This may well be a pattern unaccounted for, but virtually every solo female pop star who went to No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this past decade did it with a specific kind of hit: The Break-up Song.
Two more names can now be added onto the list: Selena Gomez and Halsey.
So, what exactly is going on?
Gomez released her third album ‘Rare’ on January 10 and Halsey released her third record ‘Manic’ on Friday. While the sonics of these albums could not be more different — ‘Rare’ is soft-pop and dance-leaning, ‘Manic’ has an acerbic punk-rock edge to it — they’re both home to the singers’ first ever No 1 songs.
For 27-year-old Gomez, ‘Lose You to Love Me’ is a track about letting go of someone in order to find yourself. And for 25-year-old Halsey, ‘Without Me’ is an explicit ‘you had me, you lost me’ taunt that leaves nothing unsaid.
Both singers have famously been in tumultuous, on-again, off-again relationships with fellow musicians. Gomez dated pop star Justin Bieber, seemingly throughout their entire careers, until he married model Hailey Baldwin Bieber in 2018, and Halsey was with rapper G-Eazy, until the pair split late last year.
So, when their respective singles dropped, fans had no trouble connecting the lyrics back to familiar faces.
Of course, the tracks were empowering and heartfelt because they were raw, honest and well-produced, and because both Gomez and Halsey are great at what they do.
But they also may have succeeded because they were about relationships that unfolded in the public eye, involving people whose lives we’ve gleaned from news-stands and social media: Gomez and Bieber were the pop star equivalent of high school sweethearts, and Halsey and G-Eazy had a whole song about their Bonnie and Clyde-type love (‘Him & I’).
The context of these songs, therefore, is not hard to envision. When Gomez sings about loving herself again, we feel it, and when Halsey sings about being two-timed and moving on, we celebrate that, too.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
But fans will always sympathise with an artist who sings something true, regardless of whether the subject is famous or not.
When Adele delivered us the double-whammy of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ and ‘Someone Like You’ in 2011 — her first and second No 1s, respectively — we had no idea who broke her heart.
She kept such a tight lid on it that gossip magazines scrambled to unearth the mystery man and solve one of Google’s most asked questions: “who was ‘Someone Like You’ written about”.
In a way, Adele kick-started this whole trend. She made it cool to write about being sad or angry because the love we heard about on the radio didn’t always work out, and the catharsis of singing along with her — whether you could relate or not — was overwhelmingly freeing.
In an industry dominated by smoke screens, polished personas and songs written by committee, it’s becoming more and more common for listeners to demand something real and unfiltered. Social media and its ability to connect fans with their idols has only added to that desire for closeness.
Look no further than Ariana Grande, who has mastered the art of treating her fans like friends on Twitter, and who got her first No 1 last year, after she broke off a whirlwind engagement with comedian Pete Davidson and released the single, ‘thank u, next’. She mentions Pete by name in it, as well as her late ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller.
Miley Cyrus’ first No 1 hit was ‘Wrecking Ball’ in 2013, which many people speculated was about her split from ex-fiance Liam Hemsworth. (“I wrote this song after somebody broke my heart, and I just wanted to say [expletive] you,” Cyrus said at a live show. “I wanted to write a No 1 hit … to make sure every time he turned on the radio he would hear my song and will keep hearing it for the rest of his life.”)
Taylor Swift topped the charts for the first time in 2012 with her most straightforward track to date — ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, allegedly about Jake Gyllenhaal.
Maybe this has been an incidental trend. Maybe it’s a formula that record labels have realised they can bank on. Either way, the next time you’re ghosted by the love of your life on Instagram or over text, there will be no shortage of No 1 songs from the past decade to get you through it.
Also, ice cream. Ice cream helps.