Elton John and Dua Lipa’s “Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)” has become one of the most unexpected multi-platform hits of the year, a savvy track that melds together musical eras, with the two pop hitmakers offering familiar vocals over a dance beat from Australian trio Pnau.
The song was originally released Aug. 13 on Mercury/EMI/Interscope Records, quickly climbing to No. 1 in Hot Dance/Electronic Songs, where it’s now been sitting for six weeks. This week also marks its 11th on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, where this week it climbs to No. 11 — which is not much of surprising feat for Dua Lipa in 2021, but surely an unforeseen victory for John.
Jon Zellner, president of programming operations at iHeartMedia, tells Billboard in an email that he believed the song would find its niche in some radio formats, but didn’t expect to see John in the top 40: “I thought the song had a lot of potential at [adult contemporary], but I was surprised to see its success at [adult pop] and even [mainstream pop].” While Dua Lipa has had a recent string of hits at all three formats, it had been 21 years since John last visited the Hot 100 — with “Someday Out of the Blue,” which peaked at No. 49 in 2000.
Now it seems, the future of music is in the past — at least that proves to be the fundamental lesson of “Cold Heart,” which sees John and Lipa trading off lyrics from earlier Elton John tracks, most notably 1972’s “Rocket Man” and 1989’s “Sacrifice.” (It also interpolates 1976’s “Where’s the Shoorah” & 1983’s “Kiss the Bride”).
“‘Cold Heart” had this great melodic flow,” adds Alex Tear, vice president of pop music & programming at SiriusXM, “topped off with Elton’s proven lyrics, and vocal swag. Then add being paired with a pop now artist that’s thriving and you’ve got a hit. We’re not surprised — it’s a great piece of music, and we’re glad it’s being received so well.”
Zellner says that he began to notice “Cold Heart” gain traction quickly, first with younger demographics and then in pop airplay. He also suspects Elton John’s 2019 biopic, Rocketman, also had a hand in catapulting the mashup track to new and younger audiences: “I think ‘Rocket Man’ is Elton’s most iconic song that spans multiple generations, and the recent movie gave it new life.”
Tear adds, “[Sirius XM’s] younger audience can be unforgiving and quick to judge, they want a great piece of music on first listen. History has proven that the formula used to construct ‘Cold Heart’ comes from a hugely successful past from a legendary artist.”
Stitching together John’s older classics with Lipa’s modern sound was Australian dance-pop trio, Pnau, who reworked John’s celebrated harmonies to create “Cold Heart.” Pnau is Nick Littlemore, Peter Mayes and Sam Littlemore — long time Sir Elton mentees, and veterans of John collaborations thanks to their work on his first remix album, 2012’s Good Morning to the Night.
“Working with Elton and Bernie [Taupin]’s catalog is a once in a lifetime opportunity that we have been lucky enough to tackle twice!” raves Nick Littlemore in an email interview with Billboard.
A long-time music industry titan with one foot in the future, John made the calculated request for Pnau to remix the track: “Elton specifically wanted to gain favor with a hip younger audience, we were given the extraordinary opportunity to make it happen,” explains Nick. “We are still reeling from being asked!’
The pressure of piecing together a musical puzzle like this is a task handed to few — especially when the puzzle pieces are made up of such an iconic discography. It’s a process that begs many questions, but John kept the assignment simple for his proteges. “The only directive [Elton] gave us was this time around, utilize the hits from [what] we were given carte blanche to play around with — anything that we desired,” describes Nick. “[When] Elton says ‘use the hits,’ you’re still talking about 40 to 50 songs.”
John’s knowledge of emerging genres and new artists is comprehensive — and methodical. In an interview with Billboard earlier this October, he noted his approach saying, “I get a list of all CDs that come out Friday morning at ten o’clock, then I ring [someone] up and say, ‘These are the ones I want.'”
Keeping his finger on the pulse of new releases is just one of the many ways that the international superstar keeps tabs on the fast-paced and ever-evolving musical landscape, “I’ve always tried to be relevant,” explained John, “I think a lot of that is due to the fact that I do my own [Apple Music] radio show, [Rocket Hour]. My object when I do that is to play new music by new artists. I’ve come into contact with them, promote them and become friends.”
It is precisely that open-eared nature that takes John’s compositions to places for which they were never intended to be, the result is a symbiosis of sound and time. It’s what led him to include collaborations with a number of modern artists in The Lockdown Sessions — a compilation album of John’s recent duets with artists like Gorillaz, Lil Nas X, Miley Cyrus, & Rina Sawayama, and some new surprising features from artists like Young Thug & Nicki Minaj.
Still, pairing a renowned hitmaker with a recent one is far from a guaranteed recipe for chart success, “We’ve seen other examples of new artists perform with heritage artists over the years — Elton actually performed ‘Stan’ with Eminem at the Grammy’s 20 years ago and it became a hit at the time,” adds Zellner. “But it always comes down to timing and the quality of the song.”
The track continues to thrive on the Pop Airplay chart, where it currently sits at No. 11 in its 13th week. “No doubt ‘Cold Heart’ will continue to grow in the U.S. and take us through the Holidays,” predicts Tear. “In a way we’re still at the beginning — many are still in discovery mode. Our SiriusXM audience has been engaged since the beginning in October. This track will get bigger — [the song has] a mass appeal that connects with so many different types of people.”
John’s presence may still make “Cold Heart” something of a continued outlier on contemporary top 40, but pop radio has seen its fair share of genre blending recently — from trap-flavored country hits like Walker Hayes‘ “Fancy Like” to rock covers of pop oldies like Måneskin‘s reworking of The Four Seasons’ “Beggin.”
“It’s always a good sign when the pop chart encompasses all kinds of music,” says Zellner. “That’s what ‘popular’ music should be… the best of the best.”