Music

How Billie Eilish Brought Lil Nas X to the End of the “Road”

The 17-year-old singer followed the new rules for pop success—and held on till X couldn’t no more.

Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X.
Photo illustration by Slate. Still from “Bad Guy” and photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

Does anybody remember Jay Sean? Ten years ago, this British singer, born to Sikh parents, blended Bhangra and R&B and topped Billboard’s Hot 100 with a chirpy, Auto-Tuned hip-hop ditty called “Down.” Featuring a bridge rapped by the then-ubiquitous Lil Wayne, the song turned out to be Sean’s only American No. 1. But it had a notable chart distinction: ending the reign of a seemingly indomitable pop juggernaut, the Black Eyed Peas, who had been atop the chart for 26 consecutive weeks—literally half the year.

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You might be surprised to learn that the Peas still hold this Hot 100 record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1. The reason Will.i.am, Fergie, and company haven’t come up in any of the media coverage you’ve been reading lately about a certain record-breaking country-trap smash is that this summer’s chart news has been about most weeks at No. 1 by a single song, and the Peas set their 2009 chart record with two back-to-back No. 1s: the 12-week leader “Boom Boom Pow,” followed immediately by their seemingly unkillable 14-week ruler “I Gotta Feeling.” As for “Down,” the song that finally ejected the Peas, what chart watchers said at the time was that Jay Sean didn’t so much overtake the top of the Hot 100 as the Peas succumbed. After 14 weeks, “I Gotta Feeling” finally just tumbled out of No. 1, and “Down,” which happened to be sitting at No. 2 the week before, floated to the top. That week in 2009, Jay Sean was quite literally in the right place at the right time.

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The same could be said this week for the song that wafts—or maybe skulks?—into the chart penthouse, Billie Eilish’s sleeper smash “Bad Guy.” After nine weeks at No. 2—longer than anybody in chart history has cooled their heels in the runner-up spot before ascending—“Bad Guy” dethrones the mightiest Hot 100 No. 1 of all time, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”

Yes, folks: 2019’s most diverting pop-chart event is over, and we can finally call time of death on “Old Town Road’s” record-resetting reign at 19 weeks. (The song falls to No. 3 on this week’s Hot 100, which suggests that it stands little chance of rebounding to the top.) Lil Nas X’s No. 1 streak was three weeks longer than the prior mark set by “One Sweet Day” in 1995–96 and “Despacito” in 2017. In my opinion, that’s just the right amount of victory lap for “Road”—if it had pushed past 20 weeks, it might have either looked like something was screwy with the Hot 100 or that X was cheating somehow. (To be clear, as I wrote three weeks ago when he first set the record: He didn’t cheat.) Plus, if Eilish had spent just one more week stuck at No. 2, she’d have entered a sad chart pantheon with the two most frustrated Hot 100 hits ever, the never–No. 1s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner and “Work It” by Missy Elliott, which each spent 10 weeks stuck in second place. Despite the esteemed company, nobody wants to be part of that club.

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But then, Billie Eilish was a club of one even before her song emerged as 2019’s unlikeliest summer jam. Does anything about “Bad Guy” sound summery to you? The song is infectious like a winter virus, the musical equivalent of burying all your limbs and maybe your head, too, in flannel pajamas. From its half-whispered, half-mumbled vocals, to its rumble of a beat, to its creeper lyrics and head-fake tempo shift in its final minute, nothing about “Bad Guy” sounds outdoorsy. It’s a little bizarre that this fifth official single from Eilish’s smash album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? even reached the Top 10, let alone challenged the biggest No. 1 in Hot 100 history.

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Without taking anything away from Eilish’s accomplishment, when you study the data on the multimetric Hot 100, it must be said that “Bad Guy” all but fell into the No. 1 spot, much like “Down” in 2009. It’s not the top-selling, most-streamed, or most-broadcast song this week. According to Billboard, in its latest frame, the song’s sales and streams did experience a solid uptick—the latter due largely to the recent release of a “Bad Guy” vertical video that’s novel not only for its aspect ratio but because the normally grim-faced Eilish smiles more than she did in the original clip. But the song is actually down in radio airplay, off 3 percent from its peak and now only the sixth-most-played radio hit. While “Bad Guy” is getting less airplay, however, “Old Town Road” is getting far less; Lil Nas X now ranks 28th in airplay. This radio erosion was what finally brought about the end of the “Road,” even as X’s song remains the top-selling and most-played song in America.

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But then, radio has never been the leading factor in the success of either “Bad Guy” or “Old Town Road.” Each song is hard to categorize and sonically incongruous alongside most of the pure pop and up-tempo trap on the airwaves. Streaming, and the young audience that drives it, was critical to both songs’ success, all but forcing them onto radio playlists. In the case of Billie Eilish, it’s her very uncategorizability that has made Gen Z fans flock to the 17-year-old’s music.

The first person born in the 21st century to score both a No. 1 album and single, Eilish has professed a hatred of the very idea of genre. Of course, the music industry has placed her in a couple of genre buckets, anyway: Billboard tracks Eilish’s songs not only on its pop charts but also its Alternative Songs chart, where “Bad Guy” and the earlier “Bury a Friend” have both gone to No. 1, thanks to Eilish’s strong alt-rock radio airplay. In fact, the magazine reports that “Bad Guy” is the first song in six years to top both its Alternative chart and the Hot 100, since Lorde’s “Royals” back in 2013. This makes for a very tidy music-biz narrative, given the parallels between the two iconoclastic female teen artists and the many admiring critics (including Slate’s own) who’ve analogized Lorde and Eilish. But six years is a long time in pop. Not only do both Top 40 and alternative radio sound quite different than they did in the early ’10s, the industry’s whole post-Spotify business model has shifted radically. To understand how “Bad Guy” held on for nine weeks at No. 2 and finally toppled “Old Town Road,” you have to examine how Team Eilish has updated the model for pop success for the late ’10s.

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I say “Team” because for all her independent-mindedness—Eilish famously records in a home studio with her producer-singer-actor brother, Finneas O’Connell—she most certainly has the major-label system working for her. In its cover story on the teen phenom in the spring, Billboard chronicled how Eilish’s up-from-SoundCloud fame was “actually the result of years of meticulous artist development and a well-calculated major-label effort to build a career.” After the Finneas-and-Billie composition “Ocean Eyes” became a surprise SoundCloud smash in 2015, when Eilish was just 13, she signed with Interscope Records and spent years woodshedding material while her new management got her placements like the soundtrack to the on-brand Netflix teen smash 13 Reasons Why. In a statistic that was repeated all over the internet, Eilish garnered a billion streams even before she issued an album, as the media gave her reams of positive, Gabbo-likeWho is Billie Eilish?coverage.

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Mind you, none of these machinations support the insidious, persistent rumor that Eilish is an “industry plant.” Like the Weeknd a half-decade ago—an artist who genuinely came up through self-starting indie releases but then was willed into stardom via a major label campaign—Eilish and her brother were encouraged to let their freak flags fly while working on their official debut. They took full advantage, from adding dental-drill sounds to “Bury a Friend” to building “Bad Guy” without a traditional chorus—unless you count its irresistible “Duh.” When Eilish’s album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? finally landed in March, on a wave of pent-up fan demand, it not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, it did so with the second-biggest sales-and-streaming total of the year, after Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next.

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This is impressive, but lots of pre-hyped new artists have dropped a debut album with a bang, from Demi Lovato to Iggy Azalea. The really remarkable feat was what happened in the months that followed, and it helps explain the tenacity of “Bad Guy.” Asleep sat stone near the top of the chart, actually returning to No. 1 multiple weeks and never falling below No. 4. In an era when albums don’t sell in platinum quantities anymore, Eilish’s sales are actually fairly strong, now over 400,000 (and relatively little of those “sales” appear to be dubious, chart-gaming ticket-and-merchandise album bundles). But the main reason for Eilish’s sticky chart persistence is streaming, which now dominates Billboard’s album and song charts. Asleep arrived with nearly 200 million weekly streams for its tracks in its first week—a staggering sum, one of the highest ever for a female artist, let alone a newcomer—and, more than four months later, it’s still routinely generating weekly streams in the high eight figures.

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What this means is that Eilish’s music streams like a rapper’s would, or like the music of rap-adjacent pop stars like Post Malone and Ed Sheeran. A theme I keep coming back to in this No. 1 hits series over the past couple of years is the challenge certain pop acts, particularly women, have had in an era where Spotify has taken over the charts. After some long stretches between 2015 and 2018 saw women blockaded from the top of the charts by the likes of Drake, various female stars have more recently decoded how to compete in the streaming era. Besides actual rapper Cardi B, there’s Ariana Grande, who drops new singles like a rapper and beefs on record like a rapper, or Halsey, who has cross-bred skittering trap music with wistful heartbreak balladry.

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Billie Eilish has found another model: alternative music that feels like SoundCloud rap, without the rap. “Bad Guy” is the quintessence of this sound. Like Eilish’s late friend XXXTentacion, whose music was classified as rap but also, weirdly, resembled Nirvana-era indie rock from before he was born, Eilish spends “Bad Guy” whisper-singing like PJ Harvey over a beat that’s equal parts Marilyn Manson and Future, with a lurching final-act tempo shift that’s pure Travis Scott in “Sicko Mode,” topped by a refrain lyric that’s vintage Tony Montana. It has the swagger of rap, coming from a petite white girl with rainbow hair in baggy clothing, shit-talking and manically dancing with a kind of gangsta lean.

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This is why I bristle at the suggestion that Eilish is a “plant.” There’s a promotional machine behind her, sure, but she and her brother have taken the Spotify success formula and turned it upside down, such that it no longer resembles a formula and seems entirely Eilish’s own. A charming irony of the eventual triumph of “Bad Guy” is that the one time this summer Team Eilish tried something truly crass to nudge it up the chart—the Justin Bieber remix—it didn’t work. This version of the song, featuring an utterly expendable new verse from the Biebs, landed in mid-July when “Bad Guy” was in its fifth frustrating week at No. 2 behind “Old Town Road,” in a shameless bid to overthrow Lil Nas X. Though Bieber helped the song’s chart data rise by more than 40 percent that week, the song remained stuck at No. 2. Now, here we are, five weeks past that gambit, and “Bad Guy” took the No. 1 crown in its original, Eilish-only incarnation.

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So maybe this victory feels a little anticlimactic—a Rocky II–style win where the prevailing contender didn’t so much knock out the opponent as remain upright. But a win’s a win. It remains to be seen whether Eilish’s hit-making career is as short-lived as that of Jay Sean, 2009’s streak-ending chart topper. But the smash success of her album, the consistency of her streams, and the devotion of her young fan base suggest that Eilish, like “Bad Guy,” will have staying power. Will there be future chart rivals? Without question. Will Eilish continue to skulk around, quietly dispatching them? Duh.

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