In a time when genres are lines are becoming more blurred than ever, it’s not a shock to see a country singer to team up with a pop artist. But with a combo of country and pop landing two of the year’s biggest hits — Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be,” and Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey’s “The Middle” — 2018 may have drawn the roadmap for a reliable new path to crossover success.
“Meant to Be” and “The Middle” were about as ubiquitous as hits come, which you can see in the chart stats: The former held the top spot of Hot Country Songs for a record-smashing 50 weeks, and the latter spent 33 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. What’s more, both peaked in the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, with “The Middle” reaching No. 5 and “Meant to Be” going all the way to No. 2. (They also both landed in the top 10 of the year-end Hot 100, with “The Middle” at No. 8 and “Meant to Be” at No. 3.)
Though both essentially happened by chance — Rexha didn’t know she was writing with FGL the day they wrote “Meant to Be,” and Zedd same with Morris before she was suggested — their musical marriages clearly resonated with country and pop fans alike. It makes some sense, as country artists like Dan + Shay and Kelsea Ballerini have incorporated more pop-leaning production in recent years, but also because of today’s streaming-based music climate that gives artists freedom, and in turn, fosters organic team-ups.
“When there is a natural tie musically or topically or an artist-to-artist connection, that creates a creative win, but also a commercial win,” John Zarling, EVP of marketing & new business for Sony Music Nashville (Morris’ label home), says. “If you set out to do these things just for commercial reasons, that’s where it can get questionable, especially in country, as far as the audience goes. But as long as it’s creatively a match as well, the fans see it as real, true authentic music that is — pardon the pun — just ‘meant to be.’”
For Kelsea Ballerini and The Chainsmokers — the latest pair of country-pop collaborators, with their crossover hit “This Feeling” currently climbing the Hot 100 at No. 71 (chart dated Dec. 22) — a creative match is exactly how the song happened. The country star has had a team-up with The Chainsmokers on her wish list for years, and since meeting at the Grammys in 2017 — when they were both up for best new artist — they realized just how compatible they were upon getting in the studio together. “They’re songwriters, which I relate to so much,” Ballerini has said.
While the circumstances weren’t quite the same for Morris — who had no part in the writing of “The Middle” — hearing the song that would eventually become her biggest Hot 100 hit instantly had an impact on her. A similar situation occurred when Niall Horan approached her for his Flicker track “Seeing Blind” last year. “Good music is good music,” Morris explained of both collabs to Billboard at the CMA Awards in November. “I was just really reacting to the songs they sent me.”
That kind of mentality has been the key to success for “The Middle” and “Meant to Be.” Tom Poleman, president of national programming for iHeartRadio, suggests that consumers probably aren’t thinking about genre boundaries the way those in the industry might: “People are a little more open than we traditionally give them credit for,” he says. Moreover, he points out that these songs are leading a major breakthrough of heavily pop-leaning tunes in the current hip-hop dominated era.
“We’re at a point in Top 40 where we’re kind of coming out of that extreme phase where hip-hop songs were really thriving,” Poleman says. “The nature of pop is for different sounds to emerge all the time, so if it’s melodic, but it’s different at the same time, that’s the sweet spot of a hit.”
Whether a collaboration or solo crossover, one of the most advantageous outcomes of a country-pop record is the audience reach, mostly thanks to pop’s widespread appeal. That reach was also exhibited in the touring sphere this year, with Morris joining Horan on his Flicker World Tour, Cam opening for Sam Smith (with whom she co-wrote Thrill of It All track “Palace”), and Kacey Musgraves spending the summer on the road with Harry Styles.
Zarling also points out pop’s global reach in the streaming world, which country “still has a long way to grow to match.” At the same time, he stresses that pop’s exposure to country’s loyal and growing fan base is invaluable. And though “Meant to Be” was the only crossover collab to become a smash hit on both pop and country charts this year, with country’s position as the No. 1 radio format (according to Nielsen’s annual “Audio Today” report, released in April), it’s likely more pop artists will find their way into Nashville. “You see the country artists benefitting [with streaming], just like the pop artists are reaching a new audience with the radio outreach that country provides,” he adds. “You’re seeing more [country-pop collaborations] happening because there’s a mutual benefit.”
In fact, the next wave of these team-ups is seemingly already in the works. Marshmello recently played a track for Poleman that was a collab with a country artist (“I think it’s going to be one of the massive songs next year,” he asserts), and Diplo told Billboard last month at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that he has been working with the likes of Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown and Sam Hunt. As long as the melodic production presented in this year’s batch of crossover hits continues to be nuanced, 2018 could just be the beginning of the country-pop infusions to come.
“It’s great songs that win in pop, and that’s the foundation of all of this,” Poleman says. “Two sounds that you don’t think are going to go together blow your mind when they come in incredibly pleasing ways. It can sound natural on a pop radio station if you’re not doing things in the production that sound overtly country. People are highly aware of [the opportunity for country artists on pop radio] and are taking advantage of that opportunity. They’re seeing people have success with it, and often that’s all you need — somebody to break down the door and show it can be done.”