What do the recent successes mean for both artists? And which song will still be hanging around a couple months from now? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.
1. "Positions" makes for Ariana Grande's third No. 1 debut in 2020 alone -- and her fifth overall, most of any artist. Is she pop's most reliable performer on the Hot 100 right now?
Lyndsey Havens: Well she's surely pop's most constant performer right now. She's released three full-length albums in just over two years, and despite the criticism that Positions feels thrown together, it still debuted atop the Billboard 200 and produced a No. 1 hit, so... in short, Ari is absolutely pop's most reliable performer simply because of her speedy output.
Jason Lipshutz: If you count Travis Scott as a pop star, I’d say it’s a toss-up between the two -- but regardless of the semantics, Ariana Grande has become a dominant force on both streaming platforms and top 40 radio stations. Even before she began amassing a collection of Hot 100 No. 1s, Grande was already a steady presence in the chart’s top 10; the Thank U, Next era has leveled her up as a chart-topper, though, and “Positions” has impressively continued the winning streak.
Joe Lynch: If we’re talking pop’s most reliable performer, I don’t know how you could say otherwise. It’s no secret that a number of A-list pop singers have struggled to find a place on radio in the last five or so years, yet the ease with which Ariana Grande drops a song (without a big promotional campaign) and sees it top the Hot 100 makes her one of the few exceptions to the rule.
Andrew Unterberger: Well, with Post Malone essentially taking the year off and Drake finally pulling up short with his latest, it's down to her and Travis Scott for artists who more or less seem guaranteed a No. 1 with each new release. "Positions" doesn't even seem to be one of Ari's best-loved or quickest-performing lead singles, but it still sailed to the top spot with ease. Most won't remember 2020 as a year dominated by Ariana Grande, but she's been on three singles to hit the Hot 100 this season, and all three entered immediately at No. 1. If that's not reliability, I don't know what is.
Christine Werthman: Yes. Ariana Grande could release a recording of herself gargling mouthwash while singing the alphabet and it would chart. But what's cool about — and boosts the staying power of — Grande is that everything she puts out has well-thought-out lyrics and glossy production. I have no idea if she actually records in her bedroom ever, but she doesn't make lo-fi bedroom pop, not even during a pandemic. That intentionality and consistency serve her and her fans well.
2. Though Ariana Grande has scored six No. 1 hits on the Pop Songs chart in her career, neither of her previous Hot 100-topping hits this year ("Rain on Me" with Lady Gaga or "Stuck With U" with Justin Bieber) climbed higher than No. 10 on the chart. Will "Positions" bring Ariana back to pop radio's heaviest rotation, or is she just at a different stage of her career at this point?
Lyndsey Havens: If you look at the Pop Songs chart right now, I actually think it's less about the stage that Ariana is at in her career and more about the blurry genre lines of "pop" music. It's an old idea, but the chart is proving its lasting importance as an alternative hip-hop song ("Mood") sits at No. 1 with a country-pop song ("I Hope") at No. 5. That all being said, I do think the R&B-pop fusion of "Positions" could bring Ariana back into pop radio's heaviest rotation; it's more uptempo than "Stuck With U" and less aggressively pop than "Rain on Me," and for that, it may just hit that sweet spot.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s only been a year and change since “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings” and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” were ubiquitous at pop radio, so proclaiming any slippage from Grande at this point feels premature. Let’s see how “Positions” and “34+35” do over the next few months -- the former is still streaming extremely well and has a chorus tailor-made for top 40, so I’d expect a prolonged run.
Joe Lynch: I think this will return her to the Pop Songs top 10: both of those aforementioned songs were collaborations that found her leaning toward the sonic stylings of her duet partner, neither of which are entirely in line with what radio is favoring these days. “Positions” is unmistakably Ari: a laid-back R&B jam that melds ‘classy’ pop production and a gently grinding groove. This is the kind of song programmers can play over and over without risking listener fatigue, and that helps its shelf life.
Andrew Unterberger: I think "Positions" will go top 10 on pop radio, but probably not top five -- it seems like the perfect song for top 40 to give its fair due, but never quite fully embrace. And to be fair, pop radio is giving that full embrace to fewer and fewer songs to begin with these days: Even by the time "Positions" starts to peak, it may have to contend with slots still being reserved for now-ancient-feeling chestnuts like "Blinding Lights" and "Watermelon Sugar," let alone (relatively) newer sensations like "Mood" and "I Hope." But the upshot of that is: If radio does fully throw its arms around "Positions," it might remain omnipresent through the holidays and well into the new year.
Christine Werthman: "Positions" will bring her back up, not only because it's a stronger song than the other two, but also because it matches the mood better. "Rain on Me" could've been a club hit, if clubbing were a thing this year, and the sappy celebration of being trapped with your significant other that is "Stuck With U" seemed ill-timed, considering the spike in divorces that pandemic quarantining has caused — allegedly!
3. Luke Combs' "Forever After All" marks not only his highest-peaking hit to date on the Hot 100, but the highest debut for any country song ever by a male solo artist. What do you think is the biggest reason behind the song's unprecedented early success?
Lyndsey Havens: It's a pop-leaning country song with lyrics that are incredibly relatable right now. Though Combs wrote it a few years ago (it was the first song he ever wrote in his and his wife's home), the majority of people right now are thinking about those forever connections in their lives -- the people who will be by their side, loving and supporting them, always. Plus, we also can't ignore the strategy behind the hit: Combs teased "Forever After All" on TikTok in late August at a time when country music's capitalization on the app is reaching an all-time high.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s taken a few years for the mainstream to fully grasp how popular Luke Combs has become, but at this point, his singles are guaranteed to hit the top 40 of the Hot 100, and are likely to flirt with the top 10. “Forever After All” is a solid new entry in his singles discography, but the No. 2 debut can be chalked up more to Combs’ overall momentum than to anything unusual or striking about the song itself.
Joe Lynch: The pandemic goosed country listeners’ gradual adoption of streaming, and we’re starting to see it pay off for artists on the Hot 100. Yes, country songs about an undying love to a woman delivered with minimal pretense tend to cross over easily, certainly more than anything that smacks of bro country, a gauche genre as far as fair-weather fans are concerned. But I think Combs’ accessibility and earnestness help to position him as the kind of singer people of wildly different demos can root for. Give him the right song and subject matter, he’ll deliver a hit.
Andrew Unterberger: As with seemingly 85% of chart-related "Why is..." questions this year, the answer is TikTok. Combs' team no doubt noticed the major debut that Morgan Wallen had earlier this year with a song whose early-teased snippet got popular on the video sharing service ahead of its official release, and they decided to cut out the middleman by teasing the song directly on TikTok. Plus, Combs has reposted or appeared in a number of sentimental TikTok videos with "Forever After All" as the soundtrack -- all increasing the public appetite for the song ahead of its release and priming it for a gigantic streaming and sales debut. Luke Combs knows how to write and perform a hit in 2020, but just as importantly, he knows how to play the game.
Christine Werthman: I know I just said you shouldn't release a cutesy song about being in a relationship right now and expect success, but this Combs song is a forceful, forever-yours kind of classic, an "I got you, brother" bearhug that feels reassuring at a time when anxieties are high (because of the pandemic, the election, the holidays — pick your poison). Combs is an artist whose appeal stretches beyond country, kind of like Chris Stapleton, whose Traveller spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2015. It's no surprise that What You See Is What You Get (with help from its recent deluxe reissue) is the first country album since then to match that achievement.
4. We talked last week about country's surge in 2020 popularity on the Hot 100 -- what, if anything, does it tell you about where the genre is right now that Luke Combs appears to be the artist at the forefront of its crossover charge?
Lyndsey Havens: In my opinion, country music is exploring every lane right now — from the electrified rock riff in "I Hope" to the R&B leaning "Be Like That" and many other examples -- in a way that's not too dissimilar to what's happening in hip-hop. You can surely point to "Old Town Road" as the straw that broke this camel's back, but now, after some time and as a result of the ongoing democratization of genre -- which pop and hip-hop have already reaped the benefits of -- the full impact may finally be hitting country music.
Jason Lipshutz: Country music is slowly unlocking new fans at streaming, and as a result, songs that were performing well at radio and in digital sales are also being strengthened on platforms that has proven more difficult for the genre to crack. Because of this, a song like “Forever After All” is able to streak to a No. 2 debut on the Hot 100, while Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” can move from a country radio smash that would have hung around the top 40 of the Hot 100 to a top 10 hit that makes her a star.
Joe Lynch: Luke Combs boasts an impassioned, hoke-free musical authenticity that helps him appeal to ears that would never come within a country mile of country radio, and yet there’s enough accessible melodicism -- not the mention extremely familiar lyrical matter on a song like “Forever After All” -- that helps Combs cross over while satisfying dyed-in-the-flannel fans. I think that’s the kind of country artist we’ll see more and more of on the Hot 100 moving forward.
Andrew Unterberger: It seems to me that mainstream country kinda found its best-of-both-worlds artist in Luke Combs, who suggests the sort of throwback ruggedness of a Chris Stapleton, but with 2020 radio-ready singles that can easily compete with the likes of Dan + Shay and Thomas Rhett. You might expect the streaming king of modern country to be a little more hip hop-influenced (like Sam Hunt) or pop-accessible (like Maren Morris), but Luke Combs puts up the best numbers just by being the perfect 2020 country star, able to rule both live and on the airwaves, while also taking advantage of the genre's ever-growing presence on more modern platforms like Apple Music and TikTok.
Christine Werthman: Combs isn't crossing over with a brand-new sound. He is way more classic, rock-leaning country than some of his crossover peers like Maren Morris, Gabby Barrett and Morgan Wallen. If it says anything, it's that those country fans who were late to the party on streaming are down to embrace poppier country, but will always come back to music that sits closer to the genre's roots.
5. Which song do you think will be higher on the Hot 100 at the end of the year, "Positions" or "Forever After All"?
Lyndsey Havens: *closes eyes and winces* "Forever After All."
Jason Lipshutz: “Positions” has really grown on me, and I hesitate to discount Grande’s staying power as a pop superstar. I’d expect a nice run into 2021.
Joe Lynch: This is a tough question. I expect “Forever After All” to have long legs, but I don’t think “Positions” is going to slink away soon either. That being said, Ariana will undoubtedly move on to promoting another single quicker than Luke; country singers tend to let hits that resonate with fans marinate longer. So if it’s a “Positions” vs. “Forever After All” contest, I might expect “Forever” to stick around longer.
Andrew Unterberger: I think in ten weeks it'll be "Positions," but in 20 weeks -- as country radio finally catches up to Luke's latest -- it'll be "Forever After All."
Christine Werthman: "Forever After All." Pop fans are fickle, and I'm going to be hearing "Forever After All" at weddings until, as Combs would say, "The good Lord calls [me] home."