On a muggy late spring day in 2020, a perspiring British man drags himself down an empty street in East London. He is lugging what might as well be the weight of a pandemic-afflicted world—but, as it turns out, it’s a wagon, piled with several old, heavy tube televisions. The cameras capturing this Sisyphean feat are at a socially distanced remove from the sweaty, unmasked man who, video drama aside, looks like he’s actually seen some shit. Some of the video footage is from Londoners on lockdown, using their phones to capture the wagon-toting man while they anxiously peer out windows and doorways in their quarantined flats. A near-empty double-decker bus drives past the man, its side bedecked with an advert for his band’s new album, which he won’t be promoting with a live gig anytime soon. Hammering home that point, the man eventually lugs the TVs to the freight entrance of an empty theater and proceeds to set up the Trinitrons onstage by himself, one tube for each of his bandmates, who flicker onto the screens and start playing the song that’s been soundtracking this unsubtle but effective metaphor. The man then (in a trope borrowed from Bryan Adams in the ’80s) grabs a mic and bops around the stage all alone, singing his heart out in front of his tubular bandmates, witnessed by a sea of unoccupied seats that won’t have butts in them until 2021 at the earliest.
Who can relate? Apparently all of us, because this video time capsule from the start of the pandemic kicked off a nearly two-year rise for its song. Only now, in March 2022, as we pass through the other side of the Omicron wave (🤞🏼) is this the No. 1 song in America.
And speaking of waves … the song is “Heat Waves,” the artist is English alt-pop band Glass Animals, and the man in the video is its lead singer, primary songwriter and persona-definer Dave Bayley. This week, the band’s languid, sneakily infectious “Waves” ejects the Encanto cast’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the Hot 100’s No. 1 spot. There was no deus ex machina that led to this changing of the guard—no awards-show appearance for Glass Animals, no TV sync placement or even a new burst of TikTok activity for “Waves” (not this week, anyway). In fact, Billboard reports that the song’s radio audience and digital sales were actually down slightly, its streams up only a tiny amount. Truth be told, “Bruno” finally waned just enough, after five weeks on top, for Glass Animals’ pop requiem to swap places with the Encanto fugue. But it was already wild for “Heat Waves” to be as high as No. 2 last week. Mostly, what brought about the band’s victory was the song’s stubborn persistence. To put it mildly, “Heat Waves” has been hanging around a long time.
How long? A record-setting 59 weeks—the longest climb to No. 1 in Hot 100 history. The song debuted on the chart way back in mid-January 2021, and as indicated by my above précis of the music video, shot in London around June 2020, the ditty is even older than that. What took so long? For one thing, “Heat Waves” wasn’t the lead single from Glass Animals’ 2020 album, Dreamland (the one emblazoned on that bus in the video). The band tried out several other singles first. Not unlike “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” nobody involved with “Heat Waves” realized at first that this would become the album’s big hit—and at every turn, its chart rise has seemed ever more improbable. The band themselves is utterly gobsmacked. This kind of randomness is what makes the charts (and, by extension, this Slate series) fun.
Even making the pop charts at all was a feat for Glass Animals. This is the band’s first-ever Hot 100 hit, and it may be the first time you’ve heard of the band at all if you don’t listen to alt-rock radio. It’s built a devoted, medium-level following in both England and the U.S. over the last decade, earning a U.K. Mercury Prize nomination for the 2016 album How to Be a Human Being and playing venues the size of Radio City Music Hall as far back as five years ago. Between 2014 and mid-2020, Glass Animals scored a half-dozen hits on Alternative Airplay (the venerable Billboard chart, formerly known as Modern Rock Tracks, that dates to the ’80s and has tallied hits by the likes of the Cure, R.E.M., and Foo Fighters). Glass Animals fits comfortably—maybe too comfortably—on “alternative” “rock” playlists in the age of Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots. Its style is electro-pop fused with beatmaking, rock in trap clothing. A walk through the band’s ’10s oeuvre provides a snapshot into what it was like to be a mid-tier rock band in the SoundCloud era: From the trippy “Gooey” (No. 19 Alternative, 2015) to the thumping “Black Mambo” (No. 23 Alternative, 2015) to the percolating “Life Itself” (No. 14 Alternative, 2016), the titles seemed random, the beats vaguely danceable, the songs insinuating but fairly anonymous. In several of the videos, none of the band members appeared.
The most identifiable Glass Animal—the only one getting appreciable camera time—is Dave Bayley, who’s not only the singer but also the writer of virtually every song (when there are cowriters, it’s usually not another bandmate). Bespectacled and birdlike, Bayley gives off a kind of Lightning Seeds energy, if Ian Broudie started listening to more Timbaland and trap music. So deeply does Bayley personify the band that it’s tempting to think of Glass Animals as a one-man project, like Tame Impala, or a “band” driven by a sole instigator, like Nine Inch Nails, or even a legit band that devolves into a front for a single personality, like latter-day Maroon 5 a.k.a. Adam Levine and his army of song doctors. To me, Glass Animals reads more like the Chris Martin–fronted Coldplay: overwhelmingly defined by the lead singer-cum-songwriter but playing and presenting as a credible band. In interviews, the group speaks fondly of their bond, and the non-Bayley members do matter. In 2018, a devastating cycling accident that almost killed drummer Joe Seaward really did throw Glass Animals for a loop, delaying its next album by over a year.
This is where Glass Animals’ story gets interesting. At the dawn of the ’20s, a solemn Bayley was writing songs after Seaward’s brush with death, and the band was poised for the big time. Back in 2016, How to Be a Human Being had managed to crack the Top 20 on the album chart, which set the band up for a breakthrough on its next LP, Dreamland. This is the moment where a label (in this case, Universal Music’s Republic Records) typically starts throwing boldface names at an act to take them to the next level. The funny part is where the label invested its firepower—everywhere but the eventual hit. For the album’s lead single “Your Love (Déjà Vu),” Glass Animals had Paul Epworth, famed for his work with Adele, as a co-producer; accordingly, the up-tempo pop tune (picture Adele in her occasional banger mode) reached No. 7 on Alternative Airplay. (To be fair, as of summer 2020, this was a big deal for the striving band, which had never cracked the Top 10 on the alt-rock chart before.) For the eventual second single, journeywoman songwriter Brittany Hazzard, a.k.a. Starrah (coauthor of hits by Rihanna, Camila Cabello, Drake and Maroon 5), cowrote with Bayley; that collaboration, “Tangerine,” a bassy thumper with trap energy, reached No. 12 on the Alternative chart. Speaking of trap, there was even a track on the album, “Tokyo Drifting,” with a guest rapper, Miami MC Denzel Curry, which might well have been a single had the label decided to push in that direction. Republic was going to cross over Glass Animals by any means necessary.
But the song that would take Bayley’s band to the top of the Hot 100 had no guests at all, was written and produced by him alone, and was buried in the back half of the album. Say this for “Heat Waves”: the label thought enough of it in mid-2020 to commission that video of sweaty Dave hoisting the TVs down that London street. But it was one of several clips they shot all at once, along with several other album cuts, leveraging a limited window during the height of the pandemic to limit the crew’s COVID exposure and make up for the fact that the band couldn’t tour. Label and band were rewarded for their efforts with a No. 7 debut for Dreamland on the Billboard 200, Glass Animals’ best-ever showing in America, in August 2020. That same month, a Billboard profile of the band revealed all of the creative workarounds they’d dreamed up to promote Dreamland—but the article doesn’t even mention “Heat Waves,” because no one knew it was a single yet.
Bayley says he penned “Heat Waves” after 10 minutes of noodling on his guitar late one night, when an eight-chord pattern suddenly emerged and he decided to keep just that. In essence, that hypnotic pattern is the whole song, which would be annoying if it weren’t so infectious; it pulls off the Velvet Underground “Sweet Jane” trick of evoking a whole world out of variations on one repeated riff. That riff is also well matched with the chorus’s cryptic, mantralike lyrics: “Sometimes, all I think about is yoooou/Late nights in the middle of Juuune/Heat waves been faking me ouuut/Can’t make you happier nowwww.” Bailey’s production, informed by his hip-hop fandom, adds sonic sweeteners—some opening vocals that are pitched-down and slurry, Houston rap-style; a keening, gently plucked guitar counterpoint that keeps recurring like a sample; ticking 808s, paired with a deep kick drum that resets the beat every few measures—to give the illusion that a lot more is going on.
And in a sense, a lot is going on: On the surface, the song reads as a romantic bop, a typical tale of a relationship on the rocks (“Now I’ve got to let you go/ You’ll be better off in someone new”). But Bayley, still reeling from the angst of almost losing his bandmate and friend, and also reflecting on the death of another friend years earlier (a bestie who’d passed “in the middle of June”), melded all that woozy wee-hours brooding into a song that anticipated the existential despair of the pandemic: “You look so broken when you cry/One more and then I’ll say goodbye.” Though a Millennial, the 32-year-old Bayley—barely 30 when he wrote “Heat Waves”—captured both the genre-less musical sensibilities and the social media–ready angst of Generation Z.
So of course the song became a smash on TikTok…eventually. But Minecraft players—another massive demimonde of very-online Zoomers—got to it first. In the fall of 2020, a long-running fanfic in the megapopular sandbox video game—between two huge Minecraft YouTubers named Dream and Georgenotfound, who’d been portmanteau’d into the slash romance #Dreamnotfound—fused with “Heat Waves” into a wave of fan art themed around a swooning “I burn you?” “You melt me” plot.
That was enough to nudge Republic into tapping “Heat Waves” as the fourth single from Dreamland. It got off to the slowest possible start, debuting at No. 100—yup, the bottom rung—in January 2021, still a first for Glass Animals. It fell off, then came back a few weeks into February; the half-life of a Minecraft meme is such that this might have been as far as the fanfic community could fuel a real-world hit song. Through the spring, the song petered around below No. 50, seemingly unable to break out of its C-grade meme status. But that’s around the time that TikTokkers began latching onto “Heat Waves.”
Fueled in large part by TikTok, “Heat Waves” finally edged into the Top 40 and just kept creeping higher, in a chart pattern totally opposite to our explosive-burst norm these days. As I often remind readers of this series, platforms like TikTok and Minecraft and…um, Peloton do not count directly for the Hot 100. (To date—maybe someday! A decade ago I didn’t think YouTube would ever count.) But these mediums do instigate piles of consumption in more traditional media that does count for the charts. At first, Glass Animals’ virality was reflected mostly in digital streams and sales, where “Heat Waves” has done well, if not exceptionally well; it’s gotten as high as 13th in downloads and, as of this week, fifth in streams. This persistent digital consumption was enough to keep nudging the song higher. Throughout 2021, “Heat Waves” kept setting new Hot 100 longevity records, including the slowest rise into the Top 10 as of last November (42 weeks) and, just after the 2021 holidays, the slowest rise into the Top Five (51 weeks).
But the bigger tell was in radio airplay, the medium consumed by us olds. As ever, radio brought up the rear but is now the primary reason “Heat Waves” is No. 1. After 32 weeks on the Radio Songs component of the Hot 100, Glass Animals’ moody jam is second only to Adele at U.S. terrestrial radio. It’s been endorsed by programmers as the sort of ambient hit that’s pleasing to kids and adults, rock fans and hip-hop fans, the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. As the brain trust at Billboard has pointed out, once radio finds a song that works with all audiences, it will keep playing it—especially during COVID times, when radio listening is down across the board as fewer people commute. So think of it this way: Both our newest hitmaking medium, TikTok, and our oldest, radio (not counting Vaudeville and, I dunno, wandering troubadours) love “Heat Waves.”
So I think we have to call it: Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” is the ultimate sleeper hit in pop history, not just for its sheer chart longevity but for the way its sullen sentiments and lapping currents of virality lay dormant until the nation was ready. Ten years ago this week, a similarly slow-growing, similarly heartsick alternative-to-pop crossover hit, Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” was just breaking into the Top 10, on its way to its own improbable rise to No. 1. It’s an apt comparison to “Heat Waves,” wherein Dave Bayley also laments a lover who’s leaving him. But the subtext of “Heat Waves” is much graver than that of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” America in 2012 was contending with nothing worse than a crappy presidential election. In 2022, we’re facing the last throes of a stubborn pandemic and the start of what we hope won’t be a third World War. We are all lugging a wagon filled with dead weight. No wonder Dave Bayley’s morose 2020 bop—a relic of early COVID that still feels all too apt—is top of the pops.