(June 25, 2021). The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” may be a simple 1980s-retro ditty about the bright streetlights the singer encounters while racing down the highway at night en route to see his girlfriend. (Yes, folks, the song’s title really is meant to be taken that literally, as its author and singer explained in this interview last year.)
But the title could also represent the metaphorical bright glare of history and the amount of phenomenal change that has occurred in the world since the song’s chart début more than 18 months ago.
It’s an evolving history that the song continues to soundtrack as it spends its 80th week on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, second-longest in history behind only Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” which completed an 87-week chart run back in 2014.
The Weeknd’s now-iconic former No. 1 smash slips to No. 17 on the latest list (after moving back up during the past few weeks to a recent high of No. 15). This means there are now only eight weeks and eight chart positions separating “Blinding Lights” from Billboard chart history (based on its current No. 17 placement and the fact that – by the trade mag’s policy – old songs of such vintage are retired from the Hot 100 altogether if they fall below No. 25).
But even if The Weeknd’s biggest hit – and arguably the chart’s biggest song overall – fails to match or exceed the Imagine Dragons longevity mark, the era in which “Blinding Lights” established its amazing run – from December 2019 to the present – is unlikely to be matched anytime soon, if at all, from a world history perspective.
Indeed, these were not just any 80 weeks we’re talking about here. The historical occurrences during this one song’s Hot 100 tenure are confounding!
To place it in a musical perspective, if Billy Joel wanted to write a sequel to his 1989 jaunt-through-history tune, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” he could fill all of the song’s verses with the world events that have occurred in the time that “Blinding Lights” has been charting.
Here are just some of the song’s chart facts as viewed through the prism of concurrent world headlines.
A 100-year Pandemic cripples the globe
“Blinding Lights” made its chart debut on the Hot 100 dated December 14, 2019, at a time when there had only been 27 reported cases of coronavirus worldwide.
Of course, back then the virus was confined to one region of the globe and media unwittingly referred to it as the “Wuhan virus,” but it wouldn’t be long before the coronavirus became a global pandemic.
When “Blinding Lights” began its slow chart climb as it was re-entering the top 40 in January 2020, the U.S. had just recorded its first case of the Covid-19 disease, and by the time “Blinding Lights” first elevated to No. 1 in April 2020, the U.S. had just reached over 11,000 deaths on its way to the more than 600,000 the country has recorded to date, while nearly 4 million people worldwide have died from the virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously been a social and economic crisis of unimaginable proportions since December 2019, with repercussions that have been severe and far-reaching. Millions of jobs were lost and unemployment numbers reached record highs for months after the virus crossed the U.S. border. Hundreds of thousands of businesses were closed – many permanently – as a result of the pandemic.
And while those impacts will be felt long after any of the songs currently charting lose their relevance, no one could’ve predicted in December 2019 that we’d still be grappling with a worldwide pandemic 18 months later, or that a little ditty called “Blinding Lights” would have been relevant and charting the entire time.
Yet, the linkage between history and the enduring chart run of “Blinding Lights” obviously isn’t limited to the pandemic.
Politics NOT as usual during the “Blinding Lights” era
In the “Blinding Lights” era, politics were anything but normal. In the 18 months of the song’s chart run, the number of presidential impeachments in U.S. history doubled from two to four as former president Donald Trump was impeached twice – first for abuse of power and obstruction of justice and then for incitement of insurrection – in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
He was acquitted on both charges by largely partisan vote.
The latter impeachment occurred because of the insurrection attempt on the U.S. Capitol building by a mob of angry Trump supporters on January 6, 2021. The Jan. 6 attack was the first-ever attempt to overturn the results of a presidential election by insurrection in this country’s history.
Ironically, the voter turnout for the 2020 election had been the highest in American history, with nearly 160 million votes tallied (and both candidates receiving more votes than any other in history).
Dominating airwaves through it all was “Blinding Lights,” which at the time was setting new records for time spent in the top five and the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
Interestingly, that unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred during the week that “Blinding Lights” returned to the chart after a one-week interruption caused by the onslaught of Christmas holiday tunes that dominated the chart the week before. That early January chart marked the only frame during the past 18+ months that “Blinding Lights” has been absent from the Hot 100.
While the Capitol building insurrection attempt was unsuccessful (unless you call losing five lives, causing untold damage to the building, and waving the rebel flag throughout its hallowed halls a success), it revealed just how far a deluded group of people who believed the 2020 election was won by Trump would go to try and change the outcome. It also sparked a number of attempts by state legislators to enact laws designed to restrict voter rights based on the same false premise that President Biden lost.
Another historic outcome of the 2020 election was the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the first woman and the first person of African and South Asian descent to hold the office of Vice President. Interestingly, when “Blinding Lights” debuted in mid-December 2019, Harris was one of eight presidential candidates who had qualified for the sixth Democratic debate happening the following week. However, Harris had just dropped out of the race the week prior to “Blinding Lights” entry.
Who among us could’ve predicted that a song just entering the charts that month would have charted throughout Harris’ journey from being presidential candidate to being out of the picture, and from being Joe Biden’s running mate to being elected as first woman Vice President of the U.S.?
Social change in the “Blinding Lights” era?
Continuing the titular metaphor, no lights could have been more “blinding” than the events that led to the death of George Floyd – a Black man – at the hands of former police officer Derek Chauvin in May of 2020. Floyd’s murder – captured on bystander video and seen by billions worldwide – sparked a revolution and a racial reckoning in America not seen in more than half a century.
The savage killing of Floyd sparked historic protests around the world with calls for police reform and justice for the slain 46-year-old father of five. Justice came in the form of civil and criminal court wins for Floyd’s family. The family was awarded $27 million by the city of Minneapolis and Chauvin was convicted of murder (2nd- and 3rd-degree) and manslaughter on April 20, 2021. Chauvin’s sentencing for the crime is expected to occur as I write this (June 25) and as “Blinding Lights” completes its 80th week on the chart.
The Chauvin convictions came on the one-year anniversary of “Blinding Lights”’ last week at No. 1 in April 2020. If anyone would have bet last year that not only would Floyd’s murderer be tried and convicted (and sentenced), but that it would all happen before the completion of a then-current song’s chart run, that person might be a little richer today.
In addition to Floyd, other Black victims of civil rights injustices who were still alive when “Blinding Lights” first charted included Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbury – both names that have been synonymous with calls for social justice and police reform and the historic resurrection of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Of course, we’ve also become more familiar with counter-movements and far-right groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, people who’ve emerged from their fringes in the past 18 months and who have often clashed with BLM marchers.
Other terms like “cancel culture,” “critical race theory” and “woke” have become polarizing lightning rods in the past 18 months as well. Perhaps it was the confluence of those things that led to the banning of country music star Morgan Wallen from many of the music industry’s institutions earlier this year and the singer’s latest release subsequently emerging as the biggest charting country album since the 1990s.
In other cultural news, Asian-Americans became the targets of brazen attacks – often in broad daylight – leading to the passage of legislation making such attacks a hate crime. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was signed into law on May 20, 2021.
And Juneteenth went from being an unofficial annual day of celebration by enlightened Black folks to a national holiday (in chaotic fashion I might add…the holiday was literally enacted on the eve of its first commemoration).
And just like that, the country had its first new federal holiday in 35 years (since the King holiday was enacted in 1986), and the first to symbolize the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality by Blacks in this country.
But the major events in history during the “Blinding Lights” era haven’t been limited to social and political issues.
Notable figures who were still alive when “Blinding Lights” first charted:
|Don Imus||December 2019|
|Kobe Bryant||January 2020|
|Kirk Douglas||February 2020|
|Pop Smoke||February 2020|
|Kenny Rogers||March 2020|
|Breonna Taylor||March 2020|
|Bill Withers||March 2020|
|Roy Horn||May 2020|
|Jerry Stiller||May 2020|
|Little Richard||May 2020|
|George Floyd||May 2020|
|Charlie Daniels||July 2020|
|Rep. John Lewis||July 2020|
|Regis Philbin||July 2020|
|Chadwick Boseman||August 2020|
|Ruth Bader Ginsburg||September 2020|
|Eddie Van Halen||October 2020|
|Johnny Nash||October 2020|
|Sean Connery||October 2020|
|Alex Trebek||November 2020|
|Pierre Cardin||December 2020|
|David Dinkins||December 2020|
|Charlie Pride||December 2020|
|Siegfried Fischbacher||January 2021|
|Phil Spector||January 2021|
|Tommy Lasorda||January 2021|
|Hank Aaron||January 2021|
|Larry King||January 2021|
|Chlorise Leachman||January 2021|
|Cicely Tyson||January 2021|
|Christopher Plummer||February 2021|
|Leon Spinks||February 2021|
|Mary Wilson||February 2021|
|Rush Limbaugh||February 2021|
|Prince Philip||April 2021|
|Bernie Madoff||April 2021|
|B.J. Thomas||May 2021|
We still had Koby; Brady was still a Patriot
When “Blinding Lights” first hit airwaves in the fall of 2019, the unprecedented events of 2020 were still weeks and months away, and the sports world had not yet been impacted by the pandemic.
Of course, we still had NBA legend and Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and the others (including his daughter Gigi) whose lives were lost in that horrific helicopter crash in January 2020. At the time, LeBron James was in his second season as a Laker and would dedicate the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign to the late Bryant.
It was a season that itself was in jeopardy due to the pandemic, but resumed in the summer as the NBA figured out a way to carry on in an isolation zone known as “the NBA bubble” at Walt Disney World in Florida.
LeBron would go on to power his team to the NBA Championship in October, giving the Lakers their 17th championship overall and their first since winning with Kobe ten years earlier. James would become the first player to lead three different franchises to NBA Championships (and being voted Finals MVP with all three).
Of course, “Blinding Lights” has charted long enough to see us through yet another NBA season – the 2020-21 campaign – that wasn’t as flattering to LeBron and the Lakers. With their early exit from the playoffs in May 2021, it marked the first time that James had experienced a first-round playoff ouster in his 18-year NBA career.
Another unlikely – but not surprising – champion emerging in the “Blinding Lights” era was Tom Brady, but not with the team we expected.
Brady was still with the New England Patriots in December 2019 when we first heard “Lights.” But by the time the song completed its 60th week on the chart, Brady won his seventh Super Bowl championship…the latest with his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In the same era, we would see the retirement of future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Drew Brees, and another future Hall of Famer – Aaron Rodgers – would serve as guest host on TV’s “Jeopardy!.” Rodgers was one of a string of guest hosts replacing longtime fixture Alex Trebek, who died in November 2020 from cancer.
Would it be too easy to say that there’ve been more “Jeopardy!” guest hosts in the “Blinding Lights” era than there were combined in all of the show’s 37-year history before then?
Breakups, makeups and other pop cultural shifts
In other news during the “Blinding Lights” era, reality star Kim Kardashian-West and rapper Kanye West went from celebrating (or defending) the rapper’s decision to throw his name into the 2020 presidential race to one of the highest-profile breakups of the millennium.
Singer Jennifer Lopez and former MLB superstar Alex Rodriguez went from being engaged to their surprising breakup (March 2021) almost immediately followed by the singer rekindling her two-decades-old romance with actor Ben Affleck. This was only months after the singer performed at President Biden’s inauguration with A-Rod proudly watching.
That relationship news may have only been eclipsed during the “Blinding Lights” era by last month’s announced breakup of Bill and Melinda Gates.
And speaking of monumental reversals of fortune…it hasn’t been a great era for prominent New York politicians, present and former.
Current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo went from being a CNN darling in the early stages of the pandemic, to becoming a political pariah in less than six months, while former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliano went from being a U.S. president’s lawyer to being suspended from practicing law in his home state because of the election lie he upheld on Trump’s behalf.
Even the British royals have undergone major changes in the “Blinding Lights” era. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – Duke and Duchess of Sussex – were still performing their royal duties in December 2019. In the 18-months since, they’ve gone from denouncing their royal status to becoming American citizens.
In that same timeframe, they’ve endured the death of Harry’s grandfather Prince Philip, given a bombshell interview to Oprah Winfrey with accusations of racism and insensitivity to Markle’s mental health issues (attributed to members of the Royal family), and welcomed a new baby.
We also learned a little more about mental health issues during this era – not just from the millions of people who had to adjust to life during the pandemic, Meghan Markle, or music celebrities like Kanye West, but also from tennis superstar Naomi Osaka and her surprising withdrawal from the French Open tournament in May 2021. The mini-battle Osaka waged with the WTA and the media in the days leading up to her withdrawal were ultimately revealed to be tied to her bouts of depression, something not that uncommon given the monumental events of the past 18 months. Notably, Osaka has won half of her four grand slam singles titles during the “Blinding Lights” era (and is the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion).
But it all comes back to the music and statistics!
Musically speaking, there’s been a plethora of events since “Blinding Lights” made its first appearance on the charts. It’s worth noting that when the song debuted (at No. 11) on the Hot 100 dated December 14, 2019, The Weeknd was also listed at No. 1 that week with the first single from his After Hours album, “Heartless.”
As previously mentioned, “Blinding Lights” climbed to No. 1 the following April and a third single from the album – “Save Your Tears” (in a remix with Ariana Grande) – hit the top in May 2021, making After Hours only the second album in history to generate at least one No. 1 song in three different calendar years (in this case 2019, ‘20 and ‘21). Janet Jackson was the first to accomplish this feat with singles from her Rhythm Nation 1814 album in 1989, ‘90 and ‘91.
And speaking of threes, superstar Taylor Swift has released not one, not two, but three chart-topping albums in the “Blinding Lights” era – with an announced November 2021 release date for a fourth – her re-recording of Red (Taylor’s Version) – being made just last week. (Anyone willing to place bets on whether “Blinding Lights” will still be around then?)
The Weeknd and Taylor weren’t the only pop superstars making chart headlines in the past 18 months.
In 2020, a record four different duets between women reached No. 1 (all after “Blinding Lights” topped the chart). Those four songs were twice as many as had topped the charts in all the years before that (one in 1979, the other in 1998).
In December 2019, superstar K-pop group BTS had never topped the American singles charts. Since then, they’ve racked up four No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 (all in the past nine months!). The first three – “Dynamite,” “Savage Love” (as a featured act with Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo) and “Life Goes On” – have all come and gone since “Blinding Lights” hit No. 1 over a year ago. The latest – “Butter” – is the current No. 1 song.
In all, 33 different tunes have spent time at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the chart span of “Blinding Lights,” which is by far a record for any one song. They include one chart-topper (Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in January 2020) that fell completely off the chart from its No. 1 perch – a first, and another No. 1 that had the shortest chart run for a No. 1 song in Billboard Hot 100 history with just four total weeks on the chart (“Trollz” by 6ix9ine ft. Nicki Minaj).
So in the past year, we’ve had the No. 1 songs with the shortest (“Trollz”) and the longest (“Blinding Lights”) chart runs in history happen concurrently. And who says there isn’t chart parity these days?
By the way, Mariah’s perennial holiday hit also became the first song to repeat at No. 1 in separate chart runs since Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in 1960 and ‘62. Carey reigned again during the second holiday season of the “Blinding Lights” era earlier this year.
In other music news, rappers JuiceWRLD and Pop Smoke, who had the two biggest posthumous albums of 2020 (and so far in 2021) were both still alive when “Blinding Lights” made its debut. JuiceWRLD died from an accidental drug overdose within hours of the week beginning on December 8, 2019. (The chart dated December 14, on which “Blinding Lights” first appeared, covers December 8 – December 14, 2019.)
Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon won the Billboard Music Award for top Billboard 200 album in May 2021, becoming the first posthumously released album to do so. Smoke’s album was released in June 2020 – four months after he was murdered during a robbery attempt. Much like “Blinding Lights,” the album has been in the top 20 ever since its release a year ago.
The Weeknd creates his own history with “Blinding Lights”
“Blinding Lights” has even forged its own bit of history in the wake of its huge chart success.
The Weeknd’s infamous snubbing at this year’s Grammys led to major changes in the awards voting process. “Blinding Lights” – the biggest single of 2020 on multiple charts including the Hot 100 – and its parent album received zero nominations at the Grammys. This led to calls by The Weeknd and others for more transparency in the voting process, which resulted in The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announcing chances towards that end within weeks of this year’s awards telecast.
The Weeknd, however, continues to boycott the Grammys, making it clear that it’s the artist – and not the institution – that sometimes holds the strings.
The Canadian superstar has proven that he doesn’t need the Grammys to grow his brand or validate himself as an artist. In addition to having the biggest Hot 100 single in chart history, he’s performed one of the most spectacular Super Bowl halftime shows; won a boatload of Billboard Music Awards, IHeartRadio awards, and other awards; and he otherwise calls all the shots when it comes to his career.
And what a career it’s been! “Blinding Lights” is just one of six No. 1 singles The Weeknd has had since first charting eight years ago. It’s clearly been his biggest, most talked-about hit with accolades too many to count.
There’s just one more milestone it has to reach: longest charting song in Hot 100 history. It would have to hang on for another seven weeks to tie and eight weeks to break Imagine Dragons’ 87-week record with “Radioactive.”
That means it would have to hang on until late August – or long enough to coincide with the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, another impending historical milestone that could be captured within the “Blinding Lights” era.
“Blinding Lights” may or may not hang on long enough to catch “Radioactive” for the longevity record, but the 80 weeks of history that coincide with its chart life could run rings around anything that accompanied Imagine Dragons’ record-setting hit any day.
Or any other tune’s time in chart history for that matter.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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