The songs couldn't be much more different: "Iris" was a sweeping, string-laden power ballad while "Blinding Lights" is a neon-hued synth-pop pulse-racer. But like "Iris" before it -- a song that fit into a larger mainstream trend of massive soundtrack ballads, and crossed over from alternative to pop to adult contemporary at a time when less separated the formats than ever before -- "Blinding Lights" has proven to be the right song at the right time for total 2020 radio omnipresence.
"'Blinding Lights' is one of those special, melodic, mass-appeal songs with multi-format and multi-generational appeal," Jon Zellner, president of programming operations at iHeartMedia, tells Billboard of the song, which hit No. 1 on Pop Songs and Adult Pop Songs and No. 2 on Rhythmic Songs, and is now up to No. 6 on Adult Contemporary. Even for an artist like The Weeknd -- no stranger to crossover success with his four career Radio Songs No. 1s -- Zellner says "Lights" was an initial standout: "The Weeknd as an artist certainly is big enough where programmers will give his new music the benefit of the doubt, but this particular song had all the metrics of a hit earlier than most."
That ability to separate itself from the pack was an immediate boon to "Blinding Lights," which was released last November just two days after the booming "Heartless" -- the first taste from The Weeknd's fourth full-length LP After Hours, released in March. Initially, "Heartless" outperformed "Lights" on the Hot 100, bounding to No. 1 on the chart after its first full week of availability, where "Lights" peaked outside the top 10. "I just remember thinking, Holy s--t, he’s got two smashes that are gonna carry us for quite some time,'" Erik Bradley, music director at Chicago's WBBM-FM, recalls of his first impressions of The Weeknd's two-pack.
But while "Heartless" topped out at No. 5 on Radio Songs and slid out of the Hot 100 shortly after, "Lights" just continued to grow and grow on radio -- leading to it hitting the Hot 100's top 10 for the first time in February, and topping the tally for the first of four non-consecutive weeks in early April. “'Blinding Lights' always stood out for being a little more special," Bradley says. "It just had a little more of a retro vibe to it, and it just felt like it was going to be one of the top couple songs for the entire year. And that happened."
That retro vibe of "Blinding Lights" also ended up being somewhat prescient, as radio would shortly be taken over by a number of up-tempo throwback tracks -- Dua Lipa's "Don't Start Now," Doja Cat's "Say So," Lady Gaga's "Stupid Love" -- that helped bring energy back to top 40, after a long period of downtempo and midtempo tracks dominating the format, and allowed "Lights" to continue feeling at home in heavy rotation. And that injection of energy became particularly vital to top 40 once the novel coronavirus hit, and listeners were suddenly stuck at home and more in need of pop escapism than ever.
"I don’t know that during a pandemic, you want to be so sad and 'the world is ending,'" Bradley says, explaining that his station refrained from playing the recent hit J.P. Saxe and Julia Michaels downtempo duet on that very topic. "We try to keep the station uptempo... when people come to [WBBM-FM], you hope that you make them feel good, and not sad and depressed. That’s always been a staple of the top 40 format."
The pandemic also had major impact on the radio success of "Blinding Lights" for another reason: the desire for the familiar during a time of tremendous global uncertainty. "In this last six months-plus, it has certainly been more applicable that comfort and familiarity is really important to people as they’re navigating life," Bradley offers, also pointing out that recent hits by Lipa and Harry Styles (who each have had two singles in the Radio Songs top 10 for the last five weeks) have proved similarly enduring on top 40. And if listener excitement for "Lights" has faded over the four-plus months it's been the most-played song on America's airwaves, Bradley says the research isn't showing it: "It’s never been out of the top two or three [in our testing], every single week. And that's really hard to do."
"Blinding Lights" certainly benefitted heavily from the time and circumstance of its release: "A catchy, pop-driven, uptempo song with a strong hook by a relevant superstar artist released at a time when not much new music was coming out and most of America was trapped at home -- all the planets certainly were aligned!" Zellner summarizes. But as with "Iris" two decades ago, Zellner still believes the primary reason for its radio endurance comes down to the strength of the song. "There are a variety of reasons why some songs perform well as currents -- timing, the success of the artist, the quality of other currents, how the song is embraced and introduced on the radio. But songs that stand the test of time always end up being about the quality of the song itself, above everything else."
"Classics come in all shapes and sizes and formats -- and this is what that is," Bradley concurs. "It feels really good that we have it, because we need these songs that have that legacy. It just feels like a song that’s going to be on the radio for the next 30, 40, 50 years."