Music

The Strange, Globetrotting Story Behind America’s New No. 1 Song

“Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” was born of Korea, a Kiwi, TikTok, and Jason Derulo.

Composite image of the performers.
BTS, Jason Derulo, and Jawsh 685 Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for the Recording Academy, Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Welcome America Inc., and Jawsh 685/YouTube.

A quarter-century ago this week, in October 1995, the No. 1 song in America, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” represented a number of firsts. It was the first single by a woman to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100—then a new chart phenomenon. (Just over a month earlier, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” had been the first single, period, to open on top.) “Fantasy” was also arguably the first No. 1 song from the world of pop, not rap, built largely out of a sample of a prior hit. The song leaned heavily—but creatively—on a thick sample of Tom Tom Club’s deathless “Genius of Love,” an innovative move for a mass-appeal dance-pop record at the time.

But the most cutting-edge thing about “Fantasy” was the remix that helped keep it on top of the Hot 100 and, to many Carey fans, is the definitive version: the “Bad Boy Mix” featuring the delightfully loopy Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. The ODB version, studded with such gems as “Me and Mariah/ Go back like babies with pacifiahs,” was a massive hit. While a formal sales breakdown has never been provided between the original album version of the single and the “Bad Boy Mix,” Carey claimed in an interview that the remix accounted for half of the song’s sales. It has even been argued that Carey and ODB pioneered the “thug-love” duet. That’s quite an accomplishment for a perky, chirpy, sample-based bop.

Speaking of perky, chirpy, sample-based bops, the No. 1 song on our current Hot 100 is very perky, very chirpy, and in its own way, it’s as cutting-edge as “Fantasy”: built from the ground up out of a sample and powered to the top of the Hot 100 by a remix. And though it didn’t repeat “Fantasy’s” accomplishment of debuting in the chart’s top slot—a feat that has lately become rather commonplace—in a way it’s more unique: the first No. 1 hit that, even more than hits by Lil Nas X and Roddy Ricch, can almost fully be attributed to TikTok. Well … TikTok, plus the involvement of a stubbornly persistent thirtysomething pop star who jumped on a younger cohort’s bandwagon to score his first chart-topper in 11 years. And did I mention that remix? The remix is a very big deal. This song—whose title, “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat),” looks like it was coined by a sentient file server—is credited to three acts, because it’s the handiwork of three microgenerations of hit-makers: the TikTok Generation, the K-Pop Generation, and the Aging Millennial Generation.

Those three artists and generations are, respectively, a teenage Kiwi producer who calls himself Jawsh 685; the world’s biggest boy band, BTS; and veteran pop-and-B hit-maker Jason Derulo. Because it’s 2020, the official artist credit is punctuated with the increasingly popular and fashion-derived symbol X: “Jawsh 685 x Jason Derulo x BTS.” But in this case, not only are the multiplication signs appropriate, even the sequence of the three artists seems spot-on. Each of these acts, in turn, multiplied the song’s audience. Let’s walk through them in order.

It all starts with Jawsh 685, born Joshua Nanai just 17 years ago in Auckland, New Zealand, to a mother from the Cook Islands and a father from Samoa (which explains the handle: 685 is the country code for Samoa). Back in the long ago of 2019, Jawsh posted a blippy, loping piece of music to YouTube under the title “Laxed (Siren Beat).” The “Siren” comes from “siren jams,” an emerging Pacific Islander sound and scene in which staccato, tooting, reggaetón-adjacent synth beats are blasted from literal sirens attached to bicycles. And Jawsh labeled it a “Beat” because that’s quite literally all it was—an instrumental sound bed, enough to serve as a jam by itself but inviting remixing, reinterpretation, or rapping. And “Laxed”? The day Jawsh made it—in about four hours—that’s just how he was feeling: “[I was] feeling relaxed so it made sense to call it ‘Laxed.’ ”

If you’ve been reading this No. 1 hits series in the past year and you recall the origin stories of “Old Town Road” or “The Box,” you know where this tale is headed: TikTok. It turns out that Jawsh’s dead-simple earworm was ideal for a viral dance challenge, one the TikTok community devised early this year, just as the pandemic locked down all of humanity: a couple of single-arm movements and a little hip-shimmy, accessible to all ages, genders, and body types. And nationalities: “Laxed” caught on as part of a #culturedance challenge, with folks dressed in all manner of culturally specific garb. “Laxed” Culture Dance TikToks poured forth from all over the planet. This global conquest seems obvious in hindsight given the tune’s lack of a language barrier and how multinational the siren jams scene is to start with: Polynesian teens and twentysomethings, making Latin-flavored and Jamaican-style beats. And even if you find the track’s sound noisome—who could blame you, it’s like a grade-school melody played on a digital vuvuzela—it’s hard not to be charmed by the many YouTube compilations of TikToks from around the world.

Among those charmed by this phenomenon was Jason Derulo, the second link in the chain and, at 31, the oldest participant. Both for someone his age and among famous people, Derulo is an unusually avid TikTok user—not just to promote his music but to do the occasional stunt, such as eating corn with a drill and pretending to chip his teeth. But Derulo took his TikTok fandom to the max in May when he dropped his latest single. In a move that reeks of “bite now, apologize later,” Derulo released “Savage Love,” a track he credited only to himself but which very obviously built off of “Laxed.” Within a day, Derulo had tagged Jawsh in a TikTok video of himself doing a variation on the #culturedance, calling his ditty a “remix,” but he hadn’t bothered to clear the sample, and Jawsh fans were incensed. As was Jawsh himself, reportedly—but after some hasty negotiations, the two artists came to an agreement, the young man signed to Columbia Records, and the single saw official release a month later, debuting on the Hot 100 in late June. Jawsh’s original title was now demoted to parentheses—this is when the “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” title appeared. But in a bit of justice, the artist credit placed the original beat-maker’s name first. By August, the song had cracked the Top 10—Jason Derulo’s gambit had worked.

Derulo may now seem crazy like a fox for issuing the single before legal overtures were made, but there’s also something a little desperate and hello-fellow-kids about “Savage Love.” Across his career, now more than a decade old, Derulo has been a savvy trend-hopper, jumping on everything from Auto-tune on early hits like “Whatcha Say” and “Ridin’ Solo,” to post-Macklemore horn-inflected hip-hop on “Talk Dirty” and “Wiggle.” On “Savage Love,” he’s doing an approximation of reggaetón singing, in a falsetto vaguely reminiscent of the Weeknd, and it all adds up to not much; he hasn’t fundamentally changed Jawsh’s skeletal melody, making his vocal feel like an addendum and the mashed-up song feel more like a meme. Not that the kids don’t love memes!

I harp on Derulo’s age because, even if he’s not all that old among millennial pop stars—about three months older than Taylor Swift and a year younger than Lizzo—he’s been around a remarkably long time. Derulo’s first and only previous No. 1 hit was 11 years, and about five pop cycles, ago: “Whatcha Say,” built out of a sample of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” (which itself dates to 2005 and was popularized by a scene that same year in TV’s The O.C., which … makes Derulo’s first hit feel even older, somehow). Derulo’s “Say” topped the Hot 100 in 2009, the same year Lady Gaga and Drake broke on the charts. Mind you, pop’s class of 2009 is having an awfully good 2020: All three of these artists have scored No. 1 hits this year. But the difference is, Gaga and Drake—both expert trend-surfers—have never disappeared from the charts for very long, whereas Derulo seems to spin in and out of fashion: a wave of hits in 2009–10 (“In My Head,” “Ridin’ Solo”), then a fallow period of cultural irrelevance before a sudden mid-decade wave (“Talk Dirty,” “Want to Want Me”), then another fallow period. I give the guy points for his persistence—like the Four Seasons in the mid-’70s latching onto disco, Derulo seems to know how to reboot his career with a new trend just when the hits dry up. But he is a null set as a pop star.

By late August, “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” by Jawsh 685 x Jason Derulo had hit an apparent ceiling of No. 7 on the chart. It proceeded to knock around the lower rungs of the Top 10 throughout September. During that month, a new smash slammed onto the chart, entering directly at No. 1: “Dynamite” by BTS, their first all-English hit and first American chart-topper. And this is where the third but arguably most important link in the chain enters the picture and performs catalytical magic.

In the past decade, especially, the tacked-on guest feature has become a tried-and-true method for goosing a song to No. 1. Rihanna’s “Rih-mix” of “S&M” with Britney Spears pushed that track to the top in 2011, as did the Missy Elliott remix of Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” that same year, the Kendrick Lamar remix of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” in 2015, and the Beyoncé remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” in 2017. The goal is to not only refresh an aging song but also entice the fans of the featured artist to boost its sales and streams. Perhaps you’ve heard that BTS have some … passionate fans? As I chronicled in my piece when “Dynamite” topped the Hot 100 in early September, no fan army in the world right now is bigger, more devoted, or better organized than the BTS A.R.M.Y. They take full credit—and they’re probably right—for getting BTS that first American chart-topper, after years of resistance by U.S. radio programmers. Adding the K-pop group to a remix instantly brings the song into the BTS universe and guarantees their devoted, often completist fanbase will want to buy it. Adding BTS to a hit that’s already sitting in the Top 10, just weeks after they topped the charts for the first time, is like pouring two cans of gasoline on a backyard barbecue.

Sure enough, after 16 weeks on the Hot 100, the addition of BTS in the song’s 17th week blasted “Savage Love” from No. 8 to No. 1 in a single bound. Post-BTS, the song’s weekly streams grew by 32 percent and its download sales by a whopping 814 percent. Those sales and streams were the reason for the leap to the top—“Savage’s” radio audience was actually down slightly for the week, and Billboard reports that airplay for the song is still overwhelmingly tilted toward the Jawsh-and-Derulo–only version. I realize it’s early days for the remix, but I don’t know what radio programmers are waiting for—the BTS version is better, because (I’d argue) they do more with Jawsh’s melody than Jason Derulo does. At certain points, the fluttery-voiced Jungkook of BTS trades off vocals with Derulo, in English, and you have to listen closely to parse who’s singing. But Suga’s second verse, sung in Korean, slightly inverts the melody and gives it a much-needed shake-up, and J-Hope’s bilingual third verse has a raplike cadence that gives the track some punch.

I bring up the mix of languages because it’s crucial to where “Savage Love”—and BTS—go from here. The song goes down in BTS history, not only as the group’s second American No. 1, but its first with some Korean in it. Radio wasn’t much help in Week One, but after years of resistance, radio programmers finally appear to be giving the South Korean group some serious spins: On Billboard’s latest Radio Songs chart, the seven-week-old “Dynamite” makes a big move to No. 26, up from No. 39. If BTS is finally becoming bankable to U.S. radio, it’s conceivable that its “Savage Love” remix could also see some airplay improvement. Which, as the BTS A.R.M.Y. fervently hopes, would soften the ground for an eventual U.S. radio hit by the band sung entirely in Korean. That would be huge. For now, the BTS remix of “Savage Love” ranks among the most consequential reboots of a hit in recent chart history—akin to Justin Bieber’s addition on “Despacito” in 2017.

Best of all, the BTS remix takes what was already a charming global phenomenon and makes it even more global: a song composed by a Pasifika teenager and coopted by an American singer achieved its final, and best, form through a South Korean boy band. To say nothing of its popularization on a Chinese app and memeification by thousands of hip-swaying global citizens. Honestly, “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” is better as a meme than it is as a song. But in the middle of a tenacious pandemic, and two weeks before an anxiety-inducing U.S. election, anything this unifying is welcome.