Music

Why the Weeknd Had to Use an Old Trick to Score His New No. 1

The singer’s previous chart-topper is so huge that it’s actually become a problem for him.

A cartoon drawing of The Weeknd and Ariana Grande
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via The Weeknd/YouTube.

Stories about how DJs have turned underdog records into smash hits are legion, but few hitmaking radio pros have as long a legacy as Gary Guthrie. In 1978, when Guthrie was the program director for Louisville pop station WAKY, he noticed something uncanny: Two ’70s superstars, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, had each recorded a version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and issued them on their own separate LPs, six months apart. But “Flowers,” a lament for a fading romance that Diamond himself co-wrote, wasn’t issued as a single, by him or by Streisand. So Guthrie created his own: He spliced together Diamond’s and Streisand’s separate recordings, which had similar arrangements and were even sung in the same key, into a single duet. Given the primitive technology of the day—no computers, no ProTools—the ease with which the recordings blended was remarkable. Guthrie tried it out on the air, and WAKY was inundated with requests for the phantom single. After the chopped-together duet spread to multiple radio stations, word got back to Diamond and Streisand, who went into a studio together and rerecorded “Flowers” as an actual “nose-to-nose” duet. When this official duet went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in late ’78, Casey Kasem honored Guthrie by playing his unofficial cut-together version of “Flowers” on Kasem’s popular countdown show American Top 40.

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With “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” Guthrie basically invented the artificial duet remix, a practice the music business would co-opt and professionalize in the decades to come, just as they did with Diamond and Streisand. This is a long but perhaps dubious legacy—these cobbled-together duets don’t always work as musical dialogues. As Stereogum No. 1 hits blogger Tom Breihan points out in his post about “Flowers,” even after recording in the same room, gruff Neil and diva Barbra are a weird match vocally, they sound like they’re singing past each other, and the lyrics don’t track as a he-said-she-said.

I think about “Flowers” a lot when a belatedly arranged duet makes a run for the top of the charts, like the stitched-together pairing that’s sitting atop this week’s Hot 100.

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Let me be fair to Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye and Ariana Grande, who each score their sixth No. 1 hit this week with “Save Your Tears.” Their voices sound good together, and as duet partners they have history. Back in 2014, the Weeknd scored his first-ever Top 10 hit as Grande’s guest on “Love Me Harder,” a pulsating duet from her My Everything album that peaked at No. 7. As recently as 2020, the two were collaborating on “Off the Table” (No. 35), another Grande-Weeknd teamup from her latest album Positions. But there’s a big difference between “Harder” and “Table” and “Save Your Tears”: those other two tracks were envisioned and recorded as duets from the jump. “Save Your Tears” existed for more than a year as a Weeknd solo cut. The new Grande remix is about as artificial as Gary Guthrie’s uncanny-valley faux duet version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” That said, these days on the charts, Abel and Ariana are hardly alone in leveraging the belated-duet gambit, and “Tears” is one of the better examples of a crass, Hot 100–driven trend.

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That trend caught on about a decade ago. As I’ve discussed before in this No. 1 hits series, the advent of digital music—which makes every track on an album fully consumable from day one—means anything past an album’s first or second single is old news when the label is picking promotable radio singles in a long-running campaign. (The labels no longer have scarcity at their disposal, as they did in the 20th century, when physical singles were issued one at a time.) The label needs fans to take a fresh look at that third or fourth radio hit, and a guest vocal—preferably deployed when a song that just can’t close the deal is already in the Top 10—is a surefire way to give that song some chart juice.

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The idea reached its first crescendo in 2011, the peak of the dollar-download, when Katy Perry deployed rappers on two tracks from her hit-packed Teenage Dream album, turning them both into No. 1 hits: Kanye West on her alien-sex curio “E.T.” and Missy Elliott on the bubbly “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” That same year, Rihanna nudged her lewd but lagging hit “S&M” to No. 1 for a single week by dropping a Britney Spears “Rih-mix.” Later in the decade, as the streaming era took hold, adding a Black performer to a white pop single, just as Perry had done a few years earlier, became an established recipe for crossover success. Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” featuring Kendrick Lamar (2015), Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul (2016), Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” duet with Beyoncé (2017), and Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” featuring Cardi B (2018) almost surely would not have topped the Hot 100 had it not been for their remixes. In all cases except the Sheeran–Beyoncé pairing, which was rerecorded in full, the guest was grafted onto the original mix of the song, no matter how inorganic that sounded.

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This trend has picked back up since the pandemic started. Early last year, as radio audiences fell to new lows, the top slot of the Hot 100 turned into a revolving door where a one-week burst of streaming or sales points could make the difference. Most of the No. 1s in this unsettled COVID period have entered on top, including several conceived as duets from the start, like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me” or Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” But a remarkable number achieved their leap to the top thanks largely to a late-breaking remix: Doja Cat’s “Say So” with Nicki Minaj; Megan’s “Savage” with Beyoncé; Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” with BTS; and now, The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” with Grande. In all four cases, the guest was added when the hit was in the Top 10 but seemed to be hitting a ceiling. And on each, the interplay between the lead and the guest varies in plausibility. Because Tesfaye and Grande have duetted before, “Save Your Tears” works sonically as a duet, but it’s best not to ponder the lyrics too hard, as the new version has both singers begging the other, “Take me back, ’cause I wanna stay.” (If you both still want the relationship, stop singing at each other and get a room!) Like their first pairing on “Love Me Harder,” the song works best as a mood, not a story.

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One other thing “Save Your Tears” has in common with “Love Me Harder”: Both songs were cowritten by Swedish megapop mastermind Max Martin, a frequent collaborator with both Tesfaye and Grande. So, as I’ve done many times before, it’s time to update Martin’s staggering stats. “Tears” is his 24th U.S. No. 1 as a songwriter—putting him two away and eight away from equaling Beatles bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively—and it’s Martin’s 22nd No. 1 as a producer, putting him just one away from that other Martin, Sir George. Max Martin has been able to rack up these totals because he has backup. His hits are almost always his own handiwork plus multiple writers from his Stockholm-based song factory. He and a Swedish collaborator or two will usually sit down with the frontline artist, from Taylor Swift to Maroon 5, to shape the song. For “Save Your Tears,” Martin and Tesfaye fused their teams. Martin pulled in frequent Swedish collaborator Oscar Holter, and the Weeknd came backed by fellow Canadians and longtime teammates Ahmad “Belly” Balshe and Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville. Together they crafted a yearning breakup song dressed up in all the trappings of ’80s new wave. Several critics have pointed out the “Tears” melody’s similarity to parts of Wham’s 1985 chart-topper “Everything She Wants,” and its digital-rock pulse and bright keyboard sheen evoke peak A Flock of Seagulls.

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We’ve heard the Weeknd try this Reagan-era sound before. And this five-man songwriting team—the Weeknd, Martin, Holter, Belly, and DaHeala—is identical to the five credited writers on a certain earlier, equally ’80s-tastic, synth-drenched hit of Tesfaye’s. Which, maybe, explains why “Save Your Tears” was the song that finally got the Weeknd out from under the shadow of that prior hit, “Blinding Lights,” his epic smash of unprecedented longevity.

It’s worthwhile to pause for a moment and marvel at that prior song’s stupefying stats, because they tell you a lot about how we got to its follow-up. As of this writing, “Blinding Lights” has been on the Hot 100 for 73 weeks, or about 17 months. That makes it, currently, the fourth longest-running hit in the chart’s history. (It will no doubt be in second place in about a month and a half, and by late summer it could very conceivably threaten the accursed all-time champ.) In most other chart feats, the song ranks first: It racked up the most weeks ever in the Top Five (43) and in the Top 10 (57)—and since it’s currently ranked at No. 11, don’t be surprised if it sneaks back into the Top 10 and pads that record. All this time, “Lights” has been radio-programmer catnip. It spent the most weeks atop Billboard’s Radio Songs chart in history: 26 weeks, or half a year, as the most-played song in America. Given all this, it’s no surprise “Blinding Lights” was Billboard’s No. 1 song for all of 2020. It’s the song that made your parents aware of the Weeknd.

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Both “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears” are from the Weeknd’s year-old After Hours, which has benefited from one of the longest-running, most meticulously crafted album campaigns ever. As I discussed when covering “Lights” for this series last April, movie buff the Weeknd envisioned the album as a de facto soundtrack to a spooky, bloody art film, unspooling across a series of music videos (the plot, such as it is, is indecipherable). The whole thing kicked off back in November 2019 with “Heartless,” the album’s first single and first of three No. 1 hits. In fact, that’s yet another record the Weeknd just set: With Hot 100 chart-toppers in three calendar years, After Hours becomes the first album by a male soloist ever to do this. And it’s the first one, period, since Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, which spun off “Miss You Much” in 1989, “Escapade” and “Black Cat” in 1990 and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” in 1991. The After Hours story, such as it is, culminates in “Save Your Tears,” which arrived in January 2021 and is possibly the most unsettling. The Weeknd performs the song with not only bandages but a creepily swollen face, before a King of Comedy–slash-Joker-style finale.

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Long before this clip existed, “Save Your Tears” had cracked the Hot 100 as an unpromoted album cut. But for the direct followup to “Blinding Lights,” Team Weeknd went instead with “In Your Eyes,” yet another Weekend/Martin/Holter/Belly composition with heavy ’80s overtones. They deployed all the same promo elements: “Eyes” had its own violent and disturbing video, and its push up the charts included a remix with Doja Cat. And none of it worked. “Eyes” never climbed higher than its debut position of No. 16, and the week after the Doja remix dropped early last June, the song only reached No. 32. Did Team Weeknd just pick a bad single? I wouldn’t say so. “In Your Eyes” is at least as catchy as “Save Your Tears.”

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No, there’s a much simpler explanation for the failure of “Eyes.” America—most especially radio programmers—weren’t done with “Blinding Lights” yet. It’s debatable whether they’re done even now! At adult-contemporary radio, the format where middle-aged folks get the kids’ hand-me-down hits, “Lights” is still No. 1, now in its 23rd week. (What was I saying about your parents?) “Blinding Lights” is the hit that ate the Weeknd’s career, a behemoth that won’t get out of the way.

The Weeknd’s label did finally get radio to play something else. While “Lights” is still—still!—ranked sixth at radio this week, “Save Your Tears” ranks second, its audience bigger than every song except Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s Silk Sonic single “Leave the Door Open.” With airplay of “Tears” reaching that threshold, the timing of the Ariana Grande remix was quite deliberate, finding the right moment to give the song rocket fuel for the last mile on the Hot 100. As it leaps from No. 6 to No. 1, Billboard’s stats affiliate MRC Data reports that streams and sales of “Tears” more than doubled and tripled, respectively, enough to eject Polo G’s “Rapstar” from the penthouse and remind Americans that Tesfaye sings other songs besides “Blinding Lights.”

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As always on the charts, timing is everything. In more ways than one: The Weeknd’s chart victory comes in the same week he wins a moral victory against the Recording Academy, the Grammy-giving body that snubbed him for their 2021 awards and prompted him to declare a permanent boycott. Last weekend, the Academy caved, announcing the termination of the nomination review committees that Tesfaye called “corrupt.” (I am skeptical that this move will actually make the Grammys more diverse, but that’s a debate for another day.) After the Grammy-rules announcement, the Weeknd held firm, saying he would continue to instruct his label not to submit his material for prizes. In theory, the remix of “Save Your Tears” would be eligible for a Grammy next year. But he’s good—he already got his chart victory lap, even if it took calling in the Barbra Streisand to his Neil Diamond to get him there.

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