Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Taylor Swift's No. 2 Hot 100 Debut For 'You Need to Calm Down'
For the second time in as many months, Taylor Swift has landed a song at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its first full week of tracking. Following the Brendon Urie-featuring "ME!" reaching the runner-up spot in May, this week, Swift's "You Need to Calm Down" is the biggest song in the country not by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus.
It's an impressive launch for the LGBTQ-themed single, especially given that it lands above a couple new songs from one of the only other artists in the world on Swift's level of popularity. But how will the hit endure? And can anyone take down "Old Town Road" at this point? Billboard staffers disucss these questions and more below.
1. "You Need to Calm Down" makes it two consecutive No. 2s for Taylor Swift. Between it and "ME!," which song do you think will ultimately prove the bigger hit for Taylor?
Trevor Anderson: Well, this circles around that impossible-to-agree-upon-but-let’s-try definition of what a ‘hit’ is. In strictly chart terms, it feels open: “ME!” isn’t pulling ‘Shake It Off’ numbers, so it’s not an uphill battle for “You Need to Calm Down.” In terms of cultural tolerance, however, “ME!” has a big edge. It’s a song you’ll hear in the grocery store, in the mall and in-between innings and halves at sporting events for its universality and general boppiness. But throw cultural importance -- if that plays into your definition - in the mix, and it’s all lined up for “You Need to Calm Down.” It may not be the most out-of-the-box smash, but it can grow into an appreciation that “ME!” doesn’t inherently have.
(One possible pessimistic caveat: How will the song age? An already social media split-chorus on the track makes me wonder if our future cultural tastemakers will look back on this song with disdain and poof! There goes its legacy.)
Tatiana Cirisano: "Calm Down." It's more approachable and familiar -- in fact, I found its airy synth-pop melody and droll punchlines (“like, damn...it’s 7 a.m.”) instantly reminiscent of her 1989 era. Swift also has a habit of releasing the relatively understated, more dynamic single second: “Shake It Off” preceded “Blank Space” on 1989; “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was followed by “Begin Again” on Red. On the same note, while the relatively saccharine “ME!” forces a bright and chantable message that feels perfectly calculated to appeal to everyone, “Calm Down” is both sonically superior (IMO) and a lot more interesting -- and if I’m going to guess, a better example of what fans can expect from Lover.
Stephen Daw: For "Me!" personally, "You Need to Calm Down" is probably going to end up being a bigger hit than "Me!" Fans seem to like the song much better than the first single of this new era, and all of the conversation surrounding the new track, be it positive or negative, is likely just going to end up helping it out. Plus, with the last few events of Pride month taking place this weekend, there is no doubt that her queer fans will absolutely be playing the song on repeat for the next few days.
Jason Lipshutz: “You Need to Calm Down” will have the longer legs in the same way that “Blank Space” ultimately lingered atop the Hot 100 longer than its predecessor, “Shake It Off,” two albums ago for Taylor Swift. Like “Shake It Off,” “ME!” with Brendon Urie is the splashier single and made sense as a general introduction to this pastel-colored new era, and while it’s proved to be a durable top 10 hit, “You Need to Calm Down” has the slicker hook and more memorable lyrical concept. It’s still relatively early days for both, but I’d be surprised if the second single wasn’t bigger than the first in this case.
Andrew Unterberger: I think "You Need to Calm Down" will be better remembered, but "ME!" will be more widely remembered. The latter might not have been a particular critical favorite, but it's also a song that seemingly everyone heard at least once upon its release, and which is so instantly insidious that that might be all it takes to remember it forever. Put it this way: Your seventh grade English teacher might not even know "Calm Down" by its title, but they've probably found themselves humming "Me-e-eeee!" to themselves a couple times without even realizing it.
2. If not for Lil Nas X's once-in-a-generation pop phenomenon, we might be talking about Taylor Swift's second consecutive Hot 100 No. 1 launch. Are we underrating just how big an impact on pop music Swift still has?
Trevor Anderson: One of the big paradoxes of a pop career: once you’ve got a No. 1, you’re measured only by your No. 1s. Look, it’s nowhere near time to call for Last Rites on Taylor Alison Swift’s career -- even when the haters licked their lips a potential Reputation flop, the thing still blew past 1 million in its first week and sports two top five Hot 100 hits. That said, the initial returns suggest the momentary impact is bigger than the long tail, something that’s unusual among Taylor’s past hits. “ME!” would have been a No. 1 if not for “Old Town Road,” sure, but the song didn’t hold onto the No. 2 spot and is already retreating at radio. So, yes, Taylor is still a major player in the music landscape today, but the stranglehold she once had on the pop culture landscape has considerably loosened.
Tatiana Cirisano: It’s hard to deny that Swift is still a pop behemoth. As the chart bows for both “ME!” and “Calm Down” prove, when Taylor speaks, the world listens. She continues to achieve that status while (and maybe, by) being one of the only pop stars who still follow the industry rulebook. Just look at the meticulously-crafted rollout of Lover: the trail of bread crumb hints, the wiped social media accounts, the new singles timed to major events as wide-ranging as Pride Month and the NFL Draft. It’s all working just as she intended. But with today’s new guard of rule-breaking pop artists, it’s worth wondering how long that influence can last. More about that in question 5...
Stephen Daw: I don't think anyone's underrating her, because I don't think you can exist in 2019 without understanding that Taylor Swift is one of the most ubiquitous pop stars on the face of the Earth. No, she's not the "next big thing" in pop music, but she has created such a massive and fierce fan base, and is clearly mastering the art of rebranding, teasing and releasing new music. Maybe Reputation didn't perform the way fans wanted it to, but that certainly didn't mean Taylor was on her way out of her near-universal popularity, and I think both of her new singles are just proof of that fact.
Jason Lipshutz: We sure are! It feels like a stale talking point because it’s existed for so many years, but Taylor Swift remains an enormous music star, one of the biggest and most influential of this century. Her last album, Reputation, was supposed to be a commercial swoon following the apex of 1989; it still moved over 1 million copies in its debut sales week and resulted in packed stadiums across the globe. The fact that she just sent two straight singles to No. 2 shouldn’t be surprising for an artist who, regardless of what you think of her or her music, remains impossibly popular. The back-to-back runner-up bows demonstrate just how year-defining “Old Town Road” is, to topple a queen as mighty as Taylor.
Andrew Unterberger: I think we're underrating just how few artists can dominate a release-day conversation the way Taylor Swift can. She doesn't quite have the same near-unanimous approval rating that she did a half-decade ago, but she's still one of only a handful of figures in pop music that absolutely everyone has to have an opinion about whenever she does anything. Not the same thing as being the unquestioned pop star of the moment, for sure, but there's still a lot of currency in that -- as we're seeing now.
3. Comfortably below Taylor at No. 2, Drake lands two new entries of his own -- "Money in the Grave" at No. 7 and "Omerta" at No. 35. Considering Drake scored three separate No. 1 hits last year -- two of which debuted on top -- are you surprised that he didn't get particularly close with this two-pack?
Trevor Anderson: Nah. I’ll call part of this situation a collective Drake fatigue from his victory in the NBA Finals (he’s essentially on the team now, right?). Without touching a ball, he was still the cultural centerpiece of the basketball world’s biggest series, and posted more screen time there than at any music industry event in 2018. But more to the music: As Billboard great Dan Rys noted, these are essentially Drake loosies, a pair of tracks that commemorate the occasion more than serve as the warmup to Scorpion 2.0. But let’s not lose sight of the facts -- even a random Drake single reaches the top 10 with ease in 2019, so when he calls in the full reserves, get ready for another onslaught.
Tatiana Cirisano: I’m not that surprised. The songs -- Drizzy’s celebration of his beloved Toronto Raptors’ first NBA title -- were released with barely any advance notice or promo, and besides, Drake hasn’t been in the spotlight for a while now. The pack feels a little like a throwaway, though I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I do think the songs have the potential to rise, though, particularly “Money in the Grave.” His whole “where -- should I -- really even start” feels destined to become one of those Drake lines that everyone yells in unison when they hear it come on.
Stephen Daw: "Omerta" and "Money in the Grave" are two very good Drake tracks, but let's make no mistake; they are not "God's Plan," and they are certainly not "Nice for What," truly one of his best songs to date. So while I'm not absolutely shocked that these two didn't strike a louder chord, I'm also not convinced that one won't go on to become a hit single later on. Yes, "Omerta" is underperforming. But "Money in the Grave" is at No. 7, just one place lower than his "In My Feelings" debut last year. That song went on to be a No. 1 smash hit, so there's still a good possibility that Drake's collab with Rick Ross could still find its way to the top.
Jason Lipshutz: Not especially, considering that these two songs were presented as Toronto Raptors victory-lap tracks, neither of which features anything resembling a pop hook, both of which dropped nearly a full day after the chart week’s beginning. If anything, Drake would have had a better shot at a higher debut if he had just released one song to focus on instead of two — but then, that would mean we’d be dinging the artist who just broke a tie with the Beatles for the second-most top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Andrew Unterberger: I'm a little surprised. Yes, neither of these songs sounds like a surefire No. 1, but remember that few thought that "God's Plan" sounded like one either, until it ended up spending 11 weeks on top and entirely recalibrating what we thought of as a pop song in 2018. Not that I expected Drake to default his way to No. 1 considering how bulletproof "Old Town Road" has been in its run at pole position, but given that Drizzy ultimately spent a record-setting 29 weeks at No. 1 last year, I figured any new songs of his would at least present a formidable challenge. Maybe if Canadian streams had counted towards his Hot 100 totals?
4. From its lyrics to its music video to its release during Pride Month, Taylor has obviously geared "You Need to Calm Down" to be a love letter to her LGBTQ fans. Do you think it will endure as a classic gay anthem?
Trevor Anderson: Tough call. I agree with most of the points made in the question, but a key distinction that I think gets lost is that the song isn’t entirely about LGBTQ fans. The second verse certainly is, but the first verse leans more toward anyone who’s had to fight Internet trolls and haters, while the bridge speaks to the media’s love on incessantly comparing women and their accomplishments. That helps the song’s universality, and I expect this song to find lasting resonance with the population, but I’m not sure whether it’ll become the de-facto anthem when other tracks out there speak more directly and wholly to the community.
Tatiana Cirisano: It’s definitely a love letter -- and one that will be significant to many people -- but I don’t think the song has “classic” potential. Even with its rainbow-splashed music video, “Calm Down” plays it pretty safe, and doesn’t have the same clear direction as something like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (which came after Gaga had already nurtured a longstanding relationship with the queer community, but more on that in a sec). We barely knew “Calm Down” was tied to gay rights until the video dropped, save two bare-minumum lines: “why be mad, when you can be GLAAD,” a reference that’s totally indiscernible to the ear, and the brain-bending “shade never made anybody less gay.” (Am I the only one still trying to figure out what that means?)
I don’t doubt that Taylor’s support of gay rights is genuine, but many fans are -- understandably -- taking the song and video as a bit performative, given that until the last year or so, she had rarely used her enormous platform for political advocacy in the past. At the end of the day, “Calm Down” is a positive gesture in this terribly imperfect world, but it could be too little, too late to have a surviving impact among the community it hopes to uplift.
Stephen Daw: Listen, I think that the message of Taylor's song is great, and I think the dialogue she has created thanks to her outspokenness for the Equality Act is so beneficial to the queer community. She's putting her money and her platform to good use, and that deserves to be celebrated. That being said ... no, this song will not go on to become a historically revered LGBTQ anthem. Even at this moment, people in the queer community are split between liking the song and thinking it's a stunt, unlike the near-universal acclaim the community had for a modern anthem like "Born This Way." Plus, in this day and age where there has been a surge in highly visible queer talent, most Pride anthems that will end up standing the test of time are likely going to come from those artists who identify as LGBTQ.
Jason Lipshutz: I expect “You Need to Calm Down” to exist less as an anthem for the gay community, and more as an important step toward LGBTQ visibility within the world of one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. The fact that Swift is standing as a prominent ally, and offering a call to action meant to champion gay rights at the end of the video, must be viewed as a meaningful show of solidarity from an artist who only recently has been more vocal about her political leanings.
Andrew Unterberger: Hardly the first to point this out, but looking over the history of the most revered gay anthems, it's rare that they've felt as purposeful -- not even calculated, but just explicit in their desire to support and uplift -- as "You Need to Calm Down." "Born This Way" would be the most obvious modern exception, but even that felt like a natural extension of musical and topical themes that had existed in Gaga's artistry and history since her debut. Swift's reach is considerable enough that her gesture could be meaningful to plenty of LGBTQ folks who don't even yet have access to a community for support, but for those who do, I'd have to imagine this is the last Pride month where "Calm Down" will feature prominently.
5. Now that global superstars Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Drake have all had multiple cracks at unseating Lil Nas X at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and (to this point) failed, is there anyone else you're still looking to as a looming threat? Or is the only challenge remaining to "Old Town Road" tying the 16-week Hot 100 No. 1 record maintaining its own momentum?
Trevor Anderson: Well, we got Discount Drake this time, so Premium Drake is always a threat. The Halley’s Comet that is Adele is out there somewhere, as she’s really the only artist who can simultaneously stream and sell enough to overrun the market. Rihanna attended at the BET Awards last week – is she gearing up for a non-Fenty Beauty press run – a.k.a. music?!
But as the almighty “Old Town Road” machine starts to slow -- it recently fell from the heavens to return to an eight-digit weekly stream total -- it looks like it might come down to a good-old-fashioned numbers race. “Road” is losing several million clicks a week, and the No. 2 streamer, Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” is still picking up steam. Lil Nas X’s new EP should help juice the track for a bit, but I’m eyeing -- and hoping for? -- a photo finish. A small, but significant variable to consider, too: Will the Lambs and Beliebers jump on the Billie bus if Lil Nas X gets dangerously close to their artists’ vaulted records?
Tatiana Cirisano: If Ed, Taylor, Drake -- and Katy Perry, I’ll add -- can’t topple Lil Nas X, I’m not sure who can. Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes come to mind for their heavily-promoted, Latin-flavored new single “Señorita,” but to land at No. 1? I’d be shocked. That said, I also mention “Señorita” because it reflects the Latin-flavored, R&B-influenced sound that’s increasingly landing on the charts these days. Maybe it’s not that the global superstars have failed, but that listeners just aren’t satisfied by bubblegum-leaning pop music anymore. “Old Town Road” is racing against its own momentum, for sure -- but at this point, maybe the song’s only real competition is something just as out-of-left-field, whether that’s another impossible-to-predict viral smash or hit that’s a genre of its own. (It’s worth mentioning that Billie Eilish almost had it with “Bad Guy,” which peaked at No. 2.)
Stephen Daw: I have given up on attempting to predict what will happen with "Old Town Road." Every time a song comes along that looks like it will finally overtake him on the chart, it falls short and LNX/BRC's reign on top continues. At this point, I wouldn't be all that surprised if he makes it all the way to the 16-week record. But there is one artist who I think could overtake him. If Rihanna were to drop the first single off of her forthcoming ninth album anytime within the next few weeks, I am confident that she could have the star power to topple Lil Nas X's reign. Outside of Ri-Ri, I don't see anyone else successfully challenging "Old Town Road."
Jason Lipshutz: Give us something, Rihanna! She’s recently been teasing new music, popping up at more high-profile events and generally outdoing the winding lead-up to Anti three-plus years ago. If a summer-ready new Rihanna single materializes in the coming weeks, the devotion from the Navy and curiosity from casual fans could finally tame Lil Nas X’s wild horse and burst into the top spot of the Hot 100.
Andrew Unterberger: Adele's probably not walking through that door anytime soon, so among the artists we haven't heard from yet during this run, I'd say it's probably down to Rihanna or Unexpectedly Massive Viral Artist To Be Named Later to launch a proper siege on No. 1. Don't discount "Señorita," though -- it's perfect for 2019 pop radio, it's already climbed to No. 1 on Spotify and its music video has launched a million 'shippers across the Internet. I also wouldn't totally count out Drake either: If the Best in the World twofer is him dipping his toes back into the recording waters, there's no telling when he might return with a proper comeback single, with a video and narrative hook and all the usual bells and whistles. The man does love a challenge, and he doesn't have a whole lot of other worlds left to conquer at this point.