The top country song of 2018 to date is from the Brooklyn-born, Staten Island-raised, and hip-hop loving Bebe Rexha, whose duet with Florida Georgia Line on “Meant to Be” has racked up more than one billion streams worldwide and has spent 28 weeks at Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs charts as of June 16th.
Rexha, whose debut album arrives June 22nd, is a surprise country radio queen — her biggest hit previously was a 2015 duet with rapper G-Eazy, “Me, Myself & I,” and she’s perhaps best known for co-writing Eminem and Rihanna’s 2013 smash “The Monster.” But “Meant to Be” is the leading edge of a wave of pop-country collaborations that look to be a defining trend in 2018.
Country has long embraced a mixtape aesthetic that takes in pop, rock and hip-hop – Florida Georgia Line has scored hits with both the Backstreet Boys and Nelly in the past. The cross-pollination from the pop side, though, is more recent, and it’s powerful. Zedd’s collaboration with Maren Morris, “The Middle,” remains in the Top 10 after five months on the Hot 100, and a recent remix of Camila Cabello’s “Never Be the Same” featuring rising country artist Kane Brown put the song on both Spotify’s pop and country playlists – raising its streams in the week after its release by 10 million, a 15 percent bump. In mid-April, “The Middle,” “Meant to Be” and “Never Be the Same” dominated pop radio, holding down the top three spots on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart, while Justin Timberlake’s duet with Chris Stapleton, “Say Something,” hovered at Number 16.
“Streaming is changing the rules,” says Tom Corson, co-chairman and COO of Rexha’s label, Warner Bros. “Country’s always been very close to pop, and pop a little less close to country, but you’re getting a generation of writers and artists who listen to both. As people open up – programmers and playlisters – there’s more room for these collaborations to move across genres.”
Crossing genres is one way of maximizing exposure in an increasingly fragmented listening environment, but for country artists, these collaborations offer the sort of international exposure that’s increasingly crucial in a music business that has embraced a global perspective for both streaming and touring. “Our music needs to travel,” says Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Florida Georgia Line’s label, Big Machine (also home to country-pop crossover pioneer Taylor Swift). On a March trip to London for the C2C: Country to Country festival, Borchetta noted four songs with country artists in heavy rotation on BBC Radio One, including Hailee Steinfeld and Alesso’s “Let Me Go,” which features Florida Georgia Line. “These things are helping our music and artists in the streaming world, where we have to be able to travel, because we have to scale.”
“Historically we’d have to to wait for the BBC to play a country record in light rotation,” says Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Nashville, home to Brown and Morris (who is also featured on a duet with Niall Horan, formerly of One Direction, and is currently opening worldwide dates for Horan). “Now all of a sudden people in London are discovering [music] through streaming. Maren is on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits, which is the largest playlist in the world. It’s broadening her brand at a global level.”