Five Burning Questions: Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, Khalid & the New Generation Leading the Billboard Hot 100

Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe via Getty Images
 Lil Nas X performs his hit single "Old Town Road" during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final Party at Boston's City Hall Plaza in Boston on May 27, 2019.

As the turn of the decade approaches, it appears the future of pop music is in capable hands. This week, the top of the Billboard Hot 100 is dominated by young folks -- Lil Nas X ("Old Town Road," No. 1), Billie Eilish ("Bad Guy," No. 2) and Khalid ("Talk," No. 3) --- marking the first time since Post Malone, Camila Cabello and Lil Pump reigned in Dec. 2017 that the chart's top three is all led by artists who are 21 and under. 

Is it a one-week thing, or are the kids really taking over? Who might be next to join them, and who might shepherd them along the way? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more about this week's Hot 100 below. 

1. For the first time since Dec. 2017, all three of the top three songs on the Hot 100 are by lead artists 21 or younger. Is this a fluke, or do you think 2019 has been legitimately representative of a youth movement in pop music? 

Trevor Anderson: No doubt that we’re in the middle of a musical baton-passing to a new class of hitmakers, and the key thing to me, is that they’ve all come to prominence on their own terms. Lil Nas X hit the jackpot, obviously, through a good-luck-replicating-this combination of a clever ass song, TikTok memes and a headline-grabbing genre controversy to record-breaking success. Billie Eilish -- at 17! -- has navigated that special space where she’s the most refreshing pop star but not a pop product.  Khalid, meanwhile, is by far the most conventional of the trio, but he spent the years between his two solo albums on a litter of collaborations, none of which seems to have worn him out with the public. I’ll slightly raise the age bar to 25 to get Ariana Grande in the mix, but I think the old guard of the pop world has their work cut out for their comebacks.

Stephen Daw: In the words of Kevin Malone (see, Billie, I like The Office too): "A fluke is one of the most common fish in the sea, so if you go fishing for a fluke, chances are, you just might catch one." It is crystal clear to me that young artists are having a real moment in pop music. In years past, young stars like Justin Bieber, Aaron Carter and Miley Cyrus became famous as members of the "child/teen pop star" trope -- cute kids singing cute pop songs about cute things. While none of these artists would qualify as "kids" (though Ms. Eilish is certainly a teen), they are also breaking the mold of what a young star looks like, making genuinely interesting music that can easily compete with megastars like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. In 2019, the kids are more than alright. 

Bianca Gracie: No, I don't think this reoccurring trend is happening by chance at all. The Hot 100 is a reflection of what's currently popular in music and -- truth be told -- the kids are now the ones who are creating the most innovative tunes (in my opinion, at least). Not to take away from the veterans of the game, but it does say something when the the lower you reach on the charts, the higher the average age rises. It's an exciting time seeing younger artists unleash more experimental music, which in turn challenges the OGs to either keep up or try to switch up their formula.

Ross Scarano: Hip-hop is the most powerful youth movement I know of, and unless something has replaced it as the most consumed genre of music, I think we’re still living under its auspices. I know what this question is getting at, but still sort of object to its framing, since most pop music chases youth: its signifiers, its capricious interests, its intense vision of the world.

Xander Zellner: Music has always been defined by what’s new and young and hip, so it’s no fluke that young artists are flourishing on the charts, but it’s certainly rare for this many 21-and-under artists to be dominating at the same time. In 2016, we determined the average age of a lead solo artist at No. 1 on the Hot 100 to be 28.5 (that average may have fluctuated slightly since then). Looking at this week’s chart, every lead solo artist in the top 10 of the Hot 100 right now is younger than that -- if we’re talking every artist present, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kevin Jonas and Joe Jonas are the only ones older than 28.5. So, yes, there certainly seems to be a youth movement happening in pop music in 2019.

2. While "Old Town Road" has already fended off its fair share of challengers at No. 1, most have come via big first-week launches from established names, rather than songs like "Bad Guy" and "Talk," which have built momentum slowly over the course of months. What would you say the chances are that one of those two songs ultimately becomes the one to unseat "Old Town Road" at No. 1?

Trevor Anderson: If we’re playing “Guess Who” Hot 100 Edition, the only artists still standing who have an outright shot at outperforming “Old Town Road” in a week to debut at No. 1 are Rihanna, Adele and Drake. With question marks all around those artists, “Bad Guy” has risen to become the most pressing challenger. It’s only at No. 22 on the Radio Songs chart and is gaining by leaps and bounds each week, so its radio peak should come as “Old Town Road” begins to decline. “Guy” also sits at No. 1 on the Spotify U.S. Top 50, and notably, is really the first song to overtake “Road” that isn’t a brand new release. That said, “Guy” still claims only one-third of the Hot 100 points that “Old Town Road” has -- so it's possible that "Road” may block “Guy” for a long while, and then just as the race tightens between the two, some other blockbuster may come out and takes No. 1 for itself.

Stephen Daw: With the summer officially in full swing, I would be pretty surprised if either of these two songs managed to topple Lil Nas X's reign atop the Hot 100. Don't get me wrong -- I love both "Bad Guy" and "Talk" dearly, but particularly with new music coming down the pipe from Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Halsey and so many more, I can't see either of these late-bloomers rising the ranks to overtake "Old Town Road."

Bianca Gracie: At the rate that "Old Town Road" is going (it's now in its ninth week atop the Hot 100), the chances for a slow-building tune to dethrone it are quite unlikely -- especially now that Lil Nas X is planning to drop his new 7 EP sometime in the coming weeks, which will probably give "Old Town Road" yet another boost once the project's streaming numbers kick in. It's pretty wild that massive pop names like Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift failed to knock the rapper off his horse, so I can't even think of what it'll take for someone else to finally have the chance to snag the top slot anytime soon. That is, unless one Robyn Fenty decides to drop a musical bomb out of nowhere...

Ross Scarano: Maybe, but even if either overtakes Lil Nas X, it’s a battle of attrition situation that’s more contingent on timing than anything else. What I’m getting it is that it won’t have the same rush or definitive sense of victory, if you can use such a word, compared to a brand new song overtaking “Old Town Road.”  

Xander Zellner: Pains me to say, but highly unlikely. Both songs are excellent in their own right, and career-altering, but I don’t see either having a chance. Lil Nas X's streaming lead is so monumental that by the time its streams level out, “Bad Guy” and “Talk” will likely have fallen well below the top 10. The most likely scenario is that streams for “Old Town Road” will steadily drop (as is the case for every song), and as it begins to level out, another big-name artist will drop a new Song of the Summer contender and debut at No. 1 (Rihanna, where are you?!).

3. Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish and Khalid make for a pretty coherent top three when it comes to trying to encapsulate this moment in popular music. Which other two artists would you choose to round out a Definitively 2019 top five?

Trevor Anderson: I gotta bring Lizzo to the field. She’s such a welcome break from a lot of the stereotypical norms that many might project onto her in the industry, and her roles as both a comedic therapist and a total champion for everyone to live their best lives feel very of the moment in pop culture. For my second pick, I’m gonna pick more of a dark-horse choice and say A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, who's showed a sneaky consistency this year. His album Hoodie SZN achieved the rare feat of actually climbing into the No. 1 spot of the Billboard 200 in January (rather than debuting there), and it’s remained in the top 20 every week since. Musically, he checks off most boxes of what’s making poppy hip-hop (pop-hop?) make ever-increasing inroads into top 40 territory: His raps aren’t the aggressive-threatening type, he can carry a tune, and he floats between moody, downtempo reflections and hype anthems with equal skill. 

Stephen Daw: Lizzo definitely earns one of those remaining slots -- she's been around since 2013, but with her first Hot 100 single and her debut album, 2019 is clearly her year. I'd also have to put BTS in the mix here, since 2019 has seen them make a clear breakthrough into the mainstream that was previously thought to be improbable, if not impossible. 

Bianca Gracie: It would be sacrilegious at this point to not include Ariana Grande in this conversation! Before Lil Nas X came galloping through, it was her "7 Rings" single that wouldn't let up on the Hot 100's No. 1 spot. And her thank u, next album is one of the strongest releases not only of this year, but of her career. Along with Grande making her mark in 2019, I also think Halsey has proven that she's an artist who's here to stay. Her "Without Me" single is still going hard and her latest "Nightmare" shows her growing versatility. But the ladies across all genres have been kicking ass this year so far, and it's great to witness!

Ross Scarano: Rosalia, whose new song “Aute Cuture” is one of the strongest singles of the year, and maybe let's round it out with Tyler the Creator, who along with artists like Solange and Standing on the Corner, are at the center of their own musical universe -- one that has brought me a lot of joy recently.

Xander Zellner: Ariana Grande, Halsey and Post Malone would make it a top six, but they each have to be a part of the conversation. Of the 23 weeks of 2019, there’s only been two where Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande, Halsey or Post Malone didn’t have the No. 1 song in the country (hello, Jonas Brothers and Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper).

4. What 21-and-under artist not currently threatening for the Hot 100's top spot do you think might have a chance of doing so in the not-too-distant future?

Trevor Anderson: He was threatening a few weeks ago, but that momentum’s slightly cooled for the moment: Shawn Mendes. The fact that “If I Can’t Have You” started at No. 2 on the Hot 100 -- his career best rank -- is a welcome indicator for the future. Mendes had never had a song open above No. 24 on the Hot 100, and all three of his top 10s, “Stitches,” “Treat You Better,” and “There’s Nothing Holdin' Me Back” all needed wide radio support to reach the chart’s upper tier, something that “You” had little of in its very first week. Shawn’s latest single has retreated safely into the lower stretches of the top 20, but given that he can post a No. 2 debut driven mainly on sales and streams, he should soon find that magic track that will keep streamers’ interest long enough to give radio programmers time to push the track into overdrive, and as a result, net that elusive Hot 100 No. 1.

Stephen Daw: There are so many young, already super-popular artists who could so easily take this spot; Noah Cyrus, Lil Pump and Juice WRLD are just a couple of names that come to mind at the moment, and Shawn Mendes -- still just 20, incredibly -- has obviously nearly accomplished this goal with "If I Can't Have You" debuting at No. 2 on the Hot 100 (but still getting blocked by Lil Nas X). But I've got my eye on a more left-field pick in Carlie Hanson. At 19, her recent string of singles, like "Back in My Arms" and "WYD," prove that she is an up-and-coming force in pop music. With her Junk album -- her full-length debut -- arriving on Friday (June 7), I wouldn't be surprised if, sometime within the next few months, she begins to slowly ascend the charts, eventually claiming a top-tier position.

Bianca Gracie: It's been a while since we've had a traditional hip-hop track sit on the Hot 100's throne, so I'd love to see a rapper finesse his or her way back into that spot. And I think Polo G and Lil Tjay -- who are 20 and 18, respectively -- will be the ones to do it. The pair established themselves as ones to watch in the game with their incredibly catchy single "Pop Out," which is slowing climbing the chart and now sits at No. 27. Both rappers are signed to Columbia's urban division, which has a pretty tight lock on the streaming scene. So as the song grows larger on streaming platforms, it's only a matter of time that it completely takes over.

Ross Scarano: Polo G, from Chicago. "Pop Out" is one of the year’s longest-burning new rap singles, and a number of industry folks I’ve spoken to have their eye on the 20-year-old.

Xander Zellner: It’s got to be Shawn Mendes, right? He nearly got there four weeks ago when “If I Can’t Have You” debuted at No. 2 (and became the highest-charting song of his career), but he was blocked by “Old Town Road.” I don’t think that’s necessarily the single that will get him to his first No. 1, but once all the OTR hoopla has subsided, Shawn is certainly due for a Hot 100-topper. 

5. Of course, even with all these young'ns populating the top three, there remains an old in their midst: 57-year-old Billy Ray Cyrus, star guest on the "Old Town Road" remix. Do either Billie or Khalid a favor by choosing any artist that's at least twice their age -- i.e. 42 or older -- to hop on a remix to their hit and help get them over the hump.

Trevor Anderson: Can I cheat, a bit? Thanks. I’m going to round slightly down and call 40-year-old Usher Raymond IV to the stand for a “Talk” remix. The song is perfect for Usher -- its lyrics center on a strained, confused relationship and the vocal skill required grants him full use of his trademark wails and falsetto. But the irresistibly bounce and synth beat, courtesy of Disclosure, would open a new lane for Usher, whose stylings have stayed closer to traditional R&B in the 90s and a double-down on trap sounds with Hard II Love and A. If Usher needs that comeback hit, why not take a swing with a new sound and one of the freshest faces in R&B for a record that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in his quarter-century career?

Stephen Daw: "Bad Guy" has the beat and the vibe to support a well-crafted rap verse. If we're looking for an artist who will compliment Billie's effortlessly confident attitude, along with providing that final wow factor to boost the song over the top, then we ought to look no further than Missy Elliott. She's got the clout and name recognition necessary to give the song brand new life, she's got the skills necessary to make a truly insane guest verse, and she oozes that same sense of swagger and cockiness that Billie so expertly displays throughout the track. I mean, just imagine Missy spitting a rapid-fire set of bars, only to accentuate it with that iconic "duh." It would be *chef's kiss*.

Bianca Gracie: I think Billie's "Bad Guy" is great enough on its own and wouldn't fare well with a remix. Adding an older artist to the track would take away from its uniqueness. But if I must choose one for her among her recent hits, I'll go with Trent Reznor hopping on "Bury A Friend." The Nine Inch Nails frontman would match well with Billie's intensity and the tune's industrial-heavy, skin-crawling production. As for Khalid? He does really well with female collaborators ("Love Lies" with Normani still remains one of his best tracks), so it would be cool to see someone like Mariah Carey hop on Free Spirit cut "My Bad." The song's mellow tone and themes of complicated relationships pairs well with the icon's penchant for smooth, sultry grooves.

Ross Scarano: I don’t think this would help it get over the hump, but let Björk hop on “Bad Guy.” Her voice is perfect for it.

Xander Zellner: A Billie/Björk collaboration would be very interesting. Their music has some similarities -- they both straddle multiple different genres (it’s kinda electronic, kinda experimental pop, kinda alternative) -- but they’re also so uniquely themselves in their music. If someone put them in a studio together, they would walk out with magic, and possibly the first Hot 100 No. 1 for the both of them.