How Should Billie Eilish Feel About Her No. 2 Debut — and Career-Best First Week — For ‘Hit Me Hard and Soft’?

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Even at the end of a fairly absurd three-month rush of new releases from A-listers and breakout hits from up-and-comers, Billie Eilish‘s third album Hit Me Hard and Soft has managed to make a real impact. The album moves 339,000 units in its first week of release — over 100,000 more than 2021’s Happier Than Ever — while also charting all 10 of its tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 dated June 1, led by the No. 5-bowing “Lunch,” the highest-debuting song of her career.

It’s still only good for the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200, however, as Taylor Swift reigns there for a fifth week with her The Tortured Poets Department blockbuster. The chart race between the two pop superstars got a good deal of attention from fans last week, particularly as both artists continued to release new editions of their respective albums throughout the tracking week, boosting their overall numbers in the process.

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Does the first-week performance still represent a success for Eilish, even without the No. 1? And which A-lister could be next with a big release now that the calendar finally looks a little less crowded for a bit? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Billie Eilish debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 this week with Hit Me Hard and Soft — her first album not to enter at No. 1, but with the best first-week number of her career (339,000). On a scale from 1-10, how pleased do you think Eilish and her team should be with this first-week performance?

Katie Atkinson: I’m thinking a 5. Sure, she had the best first-week numbers of her career, but it has to sting to not debut at No. 1 after her two previous chart-toppers. Both of those albums (Happier Than Ever and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?) ended up spending three weeks atop the Billboard 200, so it remains to be seen whether Hit Me Hard and Soft could eventually reach the pinnacle, which might soften the blow of this No. 2 start.

Hannah Dailey: I would say 9! Those numbers are great. If you’ve already topped your own biggest-week benchmarks and are cruising in at an impressive No. 2, the desire to have had a perfect No. 1 is really just an optics issue at this point. She should be really proud.

Lyndsey Havens: 9. Billie’s first-week numbers helped make history when Hit Me along with Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets led to the first time in eight years that two albums surpassed 300,000 units in the same tracking week. That’s no small feat. And while of course scoring a third consecutive No. 1 on the chart would have been nice for Eilish – and had it not been for those few extra variants from Swift, quite possible, too – the numbers alone seem to hold more weight. To have that significant of an influence today – and with a third album for which there were no previously-released singles – should make team Eilish incredibly proud.

Meghan Mahar: 8. Happier Than Ever debuted with 238,000 units, so this means Eilish saw a 49% increase in sales — a clear testament to her staying power as an artist. The growth clearly demonstrates that Eilish’s consistent delivery and constant development as an artist has visibly paid off — and as much as a No. 1 would further validate this, I don’t think it’s necessary. There are artists who have undeniable impact on music and culture for years who have rarely cracked the No. 1 spot, like Lana Del Rey, who also likely wouldn’t break through in the aftermath of a Taylor Swift release. I think the No. 1 would have been nice to have — but it leaves more to be desired in the future.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s about an 8. That 339,000 number is jaw-dropping — bigger even than When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, whose release was about as big a moment as we’ve seen from a (non-Swift) pop star in the past five years or so. But Eilish certainly seemed motivated to gun for the No. 1 spot, so the fact that she fell just short there does knock her down a couple points. Still a triumphant week for her, no doubt.

2. The 339,000 first-week number is even more notable due to the fact that Eilish’s album includes only 10 tracks — a relatively scant number for the streaming age — and featured no advance single releases. Do you think this strategy is one other artists should be taking note of, or is it one that just worked better for Eilish than it likely would for most of her peers?

Katie Atkinson: I hope these shorter album run-times are a trend; Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa both kept things relatively brisk over the past couple of months as well, with 13 tracks (35 minutes) for Eternal Sunshine and 11 tracks (36 minutes) for Radical Optimism. Grande also took the “less is more” approach to advance singles, dropping only “Yes, And?” ahead of release week. The one way Eilish and Swift’s latest albums coincide is not in album length, of course, but in that both kept every song and video under wraps until release day. I think we’re going to see more and more of that from A-list artists, because they don’t need the promotion a lead single has historically provided. The fact that they’re releasing new music is promotion enough — so why not get every drop of sales and streams out of release week?

Hannah Dailey: I really feel like the jury is still out on this one. On the one hand, it also worked for Ariana Grande’s Eternal Sunshine, which topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks at just 35 minutes long. Then again, Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter and Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets each ruled the chart for multiple weeks (the latter of which is still doing so, obviously) and both clocked in at 1-2 hours. It might be more of a question of knowing what your specific fanbase favors and tailoring your approach to that preference.

Lyndsey Havens: It’s an incredibly badass move that, in my opinion, few can pull off. To head into a rollout cycle with so much confidence – knowing that the album you made is so perfect, so concise and so well-formatted – that you don’t need to release anything prior is a trust that Eilish and Finneas have earned from their respective and joint fanbases. And while they did of course tease the album – most notably at a Boiler Room-style set during Coachella – the fact that such breadcrumbs were enough to sustain fans’ appetites is surely a strategy worth taking note of. But only for the few artists who can do the same.

Meghan Mahar: I think the length of Hit Me Hard and Soft is a mindful choice not only for Eilish and her team, but for her fans. The fans are treated to a quality body of work that they can slowly digest — instead of “claiming” a track, listeners can enjoy the package deal. Eilish can tour this album, perform most (if not all) of the tracks live, and still have plenty of room for selects from elsewhere in her discography. Above all, what I find most compelling in the streaming landscape is that the brevity of this project likely implies more music went unreleased — perhaps this is a long-term strategy to shorten Eilish’s release cycles as fans continue to beg for new music. There is a strong case for this approach for artists with rabid, loyal fanbases like Eilish’s — and likely why shorter cycles work for artists in K-pop and similar genres.

Andrew Unterberger: I think when you compare the relatively truncated rollouts for Hit Me and Eternal Sunshine with a more traditional extended unveiling like the one Dua Lipa had for Radical Optimism, it’s kinda undeniable that the former strategy is proving more effective for 2024. Of course this only really matters when you’re at the arena-touring level these three A-listers have long been at — since they’re the only ones who can really afford to eschew promotion and still ensure attention for new projects — but for artists who have been established at that tier, going the all- or mostly-all-at-once route seems the smart path these days.

3. “Lunch” is the best-performing song from the set so far, debuting at No. 5 on the Hot 100. Do you think it will go onto be the breakout hit from this album — or do you see another song on the tracklist ultimately passing it for those honors?

Katie Atkinson: I think “Lunch” will remain my favorite from the album, but the other song that has been sticking with me is “Chihiro.” It has such a great vibe that I could see it having life beyond release week. Finneas deserves love for the production on this album overall, and I think “Chihiro” might be his finest work.

Hannah Dailey: The other two contenders for the album’s breakout hit are definitely “Chihiro” — which surprises me, only because it feels more like a cool soundscape than a traditionally structured song, but people are obsessed with it – and “Birds of a Feather.” “Lunch” is a great song, but something tells me one of those other two will have more longevity.

Lyndsey Havens: I think given the way in which this album was promoted, “Lunch” benefitted the most from being teased during Coachella and online after the fact. Plus, it’s the most lyrically splashy song on the album, as Eilish dances around the subject of oral sex. Plus-plus, as is true of every other song on the album, the production is killer. So while it makes sense that this would be the initial hit off the project, I think there are some slow-burns like “Birds of Feather” or “Blue” that could take off. But then again “The Greatest” has that incredible build, and of course “Chihiro” is an unexpected trip and… suddenly, it’s incredibly obvious why there were no prior singles. How could they choose?

Meghan Mahar: I have a strong feeling that “Lunch” will be the biggest breakout hit from this album, but I have high hopes for “Birds of a Feather.” It’s a well-written pop song, and its ‘80s-inspired production is on the nose for the current wave of nostalgic sounds fans are gravitating toward. I could see this doing well in radio and being well-received by both Eilish’s younger fans and their parents. This has been a successful formula for other superstars like The Weeknd, so I can see Eilish pulling this off without a hitch.

Andrew Unterberger: “Lunch” seems like the one for me, but “Birds of a Feather” is showing impressive strength on streaming (and is also great). It might come down to which of the two radio embraces; “Lunch” feels like the easier fit on the airwaves between “Million Dollar Baby” and “Espresso,” but can a song with a relatively un-radio-editable “I could eat that girl for lunch” hook really be accepted by top 40? Will be interesting to see, certainly.

4. With Hit Me Hard and Soft providing the most formidable challenger yet to Taylor Swift’s now-five-week run at No. 1 with Tortured Poets Department, both artists released a number of new editions of their respective new albums throughout the tracking week — in a manner that was interpreted by many fans and onlookers as both artists specifically pushing to stay ahead of the other one. Would you have any issues with Swift and Eilish pressing for the No. 1 in this manner, or is it all in the spirit of healthy competition on the charts?

Katie Atkinson: This is hardly the first example of artists gunning for No. 1, but it might be the most high-profile and the most transparent. I’m always going to stump for healthy competition on the charts, since it means that Billboard’s charts matter that much to artists and fans. So put me down for a front-row seat to the chart Olympics.

Hannah Dailey: I don’t feel too strongly about this either way, but if I was going to take a stance, it would be that the one-upping is a little grating. I believe that the charts’ purpose is to represent and document which music is the biggest in the country/world each week, not just whose fanbase is willing to buy the most versions of an album — which is exactly what those actions end up reducing it to after a certain point.

Lyndsey Havens: Look, however an artist wants to promote their album is fine by me, assuming it’s all part of the grander creative vision for how their art can be consumed and enjoyed. And I’m all for healthy competition – but not when it comes at the literal expense of the fans. We will likely never know the real reason why these new editions arrived when they did or what the real reasoning for them was, but all I do know was that it did have a healthy result for the industry in the end. The fact that an eight-year drought of albums surpassing 300,000 units in the same week has been broken by two unbelievably talented women is a win enough for me.

Meghan Mahar: As a big fan of both Eilish and Swift, this back and forth was painful to watch. I think the way each artist pressed for the spot is all in the spirit of the game and shows good sportsmanship — I just hate to see two brilliant women pitted against each other, when team Eilish likely would have been employing the same strategies whether it was Swift in the No. 1 spot or another unbeatable chart titan like Drake. And generally, as a consumer, I am experiencing variant fatigue. I know that releasing multiple versions of albums with different tracks is primarily geared toward the superfans who are eager to support their favorite artists, but when there’s a massive wave of pop album releases, tours, etc. and everything is getting more expensive, it feels somewhat exploitative.

Andrew Unterberger: The practice in itself isn’t necessarily gauche — and we of course all love a chart race with a little extra sauce to it — but the degree of it is certainly beginning to border on the excessive, and I don’t blame the fans who are starting to voice their irritation with it. Maybe we just need to install some sort of baseball-style “unwritten rules” system of best practices when it comes to pop star album variant releases, that all the biggest artists sorta silently agree to abide by except for in extreme situations. Otherwise the arms race may never end, and it’s the biggest fans who will suffer for it.

5. After a jam-packed late-winter and spring of new albums from A-list pop stars, it appears that we may now finally have at least a couple weeks before the next one is scheduled. Who’s a major artist rumored (or just kinda past due) for a major release this summer who you think might also be geared for a debut on Hit Me’s level?

Katie Atkinson: This feels like cheating since she already nodded to it, but I’m very ready for the next Lady Gaga album. At the end of her Chromatica Ball film, which premiered over the weekend, she flashed the words “LG7. Gaga returns.” Is it too much to hope that she’ll return sooner than later? It feels like her upcoming role as Harley Quinn in Joker: Folie a Deux could have pushed her into some of the weirder, darker pop spaces where she thrives. Ariana gifted us with a pre-Wicked album; could Gaga drop this summer ahead of the sequel’s Oct. 4 release date?

Hannah Dailey: I would be floored to see a Katy Perry renaissance this year. But my money is on Chappell Roan releasing an album that makes all of the momentum she’s built this past year finally boil over and explode, earning her the title of mainstream superstar at last.

Lyndsey Havens: L A DY G A G A. I think it’s safe to say we are all waiting patiently for the pop diva’s return – and while it feels like it can’t come soon enough, greatness can’t be rushed. And let’s not forget about that long-awaited Post Malone country album… given the numbers of its likely lead single with Morgan Wallen, “I Had Some Help,” and taking into account the many chart records Wallen holds himself, that could be the next album to thrive atop the Billboard 200 for several weeks upon its release.

Meghan Mahar: There aren’t a lot of artists who can debut at or above Eilish’s level but I’m hoping Harry Styles releases a new album this year. If he follows his rollout schedule of releasing an album every two years, he’s due for a drop. I’ve seen rumors that he is going to put out new music in Q3 and he was spotted going to a studio in London in March. Fingers crossed.

Andrew Unterberger: A new Zach Bryan album is reportedly due in June — and if you thought his self-titled album got a big reception when that dropped last August, just wait till you see what he does with a new LP now that he’s scored a Hot 100-topping smash, embarked upon a major arenas-and-stadiums tour, and generally seen his brand of rootsy alt-country become one of the dominant strains of popular music.

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