Among the usual array of hitmakers currently populating the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, you might have noticed a rather unexpected name making a debut this week: Aaron Lewis, frontman for ’00s hard rockers Staind, whose solo single “Am I the Only One?” bows at No. 14.
It’s a conspicuously high entrance for an artist who hasn’t seen the chart since 2011, and whose mainstream presence has been relatively limited in the decade since. But the right-wing-leaning ballad struck an apparent nerve with its intended audience, and helped by support from conservative platforms like Fox & Friends and SiriusXM’s Patriot Radio station (and the good timing of releasing the song just before 4th of July weekend), the song posted blockbuster first-week sales of 59,300 — one of the year’s best first-week tallies, at least for an artist not named BTS.
What does the song’s improbably robust debut mean? And how will the song endure from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. So yes, that’s Staind frontman Aaron Lewis — who hasn’t hit the Hot 100 with or without his best-selling rock outfit since 2011 — debuting at No. 14 on the chart this week, as well as No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. On a scale from 1-10, how surprised are you by this debut for “Am I the Only One”?
Katie Atkinson: 10. I feel generally aware of the songs that hit No. 1 on our genre charts or rocket into the top 20 of the Hot 100, but this one came out of left field for me. Am I the only one who hasn’t thought about Aaron Lewis since TRL was still on?
Gil Kaufman: I know zero isn’t a number on this scale, but can I say zero? In terms of relevance I’d say I’m an 8, since Lewis’ solo career has been at a slow, steady boil for years without really exploding and the song is moderately catchy without being particularly memorable. But in terms of content — given the rending red/blue divisiveness in our country at the moment — I’d say not at all surprised, since the lyrics feel like MAGA Mad Libs.
Jason Lipshutz: A 9! Yes, “Am I The Only One” is undeniably memorable, with its old-man-yells-at-cloud politics, Springsteen-baiting bridge and strings-laden melodrama designed to provoke a conservative base into multiple streams. Still, this is not just a notable country chart debut — this is Staind leader Aaron Lewis bowing in the top 20 of the Hot 100, nearly a decade into a country-leaning solo career that had yet to produce one unaccompanied solo Hot 100 hit. Nobody had this one on their Billboard chart bingo card at the start of 2021.
Melinda Newman: 8. It’s not completely shocking because the song speaks to a block of Americans who watch right-leaning news outlets, strongly believe that Donald Trump should still be in the White House and that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a good start at reclaiming the country they feel has been stolen from them. Propelled by promotion from Fox News, SiriusXM’s Patriot Radio and social media platform Telegram, the song struck a direct chord with that audience, who immediately showed their support for the message by buying the song.
Andrew Unterberger: I’ll say a 9.5, kept from a 10 by the fact that Lewis does have legitimate Hot 100 history to his credit — Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” climbed all the way to No. 5, albeit a full 20 calendar years ago — and the fact that we’ve seen conservative anthems have impactful sales performances before, particularly around early July. But aside from that? This is about as shocking as a top 20 debut gets.
2. Obviously, the No. 14 debut comes largely on the back of a blockbuster sales week. What do you see as the primary driving cause behind the high sales number, and what lessons do you think the industry can take from it?
Katie Atkinson: It’s an unabashedly conservative song that hit a bull’s-eye in immediately finding its target audience. Anyone who relates to the sentiment can (and did) show their support by buying the song. More than anything, I’d say this is a lesson in music marketing. Lewis’ label took the song directly to the people who wanted it — via Fox News and other like-minded outlets — and it clearly worked.
Gil Kaufman: Releasing it on July 2 in the wind-up to the return of Fourth of July festivities was marketing genius, to say the least. It also helped that he debuted it in March at Fort Worth, Texas’ Billy Bob’s Texas — in the same month the state dropped all pandemic restrictions — after setting himself up as a lib-bashing troubadour in 2020 with his solo song “If I Were a Liberal.” While so many artists have been reluctant to sing out their true feelings in such explicit terms, Lewis and his team are clearly leaning into it, hard, confident that there is a huge audience out there ready shake their heads in unison about fighting for the flag, preserving Confederate monuments and turning tail on Bruce Springsteen.
Jason Lipshutz: As the artistic embodiment of a “Does This Flag Offend You?” T-shirt directed explicitly at strawmen, “Am I The Only One” is unapologetic in its politics, thumping its chest with one hand while clutching at the pearls of the past with another. The music industry will no doubt take notice of how conservative listeners have immediately rallied around the song, and we may be in for another wave of pro-Republican, boot-in-your-ass singles that marked country music during the first George W. Bush administration.
Melinda Newman: Again, the promotion from right-leaning media outlets brought it to the attention of an audience who craves the feeling that someone is listening to them and hears them and, most importantly, stands in solidarity with them given that this is a message that most artists are not promoting. The lesson for the industry is that there is a highly motivated audience for this kind of music.
Andrew Unterberger: I think it’s a different version of the same lesson for the industry demonstrated with the sales-driven seven-week reign of BTS’ “Butter” on the Hot 100 — that if fans care deeply enough for a cause, they’ll essentially vote with their wallets. In the case of BTS, of course, it’s a much more innocent display of fan affection for their artist of choice; with Lewis’ anthem, it’s a whole ideology being supported. But the takeaway is similar: If fans are really invested in a song’s chart placement, the path is there for them to make a real impact, assuming they’re organized and committed enough.
3. As a lyrically conservative-leaning, musically stripped-down ballad, the song is obviously pretty far outside of usual top 20 fare in 2021. Do you see its debut as meaningful for contemporary popular music in any way, or is it a one-off unlikely to be repeated?
Katie Atkinson: I’m thinking a one-off — but a one-off that really worked. Instead of gaining steam over weeks or months and never bubbling up outside conservative circles, “Am I the Only One” made a big splash out of the gate, therefore garnering headlines just like this one about its unlikely success. Whoever tries to copy from this playbook will need a few things coming in: A recognizable name or voice (that Lewis growl is ingrained in the minds of anyone who listened to the radio in the early 2000s) and a laser-focused marketing campaign.
Gil Kaufman: Again, it’s definitely a sign that there’s an audience out there hungry for this kind of America First balladry. But the fact that there haven’t been many other notable songs to so explicitly plant this red, white and blue flag in the sand and chart this high does make it feel like an outlier. In a business often averse to taking bold political stances that might offending potential listeners, it’s almost a novelty track. Then again, maybe Lewis is the vanguard of a rising red chart wave?
Jason Lipshutz: There will be imitators, no doubt: “Am I the Only One” debuting in the top 20 of the Hot 100 is the type of eyebrow-raising feat that will inspire other artists and labels to replicate its formula. Yet I’d be surprised if any follow-up is as successful as Lewis’ single. Politics aside, “Am I the Only One” contains a striking vocal performance and lyrics that linger with its listener (even while making that listener shake his or her head). Those factors will be hard to copy, but copies will certainly be attempted.
Melinda Newman: It is meaningful in that the song appeals to an audience who feels ignored by mainstream media and so this is a signal that they are more than willing to plunk down money to support a song and/or artist who speaks for them. Similarly, Waylon Jennings’ grandson, Struggle Jennings, and Caitlynne Curtis put out “God We Need You Now,” a song that appealed to the same audience, with a message that appealed to those who feel perhaps even stronger than Lewis about where our country is headed, and the need to bring down those who oppose them. And, buoyed by support from right-wing media, it debuted at No. 3 on Rap Digital Sales Songs and No. 7 on Country Digital Song Sales before quickly dropping off.
Andrew Unterberger: Lewis won’t be the only one: Others will attempt, and a few might succeed to varying degrees. But a debut this resounding is a little bit of a perfect storm — and also requires more fan investment than incidental virality typically dictates. There’s a market here, though, and one that plenty of folks will happily capitalize on.
4. Billboard reported this week that “Am I the Only One” will be sent to country radio shortly — do you see it catching on as an airplay (or even a streaming) hit, or will its popularity mostly go as far as its sales do?
Katie Atkinson: I could see it getting some love from a few radio stations. But even if the country audience still skews conservative, I think mainstream country radio won’t want to rock the boat either direction, trying to stay as apolitical as possible as it inches toward more inclusivity among its artists.
Gil Kaufman: If The Chicks have become country radio skunk spray, this song may be country radio catnip. Can you imagine someone calling in to complain about a station playing a song that talks about fighting for the flag while asking people to join Lewis in standing up to bless the U.S.A.? Good luck with that.
Jason Lipshutz: I’m skeptical, based simply on the structure of the song — a four-and-a-half minute ballad is not exactly country radio catnip, unless that ballad is an all-timer. “Am I the Only One” will certainly receive pickup from conservative stations ready to cosign its messaging, but beyond that, I’m not sure the song has the right length or tempo to fit in.
Melinda Newman: Its popularity will continue to be driven by sales and streaming. Country radio tends to shy away from anything that its listeners would consider polarizing and this song definitely is given Lewis’ stance on viewing removing Confederate statues as an assault on America and his call to arms when he questions if he’s the only one willing to fight and “take a bullet for bein’ free.” On the flip side, “Undivided,” by Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw was about as benign a statement as an artist could make calling for unity and it stalled at No. 16 on Country Airplay — perhaps because some conservatives saw it as too progressive a take.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s not really a clean fit for modern country radio for a variety of reasons, so I doubt it’ll do well enough for its airplay to come anywhere near to matching its sales impact. That said, I could see a small minority of independent stations and DJs rallying behind it — and considering how Morgan Wallen is already being accepted back into the FM fold, this might not be quite as far a bridge for even some more mainstream stations as it initially seems.
5. Let’s flash back to um, simpler times — do you have a peak Staind jam of choice, or are you happier to leave them in the ’00s?
Katie Atkinson: I’m going to think outside the box and choose the acoustic Mainstream Rock Airplay chart-topper “Outside,” which was billed as “Aaron Lewis of Staind with Fred Durst” (if that doesn’t scream 2001, I don’t know what does). It was also released as a proper Staind song, but it’s that acoustic version — with Lewis’ slightly off-key guitar and Durst’s superfluous backing vocals and ad libs (“I’m feelin’ those lighters!”) — that places you directly into the Korn-fed crowd of the 1999 Family Values Tour.
Gil Kaufman: While “It’s Been a While” is the only song most people remember, the rumbly single “Mudshovel” from the band’s 1999 sophomore album, Dysfunction, is like the ultimate nu metal connect-the-dots. It’s big, dumb, angry and lousy with double kick drums, rumbling, down-tuned bass, swirly guitars and lyrics about anger, torment, pain and betrayal. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s all wrapped into a gruntfest in which Lewis sounds unintentionally hilarious growling the title as if possessed by a Hot Topic demon.
Jason Lipshutz: “It’s Been Awhile” remains a legitimately great rock song, the perfect balance of muscular guitar sludge and fragile confessions; it’s also still a top-notch sing-along, since, even if you forget most of the words, you still know that every line begins with “It’s been a while…” I heard it on rock radio a few weeks back, and I turned my car stereo all the way up.
Melinda Newman: I don’t seek it out, but when “It’s Been Awhile” comes on the radio in my car, I sing the chorus at the top of my lungs and am instantly transported back to a time when heavy-guitar driven rock, fueled by intense male vocals that showed an edge of vulnerability ruled the airwaves.
Andrew Unterberger: I also still have my lighter raised for the live version of “Outside,” a legitimately unnerving power ballad that was about as close to a true moment of grace as nu metal gave us in its first few years of prominence. That said, is it as great as “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” or “Dancing in the Dark”? Of course not.