Look at the top 10 of Billboard‘s On-Demand Streaming Songs chart — measuring audio streams on subscription-based services — and the No. 1 song in the country right now is nowhere to be found. You’ve gotta go all the way to No. 19 to locate “Girls Like You,” Maroon 5’s Cardi B-featuring smash that finally ascends to the Billboard Hot 100’s apex this week.
Back when “Girls Like You” moved into the No. 2 spot on the Hot 100 in mid-August, it seemed possible but unlikely that it would be the song to unseat Drake from the top, where he would ultimately spend 10 weeks with his third No. 1 single of 2018, “In My Feelings.” Even as it moved to the runner-up position, “Girls” was already starting to slip in its footing, declining in metrics across the board. But “Feelings,” which once led the chart by a sizable margin, was beginning to see its numbers wane as well, and after six weeks at No. 2, “Girls” was finally able to overtake it. And the song owes the majority of its chart perseverance in recent weeks to one primary factor: radio play.
While “Girls Like You” only moved into the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 for the first time this week, it’s been chilling atop Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart for two months already — its nine-week run tying it with Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey’s “The Middle” for the longest-running champion on the chart this year. What’s more, while “Girls” has continued to decline in both streams (31 million six weeks ago to 25.4 million this week, according to Nielsen Music) and sales (39,000 to 21,000), its number of radio audience impressions has remained almost totally static (128.9 million to 127.6 million). Radio is responsible for over half of the song’s chart points this week, the primary driving force behind it finally becoming the biggest song in the country.
Of course, as recently as the beginning of the decade, the biggest song on radio being the biggest song in the country would be close to a foregone conclusion. Of the 27 songs to best the Radio Songs chart from 2010-2011, 23 of them were also Hot 100-toppers, an overwhelming majority. But of the 15 songs to top Radio Songs since 2017, only seven of them also went to No. 1 on the Hot 100 — not even half. Tellingly, of the three Drake songs whose extended runs at No. 1 allowed him to recently set the record for the most weeks atop the Hot 100 (29) in a calendar year — “God’s Plan,” “Nice for What” and “Feelings” — none have topped Radio Songs, each peaking at No. 3. (It’s worth pointing out that in recent years, radio has been much more friendly to pop than hip-hop — since 2015, the only track classified by Billboard as hip-hop to best the Radio Songs chart is Cardi B’s “I Like It,” featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin.)
Where those songs mostly excelled, however, was on the Streaming Songs chart. Indeed, while only four of this year’s ten Hot 100 No. 1 hits have topped Radio Songs (“Perfect,” “Girls,” “I Like It” and Camila Cabello’s Young Thug-featuring “Havana”), seven of them (the three Drake singles, “Perfect,” “Havana,” XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) have topped Streaming Songs. We’re in the thick of the streaming age in 2018, which has led such industry figures as Spotify CFO Barry McCarthy to essentially predict the broadcast radio format’s demise to be right around the corner.
“I think that because we’re a traditional medium that’s been around for a long time we tend to be taken for granted, and you need to remind people that we — on a weekly basis — reach 9 out of 10 Americans with radio,” Tom Poleman, Chief Programming Officer for iHeartMedia tells Billboard. “If radio fell out of the sky today and was this medium that didn’t eat up your streaming data, that was providing music for free, you didn’t have glitches with the data flow — it would be the greatest new invention. But because it’s always been around, I think it kind of gets a little forgotten, but in order to reach that huge audience you still have to have radio.”
Poleman resists the assertion that the streaming world and the radio worlds are even that far apart. “I think the relationship between what we play and what we see streaming is very symbiotic,” he explains. “Sometimes one is a little bit earlier than the other but I think they ultimately feed off of each other and perpetuate each other — the songs we play more continue to get bigger in streaming.” (He also says that the relationship between radio and streaming reminds him of the back-and-forth he had with retail stores when he started in the industry in the ’80s: “There would always be these songs that I would call the record store to learn about… we picked up on it, and then it spread back to the consumption in the stores.”)
If there was one act to serve as a beacon for radio’s continued importance as a powerhouse on the charts, it makes sense that it would be Maroon 5: The band has scored six No. 1s and 16 top 10s on the Radio Songs chart over its career, dating back to 2004. “It’s really remarkable because they have morphed their sound to what has worked on the radio so well,” Poleman explains of the group’s sustained success. “When I think of the artist over time that has endured [successfully], Maroon 5 always comes to mind.”
And the band had a not-so-secret weapon to help this time, as well: Cardi B, 2018 rapper-of-the-moment, who is not only a streaming mainstay, but becoming a pretty formidable radio fixture herself: “Girls Like You” follows “I Like It” and her Bruno Mars collab “Finesse” as Cardi’s third Radio Songs topper of 2018. And while Maroon 5’s traditional brand of pop-rock isn’t necessarily the most omnipresent sound on the radio at the moment, Cardi’s presence allows the song’s top 40 presence to not feel totally out of step. “It fits perfectly with all the hip-hop songs because you have a Cardi B in the mix bridging that gap,” Poleman says. “It’s cool, it fits the vibe, but it’s also different enough that it gives relief to the sameness that’s on the radio.”
It’s also worth noting that while streaming isn’t the primary factor propelling “Girls” to No. 1, it hasn’t been a non-factor by any means: “Girls” has climbed as high as No. 5 on Streaming Songs (Billboard‘s weighted ranking of paid and ad-supported streams on audio and video streaming services) and is currently hanging on at No. 10 on the listing. Helping its cause: the song’s viral video — featuring a cavalcade of star female cameos from Gal Godot, Mary J. Blige, Millie Bobby Brown and many more — which has racked up over 930 million global YouTube views, more than the headline-grabbing videos for any of Drake’s No. 1 hits. Making its most popular music video in years at a time when videos are once again earning renewed attention across the board is just another example of Maroon 5’s ability to find opportunity in the mainstream wherever available: “They just have a remarkable knack of knowing how to fit into what pop culture needs at any given time,” Poleman raves.
Still, the chart-topping success of “Girls Like You” remains an almost old-fashioned example of a wide-ranging hit that achieves total ubiquity through its dominance of the airwaves. “I look at all the songs we play as still always having that correlation with streaming,” Poleman says. “But I think that that’s a good example of a song that absolutely had to have the radio component to perform as well as it did.”