Monday, June 24, 2024

Zach Bryan’s “Pink Skies” Hot 100 Top Debut: What Does It Mean?

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One of the biggest breakout stars of the 2020s has unquestionably been alt-country and Americana singer-songwriter Zach Bryan, who has grown from a word-of-mouth sensation into a chart-topping, arenas-and-stadiums-touring act over the past half-decade — while still maintaining a cult-fanbase-type audience.

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Following last year’s crowning moment of Bryan topping both the Billboard 200 and Billboard Hot 100 in the same week (with his self-titled album and its Kacey Musgraves-featuring lead single “I Remember Everything,” respectively), on May 24 he released the new single “Pink Skies.” This week, the harmonica-laced acoustic number — expected to appear on his upcoming new album — bows at No. 6 on the Hot 100, already the second-highest-charting single of his career, following “Everything.”

What does the debut mean for Bryan’s career? And does the song tell us anything about where Bryan may be headed? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. “Pink Skies” debuts at No. 6 on the Hot 100 this week – already Bryan’s second-highest-peaking hit to date, after last year’s No. 1-bowing Kacey Musgraves duet “I Remember Everything.” Is that debut higher, lower or about where you would’ve expected for it? 

Eric Renner Brown: This placement tracks for me. Bryan is a top-tier star now, and he doesn’t have as much competition in his lane as major pop stars and rappers do in theirs. Plus, “Pink Skies” dropped on a release date without a huge pop album (like Billie Eilish’s the week before) to shoot numerous tracks onto the Hot 100 and crowd other singles out. As he continues to grow in popularity (because I don’t think he’s even close to his ceiling), I think we can expect more strong debuts like this from Bryan.

Kyle Denis: This is about right where I expected. Bryan has steadily grown into a streaming force over the past few years, so a top 10 debut isn’t necessarily surprising. Given the stiff competition in the top 5 right now, a No. 6 debut feels just right. 

Melinda Newman: Higher. There’s always excitement for new music from Bryan (and a seemingly endlessly supply of new tunes coming from him — since May 2022, he’s released two studio albums, two EPs and a live album), but he doesn’t always come in so high. His duet with Maggie Rogers, which came out in 2023 before “I Remember Everything,” peaked at No. 42 on the Hot 100 — and that was after the red-hot success of “Something in the Orange.”

Andrew Unterberger: Maybe a little higher — just because we’re in such a loaded moment for big pop hits that a No. 6 debut right now is maybe more like a No. 2 or No. 3 debut a year ago. Not that such a debut would be exactly shocking for Zach Bryan at this point either, but “Pink Skies” is a pretty melancholy and low-key song compared to Bryan’s biggest hits to date, so I think a Hot 100 debut in the 10s would’ve still been plenty respectable.

Christine Werthman: Definitely higher. “Pink Skies” is about a homecoming brought on by a funeral, and it encapsulates the perspectives of those lost and those left behind. It’s a buoyant, midtempo, acoustic song that packs a lot of feeling into three minutes without being weighed down. With such a universal theme — nothing is certain except death and taxes, as they say — perhaps it connected with hordes of listeners and offered a gentle alternative to the more amped-up summer songs. 

2. Is the song’s top 10 debut more about “Pink Skies” being a specifically good commercial fit for Bryan, or do you think he’s reached the star level where just about any new single of his is going to automatically debut in that region? 

Eric Renner Brown: I mean this only positively: It sounds like a Zach Bryan song! Maybe the true heads hear something different in “Pink Skies” compared to his other hits. But for casual fans like myself, it’s more of what I’ve come to expect from Bryan: polished, well-produced folk-rock, delivered with a bit more passion and personality than others in his lane.

Kyle Denis: Probably a mixture of both. He’s reached that level of stardom where he’ll automatically get lofty debuts for new releases, but the song is also very strong. “Pink Skies” is in line with the kind of emotional, confessional mid-tempos that have brought him past commercial wins (“I Remember Everything”; “Something in the Orange”), but the heavy subject matter will probably kneecap how far this song can go now that the summer is here.  

Melinda Newman: It’s still impressive for him. There is still a lot of growth to be had for Bryan in terms of artist discovery: His fans are extremely passionate and help drive the high debuts, but there are so many potential fans who still have no idea who he is or couldn’t name one of his songs. As those numbers increase, a top 10 debut for each new song may soon become automatic. But he’s not there yet.  

Andrew Unterberger: It’s mostly about the timing and star power — the song is a pretty good commercial fit for Bryan, but it takes a few listens to totally succumb to its charms. (Then again, evidence suggests that “a few listens” is not too daunting a bar for audiences when it comes to Zach Bryan right now, so maybe that’s part and parcel with the song’s early success.)

Christine Werthman: This is still just Bryan’s third top 10 hit, so it’s not like everything he drops automatically races to the front of the class. I think it’s a good commercial fit for him as an artist with an eye for lyrical detail who can tease out the beautiful parts of a loss.  

3. “Pink Skies” is presumed to likely be featured on Bryan’s upcoming album, apparently titled The Great American Bar Scene and due sometime soon. If that’s all true, do you think “Skies” tells us anything interesting about Bryan’s new work, or is it more a consolidation of established strengths? 

Eric Renner Brown:  It’s a consolidation of his strengths. I think he could mildly iterate his style for at least a couple more albums while continuing to enjoy (and expand on) his current success. Bryan’s fans aren’t looking for a reinvention – yet, at least – and when it comes to this style, he has plenty of great songs left in him. (That said, I do dig the Neil-Young-circa-Harvest harmonica here.)

Kyle Denis: As of right now, I’m not getting much of anything new or different from “Pink Skies.” If anything, his songwriter has gotten even sharper. “Pink Skies” is a gorgeous elegy, one that truly transports the listener to the funeral scene he conjures in his lyrics. In that way, “Pink Skies” does feel like it’s one part of a larger narrative – maybe the prelude? — that will unfold across his new LP. 

Melinda Newman: Too early to tell, but the twist that he’s talking to someone who has died is an interesting turn. Bryan doesn’t shy away from deep emotions and heavy thoughts in his songs — so, without hearing more, it’s hard to tell if the new album is a progression or a concept album or more of the same high quality we’ve already been getting from Bryan. He clearly is not running out of things to say.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s Zach Bryan doing what he does best: vivid and relatable storytelling over heartstring-pulling melodies and dusty, unpolished instrumentation. No great leap forward here, but still one of the best songs on the Hot 100 this week.

Christine Werthman: “Pink Skies” fits into Bryan’s portfolio of somber, detailed songs that prove that when he sang, “I remember everything,” he wasn’t kidding. The difference is the lighter touch he takes with “Pink Skies,” closer to “Holy Roller” than “East Side of Sorrow.” He’s not reinventing himself, but if “Pink Skies” is an indicator, maybe we will see a softer side of Bryan, particularly in his instrumentation, on his next album.  

4. Bryan is at the stage of his stardom right now where he feels more like the world’s biggest cult artist than a traditional pop superstar. Do you think he has anything to gain by trying to cross over to become more of the latter, or if you were him would you focus more on not fixing what isn’t broken?

Eric Renner Brown: Bryan isn’t a pop superstar only insofar as he doesn’t make capital-P pop music and hasn’t yet achieved the celebrity of many of his Hot 100 peers. But otherwise, he’s had three top 10 hits on the Hot 100 in less than two years and sells out multiple arena dates in many markets – he’s a superstar. (As a Phish fan – and in solidarity with superfans of enduring arena-level bands like Slipknot and Tool – I think there are acts who can more credibly be described as “the world’s biggest cult artist.”) If I was Bryan, I would indeed heed the cliché: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Kyle Denis: He should keep doing what he’s doing and not even look at traditional pop superstardom. If his X outburst over “Pink Skies” allegedly being sent to top 40 radio is anything to go by, I don’t think he would particularly enjoy that space anyways. With sold out arenas, multiplatinum singles, Grammy wins and Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits, he’s already secured the most sought-after hallmarks of pop stardom without explicitly courting it, so why fix what isn’t broken? 

Melinda Newman: Bryan is doing just fine doing it his way. He doesn’t appear on television — other than Yellowstone, he’s done no late night or morning show performances. Other than the New York Times and Joe Rogan, he hasn’t done interviews. He keeps it to the music, the live shows and his direct interaction with his fans via social media. He’s already selling out arenas and stadiums. I’m not sure how much bigger it could get for him, but he doesn’t need any of the trappings and the headaches that come with trying to be a traditional pop superstar. “Pink Skies” debuted so high because of its 31.6 million U.S. streams, according to Luminate; his radio reach was relatively small, so it’s his direct line to his fans that is propelling him, not the gatekeepers deciding they are going to let him in.

Andrew Unterberger: There’s no real need for a Zach Bryan pop crossover, of course — but selfishly, I’d still like to see him try for one at some point. To invoke an album that just so happens to be turning 40 today: Bruce Springsteen didn’t need to go mega-pop and release a Diamond-certified blockbuster with seven certified Hot 100 top 10 hits on it, either — but both his catalog and legacy are immeasurably richer for him doing so (not to mention his bottom line). Aren’t you the least bit curious to know what Zach Bryan’s Born in the U.S.A. might sound or feel like?

Christine Werthman: Bryan’s success is a testament to doing it his way. If that means staying in his current lane, cool. If it means mining for hits, doing more interviews and getting a taste of that pop life, go for it. Do what you want, man! That’s brought him to where he is, so he should keep following his instincts. 

5. What’s your favorite “Pink” jam from pop, rock or country history?

Eric Renner Brown: This prompt sent me down a rabbit hole of the surprisingly fertile category of “songs with ‘pink’ in their title.” Stiff competition, but as a lifelong Weezer fan, I have to go with “Pink Triangle” – which gets bonus points for appearing on an album with “Pink” in its title. (Runner-up: Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” from the album of the same name, which Bryan could kill a cover of.)

Kyle Denis: In terms of the rock-country space, I’ll go with “Pink Houses” by John Cougar Mellencamp. But I’m also very partial to Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White” and “Pink Matter” (with André 3000). 

Melinda Newman: “Pink Cadillac” by Bruce Springsteen. Natalie Cole had the pop hit with the tune, taking her sassy, sleek cover version to No. 5 on the Hot 100 in 1988, but Springsteen’s version, which was a B-side to 1984’s “Dancing in the Dark,” stresses the carnal desire inherent in the song, making it a much sexier ride. In second place, Eric Church’s “Two Pink Lines,” which can be the result if you have a party in the back of that pink Cadillac.

Andrew Unterberger: I’ll say the Psychedelic Furs’ new wave classic “Pretty in Pink” — and I’ll infuriate whatever new wave purists happen to be reading this column about 2024’s biggest Americana artist by admitting that I actually prefer the sax-laden ’86 re-recording from the Brat Pack movie of the same name.

Christine Werthman: “Pink Triangle” from Weezer’s Pinkerton. Or “Pynk” from Janelle Monae feat. Grimes. Wait, no. Chappell Roan’s “Pink Pony Club.” Wow, so many good pink songs. Happy Pride, everyone!



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