Music

America’s No. 1 Song Is a Truly Improbable Smash

Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” is a chart-topping hit that’s queer in every sense of the word.

Steve Lacy plays the guitar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella.

Consider, for a moment, the fate of Shuggie Otis, the shoulda-been music legend of the 1970s. The multiracial Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was compared to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Otis spent years working on his magnum opus, the ethereal album Inspiration Information, only to see it stiff on the charts. Dropped by his label, Otis’ career was kept afloat by one fluky track he wrote in the early ’70s, “Strawberry Letter 23”—a wafty, romantic tone poem with a chiming, calliope-like melody, turned by the Brothers Johnson into a top five pop, No. 1 R&B hit in 1977. But Otis himself scored no hits and was near-invisible for decades, until his work was reissued in the early 2000s and made countless best-of lists. A hard-to-define trippy poet and alternative-R&B visionary, Otis simply had no vehicle to catch the public’s fancy in his day.

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Now, imagine if TikTok had existed in the ’70s. Then Shuggie Otis might have the career of the hard-to-define, trippy, L.A.-based alt-R&B iconoclast Steve Lacy. Late this summer, Lacy—a guitarist and songwriter who has lately styled himself like Rick James reborn as a post-SoundCloud indie rockerblew the internet’s collective mind by vaulting into the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100, thanks to massive TikTok exposure. This week, he ejects Harry Styles from the No. 1 spot, with a song even gauzier than “Strawberry Letter 23.”

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“Bad Habit,” Lacy’s bizarro chart-topper, continues the theme of 2022 as a Year of Vibes. It follows such moody No. 1s as Styles’ “As It Was” and Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves,” not to mention the unlikely chart comeback of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Lacy’s hit is moodier than any of those songs—I would not call it a banger. Built out of a slack guitar jangle, “Bad Habit” lopes, mopes, sidles, and glides. Lacy sings it in a pallid Zoomer croon, and its lyrics are open-hearted (“I wish I knew you wanted me”), aching (“Is it too late to pursue?”), and wan (“Thought you were too good for me, my dear”). It is, in other words, perfect TikTok music, ideally suited to soundtracking thousands of bedroom selfie musings. That’s how Lacy—who got his start in a band called, no joke, the Internet, and has worked with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Vampire Weekend—wound up not only cracking the Hot 100 for the first time but topping it.

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For the past few years, I could reasonably have retitled this Slate series “How Did TikTok Get This Song to No. 1?” Since 2019, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” ran roughshod over the charts, it’s been assumed that most if not all hits blow up thanks to the music-steeped social microvideo site (which, back in 2018, grew out of the now-defunct lip-sync-selfie site Musical.ly, whose song-syncing engine lives on in TikTok’s DNA). Even though TikTok views do not count directly toward the Hot 100, there’s ample evidence that the music business has become the TikTok business. Explosive growth in “time spent listening” by the average American—up a whopping 28 percent just in the first half of this year, even after big gains over the past half-decade—is, Billboard reports, due largely to TikTok. Frontline artists’ new music is held up by their label until it goes viral on TikTok. Just Google the name of any recent hit followed by “tiktok,” and you’ll inevitably find a slew of homemade clips soundtracked by that hit. Artists like Lizzo, Dua Lipa, and Polo G have expertly harnessed TikTok to push their songs up the Hot 100, and two years ago Jason Derulo essentially created a hit out of a TikTok meme.

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That said, the half-life of a TikTok meme is pretty short. For a song like Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” the subject of a raging dance challenge in the spring, TikTok lights the match, but then streaming, downloads, and especially good ol’ radio provide the oxygen that gets the song to the top of the charts. That’s also true of Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit”: The main reason it’s No. 1 this week is that, months after it broke on TikTok—it’s appeared in almost half a million videos—and then Spotify, its radio airplay is finally catching up. On Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, “Habit” broke into the Top 10 only last week. This week it ranks seventh in radio audience.

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Nonetheless, Lacy’s ditty might be the ultimate test of TikTok’s hit-making ability. It is so weird to hear this charmingly lackadaisical song on the radio, by a guy as low-key as Steve Lacy, who has been known to record nearly whole albums on his iPhone. By his standards, “Bad Habit” is fairly sonically rich, its gently funky guitar riff multitracked and layered with a keening synth line. Lacy’s guileless vocal ranges from emo whine to yearning falsetto, with sweet counterpoint from former The Voice contestant Britanny Fousheé, and the lyrics are the confessions of a hopeless romantic who regrets not speaking up: “I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit.” Lacy’s protagonist veers from insecure to cocksure. Having belatedly realized his crush object might actually share his affections, he boldly proposes sexual congress in the back of the mall. In real life, Lacy identifies as bisexual, and some listeners have identified a queer longing in “Bad Habit.” But the likelier reason the song—which wasn’t the first single from Lacy’s album Gemini Rights—took off with so many TikTokking Zoomers is the universality of its self-doubt.

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Songs like this may become online talismans, but virtually no one expected this dude to score a chart-conquering hit, at least under his own name. For most of the past decade-plus, Lacy, now 24, was a fine-print credit. As a teenager, he served as guitarist and sometime-producer for the spacey, jazzy Odd Future side project the Internet. Later, he was a songwriter and instrumentalist for loopy deep cuts by the likes of Denzel Curry, Chloe x Halle, and Solange. By the late ’10s, Lacy was finally receiving visible featured credits on such minor hits as Tyler, the Creator’s “911/Mr. Lonely” (No. 47 R&B, 2017), Kendrick Lamar’s “Pride” (No. 37 pop, 2017), and Vampire Weekend’s “Sunflower” (No. 25 Adult Alternative Airplay, 2020).

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All that goodwill and genre-crossing has served Lacy well, as evidenced by Billboard categorizing him pretty much everywhere. Right now, “Bad Habit” is on more than a half-dozen radio format charts, from R&B/Hip-Hop to Alternative Rock to Adult Pop to even Dance. (I’m not sure how anybody dances to this song, but of course there are remixes.) Because the magazine’s major genre charts are really just mini–Hot 100s, “Bad Habit’s” strong overall pop performance means the song is also (nominally) No. 1 in several of these formats. A month ago, Billboard trumpeted the fact that “Bad Habit” became the first song ever to top both its Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts. As ever, I am skeptical by the methodology that leads to these No. 1 placements—at R&B radio, “Habit” has gone no higher than No. 44; at alt-rock stations, No. 45—but it is remarkable that Lacy’s strummy, oddly soulful jam is legitimately racking up enough spins in these formats to chart in the first place. Indeed, beyond its TikTok success, this cross-genre status is what “Bad Habit” most has in common with “Old Town Road.” Like Lil Nas X’s now-legendary smash—which was country and hip-hop and novelty/comedy and … mostly, just pop—Lacy’s new chart-topper is everything and nothing at once. These songs make a mockery of genre.

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For the past month, I’ll admit I have been rooting for Steve Lacy’s song. Partially, I wanted something to topple Harry Styles’ curiously persistent “As It Was,” which was No. 1 for an astounding 15 weeks, one of the longest reigns in Hot 100 history. (Remember way back in April, when Styles’ ditty first dropped, and I said I liked it but implied it might be a faddish hit that could fade quickly on the charts? Yeah, well, I called that massively wrong.) All summer long, songs by other megastars—Drake, Future, Lizzo, Beyoncé—would interrupt Styles’ run on top for a week or two, and “As It Was” kept coming back. And by the way, it might not even be done: “As It Was” is still, all these months later, the most-played song on the radio, the beneficiary of FM programmers’ timidity amid declining ratings.

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“Bad Habit” climbed to No. 2 in early September, and for a while, it looked like Lacy would never eke out a win over Styles, the Goliath in this chart matchup. “Bad Habit” was stuck at No. 2 for four weeks. It remains to be seen if Lacy can hold off Styles any longer than could Aubrey Graham or Mrs. Carter. Even as “Bad Habit” goes the last mile this week, it does so with fairly weak data. In addition to its seventh-place airplay audience, Billboard reports that Lacy’s hit ranks second in streams and only 38th in downloads (increasingly, download buyers are either middle-aged or prepubescent, while Zoomers and millennials tend to stream). In a world where the songs that radio is willing to play and those that catch on with TikTokkers are very different, any song that graduates from meme to megahit is something to celebrate.

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Mostly, though, I was cheering on Steve Lacy because I cherish his proud weirdness and the very idea of a song this queer (in all senses) becoming a hit. Among improbable Hot 100 chart-toppers, it has the muted charm of Lisa Loeb wandering through an empty apartment, confessing her insecurities in 1994’s “Stay (I Missed You),” crossed with the radio-be-damned boldness of Childish Gambino’s 2018 shit-stirrer “This Is America.” Even comparing “Bad Habit” to these antecedents seems wrong—it’s a defiantly 2020s hit that makes the Gambino hit feel like a million hype cycles ago. It’s the current sound of the internet (and I don’t mean Lacy’s old band).

A recent Nylon profile of Lacy’s hit points out that all of those TikToks set to “Bad Habit” don’t seem to follow any challenge, dance craze, theme, or meme. Video creators use it to soundtrack mundane chores, celebrations, emo moments, or odes to their own bad habits. For those who have mourned the death of the monoculture, this is what it looks like now—a left-field balladeer leading a parade of misfits. They may be biting their tongues, but on the charts we can hear them loud and clear.

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