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Five Burning Questions – Billboard

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For the second time already this decade, Elton John has hit the Billboard Hot 100‘s top 10 with a pop song that weaves together past hits of his into a danceable new creation — and this time, he’s joined by a fellow pop all-timer who the charts haven’t seen much from at all in the 2020s: Britney Spears.

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John’s and Spears’ first-ever teamup, the sparkling “Hold Me Closer,” debuts at No. 6 on the Hot 100 this week, with strong sales and streaming numbers and a robust start at radio. The song borrows lyrics and melodies from Sir Elton’s past hits “Tiny Dancer” and “The One,” and represents the first new music we’ve heard from Britney since her Glory era of the mid-to-late ’10s.

How expected is the song’s success? And what does this mean for the long-anticipated Britney Spears comeback? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. “Hold Me Closer” debuts at No. 6 this week — already one spot higher than Elton John’s massive Dua Lipa and PNAU collab “Cold Heart” has climbed in its long Hot 100 run. On a scale from 1-10, how surprised are you by the song’s immediate success?

Katie Atkinson: 2. There were so many things working in this song’s favor, from all the good will behind Spears’ newly regained professional freedom to “Cold Heart” setting the table for it to be totally normal to hear an Elton John mash-up on the radio in 2022. Of course, pre-release anticipation can only do so much, so it didn’t hurt that “Hold Me Closer” is actually a fun listen that fits in really well right now in pop music.

Stephen Daw: A solid 5. It was clear as soon as these two announced that they were working together that their song was going to do massive numbers. That being said, Elton John getting a top 10 debut on the Hot 100 in the year 2022 is pretty wild, even if Britney Spears is helping get him there.

Jason Lipshutz: A 2. Following her prolonged conservatorship battle that left the large majority of the Internet in her corner (in addition to her already-huge fan base), Britney Spears’ first new single in six years was always going to be a big deal. Combine that hype with the first major post-“Cold Heart” Elton John modern rework — focused on one of his most iconic singles, no less — and you’re going to get a collaboration that has a whole lot of people pressing play on “Hold Me Closer” upon its arrival. We’ll see how the song fares from here, but a big debut was always close to a sure thing in my eyes.

Taylor Mims: My surprise might be at a 2. I am unsurprised that people want to hear new music from Britney Spears after years of relative silence. If it was simply Britney releasing new music, that would spark interest. But since this is her first new music since publicly shaming her conservatorship and subsequently being released from it, the music is even more newsworthy. Not only do people want to hear the style of the new music, but they want to hear how Britney sounds.

Andrew Unterberger: I’ll say a 6. I know it feels somewhat pre-destined that a Britney comeback single would debut in the top 10, but this isn’t a proper official comeback — it’s a relatively low-stakes collab, the kind of thing that pre-“Cold Heart” might’ve felt more like a bonus track on a compilation than a true bid for a contemporary hit. It’s a more proven formula now, and “Hold Me Closer” is certainly a winning listen, so its bow is hardly a shock — but for it to outpace “Cold Heart” entirely in one week is still certainly something of a surprise.

2. John has said the song and its early success is “all about” Spears and her comeback following the long battle to get her freed from her conservatorship. Does that ring true to you, or do you think it’s as much or more about Sir Elton?

Katie Atkinson: It’s about both of them. I don’t think a Spears solo single was guaranteed a top 10 debut, but after the massive success of “Cold Heart” and also the veteran co-sign of Elton John, it was a really safe bet for both artists to join forces. Elton said in his Guardian interview of these mash-up/cover hybrids: “I want to do one every year for a fun, happy summer record.” First of all, yes please. Second of all, I don’t know that every collaborator he’ll choose will take him straight into the top 10, so that’s where the Britney timing clearly paid off.

Stephen Daw: I don’t know about “all about,” but it is absolutely the biggest factor at play here. Spears’ fans have been waiting for years not only to see the pop superstar get released from her conservatorship, but to hear some brand-new music from her — this being her first release since the conservatorship ended allowed all that pent up anticipation to get unleashed onto one song. However, both Elton and Britney deserve credit for their online promotion of the single; they were both teasing this song for weeks leading up to its release, which only further built on that excitement.

Jason Lipshutz: John is more or less correct. If you hypothetically swapped out Spears on “Hold Me Closer” for another pop artist — even an artist with more recent commercial success — the song would still likely debut lower than No. 6, right? After all, “Cold Heart,” featuring a pop star who’s a modern A-lister, debuted at No. 81 on the Hot 100 before gradually finding a wide audience and turning into a smash. Sir Elton John will always have a devoted listenership, but it’s Spears’ presence on “Hold Me Closer” that helped snag the top 10 debut.

Taylor Mims: Elton seems like he has done a wonderful job of nurturing Spears back into music. He has helped her delicately re-enter a realm that may have haunted her after 13 years of conservatorship. Beyond that, it’s about Spears. Fans (and curious onlookers of Spear’s situation) were excited to hear from her again and, more important, to support her. It is a symbolic triumph for Spears to hit the top 10 on the Billboard charts once her life and career are on her terms again, and a lot of people were eager to get her there. 

Andrew Unterberger: It’s a statement that’s at once both ridiculous and largely true. To say a song that repurposes multiple of his own older hits is all about his collaborator — especially when it’s his vocal that’s more prevalent across the whole track — feels a little inherently eye-rolly. But it is indeed Spears’ presence that keeps this from coming off as “Defrosted Heart,” and ensured that it would be one of the most-anticipated singles of the summer. Ultimately, the song’s success needed both of them.

3. Obviously the really impressive thing about “Cold Heart” and its chart performance has been not just its peak but its longevity — 52 weeks and counting on the Hot 100. Do you see “Hold Me Closer” gearing up for a similarly long run?

Katie Atkinson: I think “Cold Heart” will be the longer-tailed hit, just because it had such a slow burn to start. I hope “Hold Me Closer” is around for quite some time, but I think most hits that spend a year on the chart have a much more winding path to the top 10.

Stephen Daw: I’m truly not sure — part of what made “Cold Heart” so cool was the fact that it really was its own, modern pop song comprised of four Elton classics. “Hold Me Closer” feels much more like a dance remix of “Tiny Dancer” with some verse snippets of “The One” thrown in to make it interesting. While I think the Britney stans are going to work hard to keep the song high on the charts for a long time, I do think the novelty of seeing Britney sing two Elton songs will wear off sooner than “Cold Heart” did.

Jason Lipshutz: Probably not… simply because spending a year on the Hot 100 is a very difficult achievement! “Cold Heart” has not only become one of the most enduring pop songs in recent memory, I think it’s upper echelon of notable hits for both Lipa and, amazingly, John, five decades into a majestic career. Spears and John undoubtedly hope “Hold Me Closer” is a long-running hit, but even if its Hot 100 run is one-fourth as long as that of “Cold Heart,” both artists would probably be pretty happy.

Taylor Mims: I think we will know by the song’s second week on the chart. If it maintains a high position on the Hot 100, then I think it has a chance at longevity (though 52 weeks is asking a lot of any song). If it has a significant drop, then I imagine the first week’s position was mainly due to curiosity and folks won’t be returning to it regularly. Even if it does drop, Spears and John should still be proud of its debut, and the song gave Spears a good opportunity to make a soft return to the music world.  

Andrew Unterberger: I would’ve been skeptical before I saw how rapidly radio embraced the song; it debuts at a resounding No. 31 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs listing this week. Becoming a radio fixture is how a song stretches from a multi-week to a multi-month (and maybe now even a multi-year) chart hit in 2022, so if the song continues to move this well on the airwaves… I still might not bet on it lasting a whole year, because that remains a real long time. But it’s definitely a possibility.

4. Most pop fans seem to agree that while this is Britney’s first appearance on a new record in some years, it’s probably not the official start of her new era. Still, do you hear anything in “Hold Me Closer” that you think might point the way to what her proper comeback will sound or feel like, if and when it arrives?

Katie Atkinson: I think the midtempo, trop-house vibe of “Hold Me Closer” works really well with Spears’ growling vocals. Thinking of some of my favorite songs of Britney’s – “Breathe On Me,” “Unusual You,” “Criminal” – they all have a driving beat but not a full-on dancefloor speed. We obviously love our upbeat Britney pure-pop singles, but I think this vibe could be a very cool one to explore on a full album.

Stephen Daw: I don’t think a full-fledged disco Britney album is outside the realm of possibility; it’s something she hasn’t really gotten the chance to experience — so hearing the moving bassline, synchronized string section and four-to-the-floor drum beat with her voice feels like it could be something! But if she’s looking to get brutally honest on her next album (as some of her more scathing Instagram posts might suggest), then disco may not be the best avenue for that particular emotion. Honestly, predicting what Britney’s “new sound” is going to be is impossible; she could go just about anywhere, and her fans will rightfully eat it up.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s hard to say, since “Hold Me Closer” is a duet founded in music and lyrics that already exist; while the sound of Spears’ voice is encouraging in its own right, it’s difficult to discern what specifically from the track she’s going to carry over to her next proper full-length. My guess is that “Hold Me Closer” is truly a stopgap hit between eras, and that, whether the next Spears era is near or far, we can’t glean too much from this.

Taylor Mims: To be honest, the song doesn’t have much of Britney at all. Her appearance on the track is tucked under a lot of production. If anything, the song harkens back to some signature sounds from Britney’s earlier career, and a resurgence of her earlier singing would be fun to get on new music. However, the musical landscape has ventured far from the bubblegum pop days of the early ’00s so those sounds might only be of interest to her millennial fans. Then again, with disco and pop-punk making their returns, maybe we’re ready also ready for TRL-era bubblegum’s 2.0 revival.  

Andrew Unterberger: I’m skeptical that we can really learn much from this one, since it doesn’t really seem like it comes from Spears’ artistic vision. Hopefully this is a prelude to us getting word of her new solo stuff not too far down the line at this point, but her just recording again at all will probably have to be enough this time around.

5. Assuming Sir Elton will one day hit his fill with these kind of retrospective cover/remix/interpolation collabs, who’s another rock legend you think might be ready to have one of their own — and which more contemporary pop star do you think could help them make it a crossover hit?

Katie Atkinson: Elton is just getting started with these! And he has five-plus decades of hits to mine for them! My next pick was going to be Stevie Nicks, but she basically went down that road with Miley Cyrus’ “Edge of Midnight” (also produced by Watt, just like “Hold Me Closer”). So my next, more contemporary vote is for Guns N’ Roses. Please bring on the trop-house “Sweet Child O’ Mine” remix.

Stephen Daw: Hear me out: Stevie Nicks. She’s got a massive back catalogue to sift through (especially if you include Fleetwood Mac), and plenty of beloved hits that remain cultural institutions today; “Dreams” already went viral on TikTok, and “Edge of Seventeen” got the mashup treatment when Miley Cyrus teamed up with her for “Edge of Midnight.” Now, take someone Stevie has shown a lot of affinity for — one Harry Styles — put them together on a groovy reinvention of a few of her classics, and you’ve got a bonafide hit on your hands.

Jason Lipshutz: James Taylor is one year younger than Elton John, has a treasure trove of moving songs that is probably unfamiliar to generations of listeners, and a superstar, Taylor Swift, that was quite literally named after him, and has gone on to name-check him in her music. Give me “Fire and Rain (Taylor x Taylor Version)” on the Hot 100 ASAP, please.

Taylor Mims: One of the main reasons why I believe John succeeded at this project is because he is very up to date on current music. He is a big advocate for younger artists and appreciates a lot of contemporary work. I don’t know that there are many legacy artists that put as much effort into absorbing new sounds. On that short list could be Madonna or Dolly Parton, who are already big collaborators with younger artists. Elvis is also having a huge resurgence thanks to the Baz Luhrmann film, and proof of that model’s success can be seen in 2002’s “A Little Less Conversation (Official JXL Remix),” which fared well on many charts. Someone besides The King would obviously have to helm the project, but it could be worth capitalizing on sooner rather than later.  

Andrew Unterberger: Let’s go with an old cover favorite of Spears herself: Joan Jett. A “Hold Me Closer”-style redo of her hits might need to be a little less clubby and a little more rocking — but then again, hits like “I Hate Myself For Loving You” and “Fake Friends” have pretty adaptable lyrics whose feeling could translate across most genres. Maybe best to stay away from “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” at this point, though, given the disgraced figure who’s still getting royalty checks off that one.



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