There’s a major change of tide underway on the Hot 100 — and no, we don’t just mean the end of the “Despacito” streak. With Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” dethroning the Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber juggernaut at No. 1 after a record-tying 16 weeks, this week (on the Hot 100 dated Sept. 16) also marks the first time in 2017 that a woman has topped the chart, ending a 43-week-long drought.
That’s right — the last time a female artist held the top spot was with The Chainsmokers ’ “Closer” featuring Halsey last November, and that’s only if we’re talking features. Swift is the first female to appear as lead artist on a No. 1 track since Sia’s Sean Paul-featuring “Cheap Thrills” last year, and the first totally solo female artist since Adele’s “Hello,” which reigned beginning in November 2015 and into January 2016.
While that sinks in, consider the flipside: In addition to Swift, a multitude of female acts from Cardi B to Demi Lovato are seeking to reclaim the higher echelon of the Hot 100, where earlier this year, women were entirely absent from the top 10 for the first time since 1984.
Joining Swift in the top five of the Hot 100 chart is Cardi B, who holds down her No. 3 high with the explosive “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves).” DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller — which earlier this year ended the longest no-women streak in the Hot 100’s top five in nearly 35 years — comes in just below at No. 4, following a No. 2 peak.
Meanwhile, Logic’s Alessia Cara-featuring suicide prevention effort “1-800-273-8552” (with additional guest Khalid) bolts to No. 9 this week, with Nicki Minaj not far behind: she hit No. 10 last week as featured on Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up,” which now ranks at No. 13. Below the top 10, more female artists are ascending the ranks, from emerging acts like SZA (“Love Galore” at No. 36 and “The Weeknd” at No. 68) and Dua Lipa (with “New Rules,” which jumps 74-67), to established artists like Lovato (“Sorry Not Sorry” at No. 18 and “No Promises” at No. 43), Kesha (“Praying,” No. 27) and P!nk, whose “What About Us” climbs to No. 28.
So why the earlier lack of female chart-climbers in the upper tier — and how do we account for the sudden burst?
The most popular theory to explain the absence, and sudden return, of women to the Hot 100’s gaudier ranks is that big-name female stars have been between projects, leaving more opportunities for established male acts like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran to slide in. Now that more top female stars are back in new album cycles, we’d expect to see the charts even out. By this logic, it shouldn’t surprise us that “Look What You Made Me Do” — the lead single from Swift’s upcoming Reputation album (Nov. 10), her first in three years — would be the track to break the boy’s club No. 1 stronghold, or that songs from Lovato and P!nk’s forthcoming albums are among those balancing out the charts gender gap, too.
On the other hand, multiple high-profile female artists have released new material in recent months. To recap, we’ve seen No. 1 Billboard 200 albums from Lana Del Rey, Kesha, Halsey, Lorde and Katy Perry, two singles from Miley Cyrus and a collection of much-hyped material from Selena Gomez (“Bad Liar,” “Fetish” and the Kygo collab “It Ain’t Me,” the lattermost song a top 10 Hot 100 hit in May). Yet none of the singles involved garnered enough success to dethrone “Despacito” nor any of the six male-led No. 1s that came before it this year, including Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” The Weeknd’s “Starboy” and DJ Khaled’s super-collab “I’m The One,” which marked the first No. 1 by five individually credited acts — notably, all male.
Still, many of the popular female stars who dropped new projects over 2017 so far took on risky new artistic directions that may have left them less chart-potent — think Miley’s impressive yet perhaps commercially out-of-step pop-rock ballad “Younger Now,” Gomez’s switch to a minimal sound with the Talking Heads-sampling “Bad Liar” and its eerie music video, or the sometimes folky, sometimes psychedelic new feel spread across Kesha’s Rainbow. By contrast, the current class of female chart-climbers is led by a group of emerging stars with more radio-ready sounds in Cardi B and Cara, and, of course, by Swift, who just might be the most chart-bulletproof pop star this decade has seen.
And we can’t discount the unpredictable historic success of “Despacito,” which commanded the Hot 100’s top position for its record-tying run. Without “Despacito,” the Rihanna-featuring “Wild Thoughts” — which spent seven weeks at its No. 2 peak — might have put a dent in the male-only streak before Swift even entered the equation. (Then again, timing has played into every No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 59-year history; if, for instance, Whitney Houston hadn’t reigned for 14 weeks in 1992-93 with “I Will Always Love You,” all-male groups Shai and Wreckx-n-Effect — flashback! — would’ve notched No. 1s.)
Back to Swift, keep in mind that “Look” is much more than a single. With its aggressive, vengeance-seeking tone and references to long-running public spats with Kanye West and Perry, the track was bound to be an attention grabber, and it’s likely that the drama surrounding the track played a part in its rise. And seeing as the lead singles from Swift’s last two LPs, Red and 1989, also ruled the Hot 100 (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off,” respectively) are we really surprised to find “Look” on the same path?
Swift seems to be the remedy the music industry needed to crack the dudes-only charts trend. “Look” this week also broke another gender-related record: the highest ever streams in one week for a song by a female artist, surpassing (again) the debut week of Adele’s “Hello.”
Going big-picture, a recent Billboard charts analysis found that women have steadily increased their share of Hot 100 No. 1s from one-fifth of all leaders in the ‘60s to nearly half today. The recent absence of women on the charts may simply be the result of a small-sample abnormality — a fluke — that will be course-corrected in time. After all, the charts tend to naturally ebb and flow: consider that women overtook the No. 1 slot for 19 weeks straight in 2014, while the following year, men once claimed eight of the top 10.
And with Swift’s newest single, Reputation song release “…Ready for It?” already picking up steam, the star could well be joining herself in the top 10, upping the growing tally of female artists on the Hot 100’s top tier even further. To borrow a phrase from the chart-topping star’s latest, “let the games begin.”