Bebe Rexha (center) and Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line photographed on Nov. 13, 2018 at Wilburn Street Tavern in Nashville. Hubbard wears a Versus Versace jacket, G-Star pants and Nike Air Jordan Retro shoes. Rexha wears a dress and boots by Elie Madi, Michael NGO coat and Ben-Amun earrings. Kelley wears a Tribe Kelley X Krista Roser custom trench, Amiri pants, Christian Louboutin boots and Stetson hat. 
Bebe Rexha (center) and Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line photographed on Nov. 13, 2018 at Wilburn Street Tavern in Nashville. Hubbard wears a Versus Versace jacket, G-Star pants and Nike Air Jordan Retro shoes. Rexha wears a dress and boots by Elie Madi, Michael NGO coat and Ben-Amun earrings. Kelley wears a Tribe Kelley X Krista Roser custom trench, Amiri pants, Christian Louboutin boots and Stetson hat. 
Eric Ryan Anderson

Go-Karting With Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, 2018's Unlikeliest Hitmaking Team

Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sit at the end of a giant conference room table, happily signing their lives away. The members of Florida Georgia Line are initialing a document provided by Music City Indoor Karting, a Nashville go-kart track, that promises they will not hold the place accountable should they undergo “bodily injury or death” while flinging themselves around 90-degree turns at up to 40 mph (!) in a glorified adult Hot Wheel. Honestly, they seem pretty psyched about it.

“Didn't Jake lose a finger doing this?” says Hubbard in his Georgia drawl, referring to beach-country artist Jake Owen as he reaches for the blue face sock that we're required to layer underneath our helmets for sanitary protection. We'll hit the track as soon as Bebe Rexha arrives, for what could well be my last 30 minutes on this earth before I lose control of my kart and explode into a ball of flames. Kelley assures me it's going to be fine, handing me my own face sock. “It's Kevlar,” he says with a smirk, hanging his halfway out of his back pocket like a wallet chain -- which is, of course, an item he has worn before. Both members of FGL come from the “more is more” school of country accessorizing. Currently, they're both sporting incarnations of denim I never knew existed.

Forty-eight hours from now, Hubbard, Kelley and Rexha will attend the Country Music Association Awards, but today the trio is engaging in a little healthy preshow competition. At the CMAs, they'll perform their collaboration, “Meant to Be,” a song that's up for single of the year and, though it was released in October 2017, has been downright omnipresent ever since. Released first on Rexha's EP All Your Fault: Pt. 2 and then on her album, Expectations, “Meant to Be” reigned at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for 50 weeks (a record) and logged 810 million on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music. And now it's up for a best country duo/group performance Grammy, and Rexha's nominated for best new artist.

Why this song, with this particular, unusual combination of artists -- rising pop star Rexha and modern country mega-duo FGL -- and why now?

More on that later -- Rexha is here. Wearing jeans, a baggy plaid shirt and white platform sneakers with gold straps, she's not the least bit nervous to race, despite the fact that, having grown up in New York, she never got her driver's license. “I'm definitely not going to win, because I can't even drive,” she says. “But I'm so ready.”

She plops down at the table and pulls out her phone. “You guys have to see what happened on the way here,” she says, showing Kelley and Hubbard a video of something she encountered earlier -- one of Nashville's bike-and-drink pedal taverns belting out “Meant to Be.” It’s not a surprising clip: “Meant to Be” is the song someone visiting Music City from Massachusetts would know.

“Did they realize it was you?” asks Hubbard.

“Yeah, they were like, 'Are you Bebe Rexha?' and I was like, 'Um, yeah,'” she says, her New York accent delightfully thick. “But then one guy” -- evidently unconvinced -- “was like, 'You’re Taylor Swift!'”

Rexha laughs. She’s more concerned with finding where she can get some decent hot chicken than whether someone mistook her for another blonde pop star. But though they're essentially working in reverse, with Swift going from country to pop and Rexha pop to country, it's a reasonable parallel. In the Venn diagram of current culture, they both comfortably sit in the intersection.

After a Music City Indoor Karting employee informs us of the rules -- “no aggressive driving, no bumping” -- we head to the track. Kelley takes off his huge cream-colored hat, and Rexha leans against the wall to take a couple of selfies. Somehow Hubbard and Kelley fold their gangly frames into their karts, and Rexha hops in at the rear, per our designated lineups. My ride is in between Hubbard and Kelley, essentially making me the Florida Georgia line (Tyler’s from Monroe, Ga.; Brian, Ormond Beach, Fla.). “You ready?” asks Kelley.

A few seconds later the flag is lifted, and we’re off. Somehow, Kelley and Hubbard dart out at what seems to be 100 mph, leaving everyone else in the dust. Soon Rexha passes me too. No matter how hard I push on the accelerator, I just can't seem to catch up. And for a few minutes, I know how every other mainstream country act must have felt this year trying to compete with “Meant to Be.”

 


 

It's hard to explain the combination of reckless abandon and fearlessness that allows three stars to dart around a go-kart track two days before they're supposed to perform at an awards show, but it's a little less difficult to understand just how “Meant to Be” triumphed for so long.

It's not a novelty, like a country “Gangnam Style,” but a simple kind of tune that any wedding band or person feeling confident at karaoke could tackle. It has lingered atop Hot Country Songs without maintaining the same tenure on the Country Airplay chart, or even coming close to it, thanks in part to a change in methodology in 2012 that now accounts for plays across all genres. If you want to know what country hits non-country folks are spinning, that’s the chart to check out.

And though, 50 weeks later, “Meant to Be” found itself demoted to No. 2 behind Kane Brown's “Lose It,” the song is still very much alive. Thankfully, after that whirl of a race, so am I. Hubbard came in first, with Kelley a close second. Even Rexha, the non-driver, beat me. “I’m glad,” says Hubbard. “I don't like to lose.”

The three artists, who are now friendly enough to occasionally text each other top-secret songs in progress, didn't know one another before “Meant to Be.” Rexha wasn't even aware she would be writing with FGL the day they met in Los Angeles -- she'd had a “shitty” session earlier, and thought the guys had invited her by their studio just for a friendly hello.

“Garcia called me [before I arrived] and said, 'I don’t think Bebe knows we are here to write,'” says Hubbard of co-writer (and Carrie Underwood co-producer) David Garcia, who was there with fellow hitmaker Josh Miller. “I said, 'Well, she's going to learn that we aren't just here to hang out. That's not how we do it in Nashville.'” The trio got to work, following the prescient advice that Hubbard's wife, Hayley, had offered en route to the session: “She just said, 'Relax. If it's meant to be, it will be,'” he recalls. “It fell out of the sky.”

Listening to the song the next morning, Rexha remembers “freaking out,” and texting her family -- though, at least initially, she wasn't a shoo-in to sing the final vocals. Rexha has written for Rihanna and Nick Jonas, among other pop heavyweights, and she had no Nashville aspirations. She wasn't even a full-on country music stan -- “Just Faith and Taylor and Shania.” The daughter of Albanian immigrants, she’s politically outspoken, especially on immigrant rights and gun control -- not exactly on pace with politically cautious Nashville.

Then Rexha thought about one of her idols, who's known for her inventiveness. “I was like, 'What's the one thing Rihanna hasn't done?'” says Rexha. “And she hasn't done a country song. But if she did, it would be fucking dope. I was struggling, because I'm not a country artist, but all my favorite artists have taken chances. So I just said, 'Fuck it. A good song is a good song.'”

Rexha has always been a risk-taker: A songwriter since her teens, she never saw herself as “the cookie-cutter pop girl. Nothing I have ever done has been the norm.” Once half of Pete Wentz’s electro-pop duo Black Cards, Rexha released her debut solo single, “I Can’t Stop Drinking About You,” in 2014. Before “Meant to Be,” it’s likely most down-the-middle country fans had never heard of her. But instead of trying to claim Southern cred or affect a twang, Rexha just sang as herself. “Imagine if I was trying to be country and sing with a country accent,” she says. “That would be so wack.”

Florida Georgia Line, too, has always straddled the writing-performing line. They came to Belmont University in Nashville as songwriters, but made their first big impact with “Cruise,” which, if you asked Alexa to play bro country, is probably what she would queue. It was an unabashed party song, and a precursor to a slew of similar, unapologetically Y-chromosomal hits on Music Row.

So the fact that “Meant to Be” sounds pretty neutral -- stripped of pop's aggressive beats and any obvious Southern signifiers, but retaining Rexha's soulful belt and FGL's laid-back swagger -- and still found a home on country radio is a phenomenon in and of itself. It's also a meeting of the masses: Rexha's fans stream her in hordes (1.8 billion total on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music), and FGL's buy records (4 million copies' worth). The song “became this whirlwind,” says Rexha. “This tornado.”

Along the way, Rexha has received some criticism on social media: In country, a genre where gender parity is skewed, some fans said she was stealing airplay from other women, and worried program directors already under fire for tacitly promoting inequality could say they were filling their so-called female quota by playing “Meant to Be.” “We're losing space for female artists in the genre,” says Dr. Jada Watson, a musicologist at the University of Ottawa who studies country's cultural history and gender representation. “I don't want to take anything away from [Rexha] at all, but it can't be a token moment.”

Rexha fought back, arguing that women in country aren't competing against each other -- there simply aren't enough spots for them, period. “How are we supposed to sit at the table if there is not enough room for us?” said Rexha in September, when she hosted her inaugural Women in Harmony event, a gathering aimed to empower and unite women in the industry, to which she invited Avril Lavigne, Kelsea Ballerini, Charli XCX and other genre-blending artists. She hopes to use the impact of “Meant to Be” to bring her initiative to Nashville. “I was trying to do something like that for [CMA Week],” says Rexha. “But I don't want to half-ass it.”

And while FGL is immensely popular, the duo still isn't embraced by critics or even the CMAs -- which has hardly been a barrier for “Meant to Be,” at least in terms of airplay and streams. Although it's a product of a melding of genres that some find problematic, the track is approachable and unpretentious. “Meant to Be” detractors dislike it because it's not pure “country.” But those who add it to a multigenre playlist like it for that very reason: It's the little black dress of hit songs, appropriate for seemingly any taste or setting.

“Everywhere I go, I hear, 'My kid loves that song,'” says Kelley. “Then the next person, it's 'My grandma loves it.’' That's when you know you have a hit.”

Hubbard even felt the impact of “Meant to Be” in Africa, where he went on a trip to rural Malawi with his wife. “We were in this tiny village, and they talked me into getting up to play,” he says. “I didn't know what else to do, so I did 'Meant to Be,' and people were singing it back to me.”

Things only picked up more steam for Rexha when she released her solo single “I’m a Mess” in June, a triumphant pop confessional. It has received over 201 million on-demand streams.

“You had more ammo in your pocket after [“Meant to Be”] dropped, so you were ready,” says Kelley.

“Always,” replies Rexha.

 


 

It's early evening now at the go-kart track, and Hubbard is starting to get a little restless. The trio is due at CMAs rehearsal soon, and they need to get their performance down.

It will be “something moving, and powerful,” teases Kelley. “The philharmonic symphony might be there, gosh darn it.” He's kidding, but sitting in a room with FGL and Rexha, it's clear that these three do not see the same sorts of boundaries us regular folks do, including but not limited to unconventional genre pairings.

“Fuck,” says Rexha. “That's a really dope idea.”

“Metallica's going to be our band, actually,” Hubbard quips back. (In the end, they bring a dramatic string ensemble.)

As the three pile into black SUVs and prepare to head out into the rainy Nashville night, Rexha glances over at her partners. “They're going to take country music to the galaxy,” she says. Rexha has heard a bit of what's next for FGL -- specifically a new song she calls “Swerve” (“It's so hot”) off the duo’s next LP, Can't Say I Ain't Country, which Hubbard confirms “will be our most country” when it comes out Feb. 15. Post-“Meant to Be,” he and Kelley have continued to write with unexpected artists, like Ed Sheeran, and make unexpected moves: In late November, Hubbard announced his support for Toms founder Blake Mycoskie's End Gun Violence Together campaign, recruiting his country music colleagues to get behind universal background checks. Next up for the band: a December residency in Las Vegas.

Rexha is hard at work on new songs, mulling the songwriting lessons she has learned in Nashville: She's focusing on storytelling, and she says her next release will comprise a set of “strong female anthems.” And though, two nights later, the trio lose single of the year at the CMAs to Chris Stapleton, Rexha walks away with a transformative experience anyway: meeting Trisha Yearwood backstage.

“I walked up to her and was like, 'I love you,'” Rexha tells me after the show, calling from Finland. “Then someone came from behind and said, 'I love her, too. She's beautiful.' I turn around, and it's Garth Brooks! So I said, 'Trisha, can I come over and you make me hot chicken?' And she said, 'Yep, just bring your pj's.' And she meant it.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of Billboard.

Billboard Year in Music 2018