Much of the eternal, vigorous debate around what gets to be called country music and what doesn’t tends to center on what’s happening on the radio charts at any given time, which usually reflect as much appreciation for pop trends as they do country history. That’s certainly true of the present moment, where more traditional country sounds are often abutting production that looks afield to EDM and hip-hop – even though the charts are but one piece of a commercial industry that is now home to artists as diverse as Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris.
Even so, it’s hard to ignore how that argument is playing out around “Meant to Be,” the hit collaboration between pop singer Bebe Rexha and country duo Florida Georgia Line that has spent a total of 14 weeks to date at Number One on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart. Rexha – a New Yorker with no prior country chart entries – now finds herself in the odd position of holding a country chart record among women, at a time when other women in country are finding it nearly impossible to get their songs played on radio. You aren’t alone to be wondering how this could happen.
To explain it, you have to go back to October 11th, 2012, when Billboard announced changes to methodology for several of its charts, including the long-running Hot Country Songs. From that date forward, instead of compiling only airplay from its panel of 140-or-so reporting radio stations, the chart has factored in data from streaming and digital downloads. But even more than that, the numbers also started to include input from a wider group of radio stations – many of which reside in formats other than country.
Which is why, on the first Hot Country Songs chart after the changes were implemented, Taylor Swift’s crossover hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” rocketed to Number One despite struggling to maintain a spot in the teens just one week earlier. Meanwhile, on Billboard‘s Country Airplay Chart – the title that was given to the old radio-only chart – the song tumbled to Number 36. Following this change, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” set a Hot Country Songs record for the most weeks at Number One by a female performer, passing Connie Smith’s eight-week chart-topper “Once a Day.”
Swift still holds the record for solo female performers, since Rexha shares the spotlight here with Florida Georgia Line, but “Meant to Be” now holds the Hot Country Songs record for a female-led song as it surpasses Little Big Town’s 13-week Number One “Girl Crush.” In a related achievement, FGL’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley got to set their own chart record under the same methodology with their debut “Cruise,” riding a remix featuring rapper Nelly to an all-time HCS record of 24 weeks on top in late 2012 and early 2013. That record held until 2017, when Sam Hunt’s similarly conveyance-obsessed “Body Like a Back Road” eclipsed it with a 34-week run in the top spot.
Whether ‘Meant to Be’ belongs on country radio is irrelevant – it’s already there.
“Meant to Be,” on the other hand, was buried at the end of Rexha’s 2017 EP All Your Fault: Pt. 2 from August and wasn’t even its first single. That honor went to “The Way I Are (Dance With Somebody),” a Whitney Houston-referencing club banger featuring rapper Lil Wayne that climbed to a respectable Number 34 on the U.S. Hot 100.
That milestone would soon be obliterated by “Meant to Be.” It’s the latest example of a cross-genre marketing strategy for Florida Georgia Line as country shifts slightly back toward more traditional sounds. In the last two years alone, they’ve worked on tracks with Tim McGraw (“May We All”) and the Backstreet Boys (“God, Your Mama and Me”) that performed well as country singles and served to soften their reputation as bro kings. They also ventured into pop and electronic music, working with the Chainsmokers (“Last Day Alive”), Hailee Steinfield (“Let Me Go”) and Rexha before circling back to country with Morgan Wallen (“Up Down”).
Rexha wrote “Meant to Be” with Hubbard, Josh Miller, David Garcia and Shama Joseph, using some advice from Hubbard’s wife as inspiration in a late-night session. It turns a little nonsense about romantic destiny into an uplifting mantra, uniting a set of heavy-handed piano chords similar to those used in FGL’s “H.O.L.Y.” (or the Chainsmokers’ “Closer”) and a stark-but-elastic groove with the line, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be, baby just let it be.” In an unusual twist, Hubbard handles the opening verse, followed by Rexha in the second. Kelley retreats to the background, adding harmonies in the chorus, which does seem like it was designed to sink its repetitive hooks into attention-avoidant brains and either delight or annoy, depending on one’s tolerance for pop music science. It’s fine as a single, but hard to imagine as a phenomenon that can outlive a rapidly accelerating and mutating pop landscape.
The public-facing line on the song’s country success has been something akin to a happy accident, but there was a more coordinated effort happening. Rexha’s label Warner Bros. released the song to radio in October and it bowed at Number 61 on the November 11th edition of the all-genre Hot 100. Its introduction to the Hot Country Songs chart wasn’t far behind. In mid-November, promotional reinforcements from Florida Georgia Line’s label Big Machine were called in to start pushing the song at country radio – a full-page ad was placed in the November 20th edition of Billboard Country Update, a weekly trade PDF of country industry and chart news. At the time, seven country stations had already started playing the song and it managed to sneak in to the very bottom of the December 9th Country Airplay chart at Number 57. But the real surprise came with the December 16th Hot Country Songs chart, where the combination of massive streaming, pop airplay and interest from country radio propelled it to debut at Number One, where it remains.
It’s one of four songs in Hot Country Songs history to begin its life in the top spot, following Garth Brooks’ “More Than a Memory,” Craig Wayne Boyd’s “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” and the multi-artist medley “Forever Country,” credited to Artists of Then, Now & Forever. Of these, only Brooks’ song – a 2007 juggernaut that brought him, momentarily, out of retirement long enough to repackage some of his songs for The Ultimate Hits collection – managed the accomplishment by the old chart methodology of pure radio airplay. The others thrived under the new chart rules: Boyd, a Season 7 champion of The Voice, had his big moment immediately following his victory on the show and hasn’t returned to the charts since (though he did release the new album Top Shelf in October 2017). “Forever Country,” a medley that welded together John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for 30 past and present country stars to sing, was created to commemorate the 50th annual CMA Awards. That’s strange company for “Meant to Be,” however one looks at it.
It’s only in the current chart environment that such record-shattering chart feats would be possible for crossover acts. Country has known plenty of crossover hits over time – Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” and Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” come to mind – but it’s less common for songs coming from the other direction, particularly in the diffuse radio environment that predated chart changes and airplay monitoring. On pure airplay alone, Bon Jovi and Kid Rock both made dents on Hot Country Songs. For Bon Jovi, it was a 2006 Number One, with an assist from Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” while Rock peaked just outside the Top 20 with “Picture,” featuring Sheryl Crow (or the alternate Allison Moorer version). But those took weeks to reach their final destinations.
For “Meant to Be,” country radio airplay still lags behind its performance on Hot Country Songs. But its extended run at Number One has given terrestrial country radio stations time to add it into rotation. In the most recent Billboard Country Airplay chart, it’s at Number 11 with an increasing audience. That’s had a mirror effect to its beginnings – if pop airplay and streaming helped it leap to Number One on Hot Country Songs, the growth of country airplay is now a crucial factor in its Top 10 status on the all-genre Hot 100 chart. Whether it belongs on country radio is irrelevant at this point – it’s already there. But in this instance, the chart methodology has favored a pop crossover with broad support and big streaming numbers above artists who are working exclusively in country.
Whatever the case, “Meant to Be” has secured its place in country chart history for the time being. For purists, it’s yet another flashpoint in the ongoing debate about pop and country blending together, which draws plenty of rancorous opinions from all sides. But it’s worth remembering that, while the charts are useful as measurement tools of the present, they never show the full stylistic breadth of country music. This time next year, it’ll be an entirely different picture.