the biggest pop acts in the world right now, with songs that all sound like they could end up being unavoidable on radio and in pop culture for the summer months to come. But first, I think we have to start with the horse very much in the front of this race: Do we think Lil Nas X's Billy Ray Cyrus-assisted "Old Town Road," currently in the midst of its eighth week at No. 1 and now with a new mini-movie of a video to accompany it, has enough juice to keep reigning through the summer? 

Jason Lipshutz: A few weeks ago I would have said no way, but now with the big-budget video out and the song still going strong atop the Hot 100... I don't know. "Old Town Road" might be able to trot at No. 1 for a foreseeable future, gallop in the top 10 for a few months and race toward the Song of the Summer (triple?) crown. There's a pathway toward a summer of Lil Nas X dominance and equestrian puns, for sure.

But my money's on Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber's "I Don't Care," a song that was blocked by "Old Town Road" at No. 1 upon its Hot 100 debut but appears primed to take over Top 40 radio this season. The last time Sheeran and Bieber linked up, they hit No. 1 in the winter of 2016 with the acoustic break-up anthem "Love Yourself"; "I Don't Care" is much lighter and cuddlier, a buoyant love song that will be played at every pool party this July.

Trevor Anderson: If it’s “Old Town Road” versus the field, I’ll (nervously) take the field. Despite the long-awaited “Old Town Road” music video offering the track a second wind, I suspect it’s too far over the hill to mount an extensive season-long challenge. Yes, the video will pump the streams skyhigh in the short term -- though I’m surprised it didn’t break the 24-hour YouTube record -- but we’re just getting to the starting line of a 14-week race; are we going to be obsessed about the video even halfway through that stretch?

Also, even chart trends suggests “Old Town Road” won’t make it to the winner’s circle here. All of the Song of the Summer winners for the past decade reached No. 1 for the first time by May 25 at the earliest, with most coming in mid-June. With likely even more new singles from Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, and even Lil Nas X himself -- not to mention complete wildcards (Rihanna, anyone?!), it’s tough to think that even the almighty “Old Town Road” can win them all.

Unterberger: I tend to agree that while "Old Town Road" may currently have the best odds of any song just because it's starting from such a position of strength, it's probably won't quite have the momentum to stay No. 1 for the whole summer. Then again, maybe it doesn't need to stay No. 1: We're seeing records for Hot 100 top 10 longevity threatened if not tied or broken on such a regular basis these days that maybe a four-quadrant hit like "Old Town Road" can score a couple weeks at No. 1 at summer's beginning and just kinda coast through the rest of the summer in the top five from there -- especially if nothing else comes along to rule the chart all season. 

Is "I Don't Care" its main competitor? Maybe, but I can't help thinking it would've had a better shot for Song of the Summer in 2016 or 2017. Its upbeat, lightly dancehall-flavored production feels a little out of step with pop radio in the year of Ariana Grande, Post Malone and Billie Eilish, and as much star power and summer vibing as it boasts, I feel like what pop fans really want to rule their summer is something fresh. By those standards, is there any song that's a little newer-sounding that you guys think we should be looking out for?

Anderson: To flip the script on your rationale for denying “I Don’t Care,” my current pick is… a song from 2017! Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” was recently revived thanks to the three-piece combo of a great Coachella set, a viral TikTok meme, and its inclusion on the soundtrack to the Netflix film Someone Great.

Lizzo is a very 2019 pop star. She defies stereotypes of who and what a big, black woman can be in the music industry, tops it off with a swaggy personality ripe for social media engagement, and refuses to play by convention, bouncing across genre lines with a mix of pop, R&B and hip-hop. And the fact that “Truth Hurts” didn’t get much mainstream traction in 2017 actually plays in Lizzo’s favor here: The song’s initial gains in March lined up with the rollout for her major-label debut, Cuz I Love You -- and Atlantic Records, sensing a surprise hit, quickly slapped “Truth” onto the album’s deluxe version. When the label sets its sights on radio, expect the song, which just crept inside the Hot 100’s top 40, to dart up the charts.

Lipshutz: A nifty pop song from 2017 getting an unlikely second look, from an artist with a unique perspective in traditional pop, is an underdog narrative I could see a lot of people getting behind this summer. Even though she's got major label backing, Lizzo's rise has felt organic in a way that listeners are reacting to positively. 

On the completely opposite end of that spectrum is Taylor Swift, whose "ME!" (featuring Brendon Urie) is another big hit thanks in part to her stature as a superstar, although it may not be destined for an extended run atop the Hot 100. If "ME!" isn't the Song of the Summer contender from Swift, she's got to have another bullet or two in the chamber though, right?

Anderson: "ME!" sounds like a surefire pop radio hit, especially given the huge run that Panic!’s “High Hopes” had earlier this year. The troubling outlook, though, comes with its curiously quick decline at streaming. It’s currently out of the top 10 on Streaming Songs in only its third week, and, given the magnitude of its stars, who hasn’t heard this song yet? I think it does take a few listens to grow on you, but I’m not sure it can reverse course on radio alone.

Unterberger: I'm gonna throw two other choices in the ring here: DaBaby's "Suge" and Halsey's "Nightmare." The former is already well on its way to becoming the most viral (non-meme-based) rap hit since "Thotiana," and might be just one more *thing* away -- a remix, a challenge, a co-sign -- from crossing all the way over.

"Nightmare" is both a more obvious and more left-field pick, since it's by one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now, but it features something we haven't heard on a song of the summer in at least a decade, if not far longer: electric guitars, and lots of 'em. That makes it an outside shot in 2019, certainly, but it reminds me a little of Lil Uzi Vert's Song of the Summer undercard contender from two years ago, "XO Tour Llif3" -- there's just an energy and a vitality there that's undeniable. 

Anderson: “Suge” is great, but agree that it’s destined for top-10 peaking territory without some catalyst. Unfortunately, the song also looks set to host the next battle in the ongoing Streaming -- Radio War: It’s currently No. 6 on Streaming Songs and nowhere on Radio Songs?! Where you at, @radioprogrammers?

Lipshutz: So what you're saying with that "one more thing" comment is that "Suge" just needs its own Billy Ray Cyrus. Somebody pass Ricky Van Shelton's number to DaBaby!

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.

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