Music

Why the Year’s Most Popular Song Never Went to No. 1

Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” is Billboard’s top song of 2021, even though it never topped the Hot 100.

Dua Lipa dances onstage with two other dancers in the background.
Dua Lipa performs onstage in London on Nov. 22, 2020. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for dcp.

Chart historians rank 1965 among pop’s greatest years. An amazing array of totemic songs topped Billboard’s Hot 100 that year. Five straight No. 1s by the Beatles—a sweep from “I Feel Fine” through “Yesterday”—and the first two by the Rolling Stones. A stunning four chart-toppers by the Supremes, plus one apiece by their male Motown peers the Temptations and the Four Tops. Two by the Byrds, including the only No. 1 written by Bob Dylan. And definitive hits by the Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, and the Beach Boys. It was an embarrassment of riches atop the charts … and yet none of these classics, according to Billboard, ranked as the top song of the year (not even the pair of No. 1s by the eccentric Herman’s Hermits).

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In December 1965, the magazine revealed that the year’s top hit was “Wooly Bully,” a perennial party record by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. What made the Pharaohs’ year-end top ranking improbable was that, in the summer of ’65, “Wooly Bully” had only gotten as high as No. 2. But it was a long-lasting hit, riding the chart for 18 weeks—a relative eternity, in an era when chart-toppers cycled on and off the chart in as little as 10 weeks. (The Beatles’ “Yesterday” was gone in just 11.) “Bully” was the first hit in Hot 100 history to best all comers on the year-end chart despite peaking in the runner-up slot.

Only a couple more No. 2 hits have achieved this rare feat since. And another one was just announced last week: another record that hung around all year, spending most weeks in the Top 10, but never got higher than No. 2. And like “Wooly Bully,” it’s a three-minute party. Behold, my sugaboos: In 2021, we were all “Levitating.”

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I’ll confess, I’ve been yearning for an opportunity to write about Dua Lipa, the stylish and savvy British Albanian pop star, for this Slate No. 1 hits series. I am a huge fan of both Lipa and Future Nostalgia, my favorite album of 2020—a set of postmodern-disco bops that got me through the (hopefully) worst of the pandemic. The problem is Lipa’s ever-growing string of hits kept missing the top slot, making her ineligible for this series.

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That includes the No. 2–peaking “Levitating,” a song with one of the most circuitous chart runs in recent memory. During more than a year on the Hot 100, it has yo-yo’d all over: up and down the chart, then up again. Lipa, her label Warner Music, radio programmers—everybody underestimated its potency, at least at first. It even survived a guest artist who both gave the song a boost and then, stupidly, got himself yanked from it just as it was peaking. And now, the final twist in the story: It’s Billboard’s top song for all of 2021, besting No. 1 hits by such chart crushers as Olivia Rodrigo, the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, BTS, Lil Nas X, Drake, the Kid Laroi, Justin Bieber, and Cardi B. I don’t write about No. 2 hits for this series often. But as the No. 1 song of the year, “Levitating” has more than earned it.

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Teeming with bangers, Future Nostalgia has been something of a sleeper itself, never rising higher than No. 3 on the album chart (a peak it achieved nearly a year into its run) but spinning off hit after hit. The first of these broke on the charts more than two years ago: the bass-bumping “Don’t Start Now,” which landed in November 2019 and reached its Hot 100 peak of No. 2 right at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. For the second radio single, Team Lipa went with “Break My Heart,” a perky thumper that inadvertently interpolated a classic ’80s hit by Inxs. Whether or not it was handicapped by this revelation, “Break” peaked at a modest No. 13 during the summer of ’20.

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In retrospect, “Break My Heart” was the wrong single to follow “Don’t Start Now.” It broke the Future Nostalgia campaign’s momentum. Now, to be fair, in the music business, 20/20 hindsight is commonplace—as I’ve said several times in this series and on my podcast, when it comes to picking the hits, nobody knows anything. So, yeah, it’s easy to say now that “Levitating” should’ve been the second single from Future Nostalgia. (Maybe the first?) I’ll admit even I, a big fan of the album, didn’t see it as the obvious choice; it insinuates itself into your brain over time. Cowritten by club-pop veterans Clarence Coffee Jr., Sarah Hudson, and Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk, “Levitating” is danceable but swaying, with a bouncy, rubbery sound effect punctuated by double claps. The lyrics, too—about a love affair metaphorically blasting off to outer space—look simple on paper, but Lipa’s delivery is tricky. She drops them triple time on the verses, so speedy they sound like, “Ifyouwannarunaway/ WithmeIknowagalaxy/ AndIcantakeyou for a ride.” Then on the chorus she catches her breath, going dreamy and romantic in the style of vintage ’70s disco: “I got you, moonlight/ You’re my starlight/ I need you, all night/ Come on, dance with me.” And the whole thing pays off with a triple-time callback to the triple-time verses: “I’mlevitating.” In short, the song is fierce enough to dance to, mellow enough to bop to while driving—and the lyrics’ speedy delivery offers a worthy challenge for anyone daring to sing along.

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When “Levitating” was finally chosen as a U.S. radio single in the fall of 2020, at first it too looked like an also-ran, breaking slowly on the charts. Warner Music took out an insurance policy, commissioning a remix with a genre-crossing assist: platinum rapper DaBaby. Musically, this felt like gilding the lily: The original mix of “Levitating” already included a pseudo–rap break from Lipa herself (“My love is like a rocket, watch it blast off/ And I’m feeling so electric, dance my ass off”). Adding a real rap verse to this disco gem felt superfluous, like so many tacked-on rap features throughout pop history, from Bobby Brown to Cardi B. But it was easy to understand why the label tapped the man born Jonathan Kirk, given his 2020 hot streak—DaBaby’s team-up with Roddy Ricch, “Rockstar,” was a seven-week No. 1 and that year’s Song of the Summer. For what it’s worth, DaBaby did a perfectly cromulent job. His verse was ham-handed but sporadically clever and basically inoffensive. This is in contrast to what DaBaby did in 2021, which was deeply offensive (more on that in a moment).

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By the end of the 2020, “Levitating,” credited on the charts to Dua Lipa featuring DaBaby, had already peaked at No. 20 and fallen back. The song seemed so done-and-dusted that by midwinter 2021, Warner changed focus: It reissued Future Nostalgia in a “Moonlight Edition” with a brand-new Dua Lipa bonus track, the lilting “We’re Good,” and started working that shiny object to radio. But even as radio programmers spun “We’re Good” (which would stall on the Hot 100 at No. 31), they never quite took their eye off “Levitating.” Neither did TikTokers—it felt like the song was seeping into the zeitgeist gradually. Around February, with “We’re Good” climbing but its predecessor finally catching on via social media, radio programmers did something very unusual: They returned “Levitating” to their rotations as if it were a fresh hit. One programmer at a pair of pop stations in L.A. and Chicago later affirmed to Billboard that TikTok helped: “It sure is an interesting case. There was a period as it was reemerging at radio when you couldn’t open TikTok without seeing it all over your feed.”

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In the middle of all this, at a pandemic-delayed Grammy ceremony in March, Dua Lipa won a prize for Best Pop Vocal Album and turned in a well-received performance of “Levitating,” backed by DaBaby. The song was already on the rise, having cracked the Top 5 the month before. The Grammys eventually spurred another surge for the song on TikTok, with a springtime wave of clips keying into the pre-chorus line “You want me, Iwantyoubaby.” By mid-May, “Levitating” had risen to No. 2, its peak. By the end of June, with the song still lodged in the Top 5, Lipa and DaBaby had the top song at radio, completing the longest climb to the top of the Radio Songs chart in history (37 weeks). All this for a track that had nearly died commercially and then been resurrected. “Levitating” had generated its own momentum.

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Momentum that DaBaby then nearly killed in late July, with a homophobic and ignorant onstage rant at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival about gay people and AIDS that sounded like it was teleported from 1983. This has to rank as popular music’s most face-palming own goal of 2021. Even as the rapper was dropped from other summer festival concerts, he refused to fully apologize. (He still doesn’t sound sorry. DaBaby did little to make amends and, as late as last week, is reported to have ghosted the LGBTQ groups that tried to school him.).

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As appalling as this was, it offered an interesting, accidental experiment in what so-called “cancellation” would do to a very popular song. Unlike R. Kelly’s moment of public scorn, which hit many years after his commercial peak, DaBaby’s rant happened at the very instant “Levitating” was the most-played radio hit in the country. For her part, an aghast Dua Lipa cut ties quickly. “I’m surprised and horrified at DaBaby’s comments,” her July Instagram post read. “I really don’t recognize this as the person I worked with. I know my fans know where my heart lies and that I stand 100% with the LGBTQ community.” By year’s end, she even declined to submit the DaBaby remix for Grammy consideration, which would have made the track eligible for a 2022 prize.

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[Read: Every Twist and Turn of the DaBaby Saga]

As it turned out, the answer to the “Levitating”-vs.-DaBaby quandary was simple. The public and radio stations switched, en masse, to the version of “Levitating” that should have been a hit in the first place, Dua Lipa’s fully solo album cut. Within days of DaBaby’s remarks, radio airplay and Spotify streams for the remix plummeted. The percentage of “Levitating” consumption the remix accounted for, according to MRC Data, went from nearly 80 percent of streams and 70 percent of airplay to less than 50 percent in both metrics, which meant that Billboard—by its own statistical principles—had to drop DaBaby’s name from the “Levitating” chart credit by early August.

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Ultimately, DaBaby’s scandal was a speed bump for Dua Lipa. “Levitating” stayed atop radio playlists for most of the summer and, on the Hot 100, remained lodged in the Top 10 deep into the fall, where it could be found as recently as a month ago. All told, despite never rising higher than No. 2, “Levitating” (both versions, collectively) spent a total of 41 weeks in the Top 10, the second-highest total in history after the Weeknd’s indefatigable “Blinding Lights,” Billboard’s new pick for the biggest hit of all time. The fact that all 41 of Dua Lipa’s Top 10 weeks occurred between January and November 2021 turned out to be ideal for year-end tallying purposes, and helps explain why “Levitating” is the year’s No. 1 song.

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Throughout Hot 100 history, Billboard’s year-end tallies often reward tortoiselike persistence over harelike bursts. Though the year’s top song is often the one with the most weeks at No. 1 (e.g., “Old Town Road” in 2019, “Uptown Funk!” in 2015, “Happy” in 2014, “Tik Tok” in 2010, “Irreplaceable” in 2007), nearly as often the top song is one with only a handful of weeks in the penthouse but stubborn persistence, especially at radio: Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” in 2016, for example, or Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” in 2006, or Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” in 2002. If you go back just a little before Nickelback, you will find the last time a No. 1 song of the year was a No. 2–peaking hit. It happened in both 2000 and 2001, when Faith Hill’s country-pop crossover ballad “Breathe” and Lifehouse’s alt-rock–lite “Hanging by a Moment” were their respective years’ top hits despite stalling in the runner-up slot. In each case, these mellow, adult-friendly songs sat like rocks on radio playlists for months. A similar radio-driven strategy buoyed most of the songs in 2021’s year-end Top 5, including not just Lipa’s smash but also the Weeknd and Ariana Grande’s slow-growing “Save Your Tears” (No. 2 for the year), 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s genre-confounding “Mood” (No. 4), and Olivia Rodrigo’s everlasting gobstopper of a hit “Good 4 U” (which, in something of an upset, placed higher for the year than her breakthrough “Drivers License”—No. 5 vs. No. 9—as the torch ballad topped radio playlists but burned out faster).

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I have long argued that radio is the truth serum of hitmaking. All that callout research and market testing—the very thing we complain about, the reason why Top 40 stations play the hits more than 100 times a week—means that programmers know exactly which songs we’ll stay tuned for, and which will make us flip the dial. Sure, hardcore fans of BTS or Drake might show up immediately for “Butter” (No. 11 for the year) or “Way 2 Sexy” (No. 48), but a larger audience will keep the dial tuned for “Blinding Lights” (No. 3 for 2021, No. 1 for 2020) or Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” (No. 6). And in 2021, it turned out that no song felt like a friendlier companion than Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”—the song DaBaby couldn’t ruin, the weighted blanket of bops. Even if we wanted to, we can’t stop.

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