How Billie Eilish snatched Lil Nas X’s Billboard crown & what it means for the music industry
It’s an extraordinary run that has made it the longest-running #1 of all time, passing Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee & Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ and Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s ‘One Sweet Day’ by two weeks. Throughout, eight songs challenged ‘Old Town Road’, occupying the #2 spot, but it was Billie Eilish’s ‘bad guy’ that eventually claimed the throne.
Eilish’s ascent is significant for a number of reasons. It’s her first #1 on the chart and it makes her the first person born this millennium to occupy that position. At 17, she’s also the youngest person to hit the top since ‘Royals’ by a 16-year-old Lorde in 2013. Additionally, ‘bad guy’ spent more weeks in the #2 position of any song to eventually reach the summit at 9 weeks. While Eilish has reached the Top 10 in Australia five times before, this is the first time she’s ever been in the Top 10, marking her true arrival as a pop icon.
Since her first US chart entry in 2016, Eilish’s profile has been rising organically. The hype which had been building since she was 15 reached fever point just before the drop of her debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
It proved she was not just a viral sensation, tapped into the social media world of teenagers, but a legitimate artist capable of impressing the critics, nabbing pop and alternative radio spins and selling out venues worldwide. That album debuted at #1 in the US and here in Australia. Every single song on the record bar the 14-second intro charted on the Billboard Hot 100. That also happened in Australia where only one song debuted outside the Top 50.
‘bad guy’ ascending to the top spot is not shocking. It’s been the most competitive challenger in recent weeks and was able to stay relevant for long enough to wait out the shine of ‘Old Town Road’. It has also already had a run at #1 in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Eilish made a particularly clever move for the #1 position at week 15 of the ‘Old Town Road’ run, adding chart king Justin Bieber to the song.
This was also a move, however, that Lil Nas X was already well-versed at. ‘Old Town Road’ was originally his song before he added Billy Ray Cyrus to the mix, the week before the song reached #1. Following that, Diplo, Young Thug, Mason Ramsey and RM of BTS all joined the song.
The significance of ‘bad guy’ at #1 lies in the legacy it creates for Eilish at such an early point of her career. It’s the first #1 song of the year that has just one other co-writer and that is Eilish’s brother FINNEAS. The pair wrote her entire album together – an intimate process that is a rarity in mainstream music.
She’s also earned praise from some of pop’s harshest critics from Thom Yorke to Dave Grohl. While the inauthentic pop argument is outdated, Eilish is bridging a gap between commercial and alternative music. She’s able to namecheck Bieber and Avril Lavigne as inspiration while also drawing comparisons to Nirvana.
“‘She’s doing her own thing. Nobody’s telling her what to do,’” Yorke told The New York Times, in the same interview where he dissed Muse and Sam Smith. He’s typically cranky about the state of pop but he’s right in this case.
You only need to look at the other songs that challenged ‘Old Town Road’ to see how much of an anomaly ‘bad guy’ is. Chart staple Shawn Mendes had two attempts reaching #2 with ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and ‘Senorita’ with Camila Cabello. The latter is produced by Watt, Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat who have all seen chart success in the past while Cabello has had a chart-topper of her own with ‘Havana’.
Taylor Swift also challenged twice with the lead single from Lover ‘ME!’ and ‘You Need To Calm Down’. It’s the first time a lead single by her hasn’t gone #1 since Speak Now’s ‘Mine’ in 2010. Ed Sheeran and Bieber also gave it a go with their collaboration ‘I Don’t Care’, bringing together two chart giants.
It’s extraordinary that it was Eilish who was able to unseat ‘Old Town Road’ over these pop masters. ‘bad guy’ is a wonky, pulsating trip that takes you from the club to the circus within seconds. The success of it and ‘Old Town Road’ suggests that the mainstream is opening itself up to a weirder breed of music that pushes beyond the successful pop formula.
It would be remiss not to mention that memes have also played a huge role. ‘Old Town Road’ began as a viral sensation on Tik Tok and was further fuelled by Billboard’s decision to exclude it from the country chart. Meanwhile, the hook of ‘bad guy’ opened a world of possibilities from ‘Seinfeld’ to ‘Simpsons’ sound bites.
Eilish and Lil Nas X understand the youth because they are the youth. Eilish, in particular, is so young that she’s authentically tapped into meme and internet culture. She’s able to use it to her advantage and while the memes didn’t send ‘bad guy’ to #1, they opened the song up to more ears.
At 17, Billie Eilish now has a #1 single and #1 album. She joins an elite club of artists who have reached the top spot before the age of 18 including Britney Spears, Bieber and Lorde. All those artists have gone onto create an impressive legacy and it’s likely that Eilish will follow.
While it’s unlikely that ‘bad guy’ will stay at the summit long enough to claim Nas’ record, her potential goes beyond virality. She’s a challenging, intelligent artist who is making music unlike anything on the charts right now and, as it turns out, there’s a huge audience craving that.