The 2020s Finally Have Their “Wrecking Ball”

Olivia Rodrigo holds a microphone and sings in the "Vampire" music video, with "Why Is This Song No. 1?" in the bottom right corner of the photo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV.
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A decade ago this month, in late September 2013, Miley Cyrus scored her first ever No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Wrecking Ball.” Way back then, I reported on some skepticism about whether “Wrecking Ball” was a for-real hit. That year, Billboard had just added YouTube data to the Hot 100 formula, and Cyrus’ aching power ballad had hurtled to the top slot driven overwhelmingly by the release of its official music video. You probably remember that video: Cyrus in her underwear, swinging around a sledgehammer and then riding a giant wrecking ball in nothing more than a pair of boots. Early in the song’s release, its radio airplay was modest, but the video views were, pun intended, off the charts. So it was fair to ask whether this was actually a hit song or just a hit video.

“Wrecking Ball” wound up having an unusual chart pattern. After two weeks at No. 1 in the early fall of 2013, Cyrus’ single fell out of the top slot for nine weeks. Then, in December 2013, it returned to No. 1 for one more week. That was the longest any song had ever been out of No. 1, then returned, in a single chart run. Two things happened that brought about this comeback. First, a Chatroulette user who’d recorded a funny video spoof of “Wrecking Ball” posted it on YouTube, racking up millions of views, and because he’d used the original song, those views counted toward Miley’s song on the Hot 100. More video shenanigans! But second, and ultimately more important, the song had caught on in the more traditional chart metrics of radio and sales: By December, “Wrecking Ball” ranked fourth in airplay and had sold some 3 million downloads. In other words, consumption by a wider audience had caught up to the first wave of Cyrus stans and titillated onlookers. A decade later, critical consensus has ratified “Wrecking Ball” as a ’10s pop classic. In 2019 Pitchfork ranked it among the decade’s best singles, calling it “one of the great torch songs of the 21st century.” If it seemed at first like a faux hit, it sure doesn’t now.

For the first time in 10 years, another quirky power ballad that shot to No. 1 right away has returned to the top slot after a nine-week gap. (Yup, nine weeks again. Uncanny.) There are no video shenanigans to speak of this time; in the ’20s, goofy user-generated video lives mostly on TikTok, which doesn’t count for the Hot 100 (yet). When this hit first went to No. 1 over the summer, I saw some people questioning whether it was a real hit or just the beneficiary of gossipmongers and Rodrigo stans. Two months later, as with Cyrus a decade ago, this track’s return to No. 1 is due to an exceptional and sudden infusion of streams—but also a growing appreciation that it might just be a great song. We never should have doubted Olivia Rodrigo.

“Vampire” is not only the third No. 1 hit for Rodrigo, after 2021’s “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U.” All three of these hits debuted in the penthouse, making the 20-year-old the first artist to enter at No. 1 with three singles so early in her career. Which, in a way, almost diminished “Vampire” as a song—given Rodrigo’s rabid Zoomer fanbase, perhaps she was primed to crash-land on top with whatever she put out after a two-year absence from recording. Did the actual song matter? When “Vampire” first dropped, critics pointed out that the theatrical single was the love child of Rodrigo’s two earlier smashes: the aching melodrama of “License” crossed with the snarling punk-style evisceration of “Good”—all of which was then lashed together with a dramatic buildup worthy of Queen. It was either a daring move by Rodrigo or a rehash of what’s worked for her before.

With two months’ hindsight and the song back at No. 1—fueled by the arrival of Rodrigo’s album Guts—I’d say “Vampire” is both a great song and a real hit, with traction beyond the Olivia hive. Between July and September, we’ve gone from gawping at “Vampire” to actually enjoying it on its own merits, kind of like what happened to “Wrecking Ball” 10 years ago.

Chances were good something by Rodrigo would be No. 1 this week. The release of her sophomore album generated big streaming numbers, which are tallied for both the Hot 100 and the Billboard 200 album chart. On the latter, Guts predictably debuts at No. 1, with the fourth-largest week of the year: 302,000 album-equivalent units, nearly half of which were pure sales. Streams of the album’s tracks totaled a very healthy 200 million. That’s not a Taylor Swift or a Drake number, but it’s impressive for an act on only her second LP. Meanwhile, on the Hot 100, every track on Guts debuts within the Top 40 this week—a now-common feat in the streaming era for superstars dropping a new album—and of the LP’s dozen tracks, “Vampire” racked up the highest one-week streaming total, nearly 23 million.

On a raw data level, this explains how “Vampire” returned to No. 1 in its 11th week on the Hot 100. Everything on Guts got a boost, and the song that already had a berth on the chart benefited the most. As chart anomalies go, this isn’t unusual. (It certainly isn’t as weird as a Chatroulette user releasing a parody video.) Just last year, when Beyoncé dropped her Renaissance album, all of its tracks hit the Hot 100, and her then-two-month-old “Break My Soul” made its final march to No. 1. The only weird thing about what Rodrigo just did was that she hit No. 1 twice with “Vampire,” with a two-month gap in the middle. To me, this reflects both the qualities of the song (and the artist) and the evolution, from summer to fall, of the song’s audience.

At a musical and a structural level, “Vampire” is a tricky single, an apparent down-the-middle fastball that curves and slides on its way to the plate. It opens in “Drivers License” mode, a slow piano dirge exuding sadness and heartbreak, even as the lyrics project spite from the jump: “Hate to give the satisfaction/ Asking how you’re doing now/ How’s the castle built off people/ You pretend to care about?” The lyrics are the song’s most consistent feature: It starts bilious and becomes defiant but never really triumphant. Much has been made of the chorus expletive—as on “License,” Rodrigo is especially skilled at selective f-bomb deployment: “Bloodsucker! Fame fucker!/ Bleedin’ me dry like a goddamn vampire.” It’s easy to underestimate that chorus, seemingly designed for shock value but actually very catchy. And it’s what carries you through the song’s musical evolution, as Rodrigo and her longtime collaborator, producer-songwriter Dan Nigro, introduce a heartbeat rhythm, then gradually pile on more electronic effects and louder marching drums until, by the bridge, they’ve fired up a hammering BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM that’s like a manic club beat gone cyberpunk, inviting you to pogo while Rodrigo keeps flipping the bird at her betrayer. This is why the song is evoking Queen for so many listeners: Even though it doesn’t really change key or have separate movements or an opera digression, “Vampire” is like a miniature “Bohemian Rhapsody” at roughly half the track length—only this time the protagonist thinks the other guy should “wish [he’d] never been born at all.”

And who is that “guy,” anyway? Let’s dispense with this: Is the song about Taylor Swift? For all I know, that was the seed of Rodrigo’s songwriting inspiration, but I honestly don’t think it matters. I’m with my Slate colleague Carl Wilson, who in his sharp review of Guts acknowledges that Rodrigo could feel wronged by Swift’s credit-grubbing on Rodrigo’s hit “Deja Vu” but that “doesn’t obstruct the more universal experiences and emotions” in songs like “Vampire.” The tea about Taylor is a distraction—maybe a fun one, like the decades of speculation over which preening male peacock Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” about, but nothing that detracts from the song’s broad relatability, even for those of us who don’t have enough fame to worry about fame fuckers.

In any case, back in July, this weird track seemed designed as what I call a statement single—a flagship song that, like Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me,” the Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” or Ye’s “Runaway,” offers a commentary on a pop star’s tabloid narrative but doesn’t necessarily endure—rather than a radio-friendly unit shifter. But it’s turned out to be a pretty big radio hit, reaching No. 2 at pure pop stations and No. 6 at all radio formats, and it’s also a solid streaming hit, hovering in the Top 20 and often the Top 10 since it arrived in late June. This solid base of support, by folks who are not necessarily invested in the Olivia-vs.-Taylor rumors and are growing fond of “Vampire” as a song, explains why it was even able to return to No. 1. In short, the kids made “Vampire” No. 1 the first time, but the adults like Rodrigo’s bizarro cyberpunk torch ballad too.

As I argue in my forthcoming book, what makes the Hot 100 such an effective chart is how it balances what I call active fandom and passive fandom. Since its launch in 1958, the Hot 100 has always measured at least two things: record sales and radio airplay. Sales are active fandom. Picture the most obsessive fan, the one guaranteed to buy a pop idol’s latest single in its first week, from the Beatles in 1964 to BTS in 2021. Radio, by contrast, reflects passive fandom: the way songs float through the ether—a passing car, a local retailer, a beach boombox—and eventually catch the ear of the less plugged-in music consumer. By averaging these two forms of consumption, you get a pretty good, if imperfect snapshot of American music popularity week by week. At the turn of the 2010s, Billboard added a third form of consumption to the Hot 100’s formula, streaming music, which has elements of both active and passive fandom. (Picture the rabid fan pressing play over and over on a hot new track, versus the “leaned-back” Spotify subscriber hearing a song as part of a preprogrammed playlist.) Even with streaming in the mix, the Hot 100’s balance of active and passive consumption remains its secret sauce. And what makes the chart fascinating is observing how songs gradually infect passive audiences, passing like a virus from the patient zero, the hardcore fan.

Those hardcore fans are already moving on to other Rodrigo singles—understandably, because Guts is packed with bangers. In August, Team Olivia dropped a second pre-album single, the hilariously self-deprecating and totally rocking “Bad Idea Right?” It debuted at No. 10 a month ago, and now that the album is out, it has bounced back into the Top 10, reaching a new peak of No. 7. Already earning Top 20 airplay at pop stations, “BIR?” could well be Rodrigo’s next major hit unless the even-more-acclaimed, double-entendre track “Get Him Back!” leapfrogs over it. A pop-punk revenge-and-remorse anthem with sneering verses and a cheerleader-worthy chorus, “GHB!” was anointed with a showcase performance at last week’s MTV Video Music Awards—but it came second in Rodrigo’s medley, which kicked off with “Vampire.” What I found most affecting about the truncated version of “Vampire” Rodrigo performed at the VMAs was how the crowd loudly sang the song back to her.

So: “Vampire” is now established enough as a hit to serve not only as a crowd singalong but as the lure for Rodrigo’s newest product. It’s a win-win for both songs. By October, the enthusiastic fans who crowded the pit at the VMAs will have moved on to either “Bad Idea Right?” or “Get Him Back!”—probably both—while “Vampire” continues as the aural wallpaper parents are passively enjoying on their drive-time commutes. Rodrigo’s quirky power ballad has fulfilled its destiny, like “Wrecking Ball” before it. You know how I knew, back in 2013, that Miley Cyrus’ histrionic scorcher would endure? In that Chatroulette parody video, while the man with the bushy beard playacts Miley’s clothing-optional moves on one side of the screen, the shocked viewers on the other side are giggling and cringing … but also mouthing the song’s lyrics, word for word. That’s the mark of a new classic: It brings out the hairbrush-microphone belter in all of us.