For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2023 all this week. At No. 6, we remember the year in Morgan Wallen — who put up mind-boggling stats all year, but was still surprisingly invisible at times.

Few artists, if any, were as set up to put numbers on the board in 2023 as country superstar Morgan Wallen

It had been two years since the release of his massive-in-all-ways Dangerous: The Double Album and the backlash following his use of the N-word in a video captured on TMZ, making 2021 both the best and worst year of his career. He had spent the rest of that year mostly laying low as Dangerous continued to produce – it would ultimately break the Billboard 200 record for most weeks in the top 10 – and then took 2022 to reintroduce himself to fans. He set out on the Dangerous Tour that February, then began to release a slow trickle of music, leading to Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits like the trap-influenced “You Proof” and mama-I’m-crazy ballad “Thought You Should Know,” which proved how hungry most of the public still was for new Wallen material.  

Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2023:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Peso Pluma | Comeback of the Year: Miley Cyrus | No. 10: Drake | No. 9: Doja Cat | No. 8: Bad Bunny | No. 7: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 6: Karol G

By early 2023, that slow trickle would turn into a broken dam. In late January, Wallen announced the March release of One Thing at a Time, to be a whopping 36 tracks long – Dangerous ran a scant 30 – and to be promoted on his One Night at a Time World Tour, kicking off that April, which would take Wallen to stadiums for the first time. Even before its release, the album was all but a pre-certified blockbuster, with the tracklist including the already-minted hits “Proof,” “Thought” and the pop-rocking title track, the latter one of three new songs he’d released along with his tour announcement in late 2022.

Matt Paskert

Morgan Wallen

Matt Paskert

But one song he released while divulging the One Thing details would end up dwarfing them all, as well as anything on Dangerous. “Last Night” was part of another three-pack (along with the Allmans-interpolating “Everything I Love” and the cleverly Bible-wary “I Wrote the Book”) released by Wallen, this time to hype the One Thing announcement. The liquor-soaked, maybe-breakup anthem took off immediately following its mid-week release, reaching the top spot five weeks after its debut – not only a career first for Wallen, but a first for any solo male country star since Eddie Rabbit back in 1981.

The final push that got “Last Night” to No. 1 came with the March release of the full One Thing album, which unsurprisingly bowed with the biggest first-week total of the year to that point: 501,000 units, nearly doubling the 265,000 posted by Dangerous in its opening frame. One Thing would also chart all 36 of its tracks on the Hot 100 in its debut week, as Wallen blew past the previously Drake-held record of 27 for the most songs notched by an artist on the chart in a single week. If Wallen’s superstardom had escaped anyone’s notice to that point, it was finally unignorable.

And it would stay that way for months. Both “Last Night” and One Thing would continue their rule on the Hot 100 and Billboard 200, respectively – occasionally getting knocked off by a big debut or surging hit, but seemingly always returning to their perch. All in all, both song and album would reign for 16 weeks total, giving Wallen the longest reign on each chart yet this decade – and the longest ever for any unaccompanied solo artist on the Hot 100.

In the process, Wallen also laid claim to territory that had largely eluded him to that point: top 40 radio. While he had been laying siege to country radio for a half-decade already, he’d yet to score much success on the pop airwaves. But “Last Night” was simply too huge to be overlooked, and it reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart – an extremely rare level of top 40 success for a country song without a major non-country guest or obviously crossover-aimed production. And of course, his dominance at country radio practically went without saying: four songs from One Thing (“Proof,” “Thought,” “Night” and “Thinkin’ Bout Me”) topped the Country Airplay chart in 2023, and a fifth (“Everything”) is currently lurking around the top five. 

Meanwhile, all 2023, Wallen was leading the charge for a country takeover on the Billboard charts, with the genre particularly beginning to catch up to pop and hip-hop in its streaming presence. Though “Last Night” was the first country Hot 100 by a solo male in over four decades, it opened the floodgates for three more immediately after it – from Jason Aldean, Oliver Anthony Music and Zach Bryan (with Kacey Musgraves), all with songs that were massive streaming successes. In our December cover story on Wallen, Billboard’s Melinda Newman called him “the tip of the spear for the genre’s new generation,” and pointed out that while country grew by grew by 24% in on-demand audio and video streaming from 2022 to 2023, Wallen’s numbers alone accounted for 31% of that growth. 

So if he had the No. 1 album of the year, the No. 1 song of the year, and was the biggest driving force behind arguably the most consequential trend in the (English-language) music industry this year – by the way, he also finished No. 4 on Billboard Boxscore’s Year-End Top Tours ranking, highest of any artist who released an album in 2023 – how is Morgan Wallen only our No. 5 Greatest Pop Star this year? 

Well, there’s no arguing that there were four artists with more impressive portfolios of commercial achievements and statistics this year. But were there four greater pop stars? We think so, mostly because as huge as Morgan Wallen’s music was this year, the man himself was a much-less-conspicuous presence. He had no major award show or late night appearances, released no official music videos, had no particularly viral moments (besides a fan brawl outside his show that he wasn’t involved with), barely posted on TikTok – the app once integral to his early success – and until Billboard’s cover story, made no major media appearances. Millions of people caught Wallen on the One Night at a Time tour, but if you weren’t one of them, you could’ve very easily gone the entire year without seeing the man in action. 

It’s an unsurprising and arguably wise strategy for an artist whose biggest career moments in the spotlight have mostly been embarrassing ones – from his 2020 arrest for public intoxication and disorderly conduct to his violation of SNL’s COVID-19 policy and subsequent removal from the show later that year, to, of course, his filmed racial slur usage in 2021. And while a large portion of the public appears to have moved on from these incidents, Wallen’s continual underperformance at major award shows – shut out at this year’s CMAs, and with no nominations at the 2024 Grammys (“Last Night” is up for best country song, but he’s not nominated since he didn’t write on it) – suggests there may remain (understandable) hard feelings from some folks in the industry. It makes sense that Wallen would continue to tread lightly re-inserting himself into the mainstream’s center. 

Meanwhile, his chart fortunes have clearly not suffered for his lack of national visibility or award wins – regardless of Wallen’s presence in the headlines or lack thereof, his commercial momentum has only ever trended upwards since his 2018 breakthrough. This year, he even proved he could cross over to the pop world without really playing the pop game. So as long as he can top the charts and sell out his tours while letting his music do the talking for him, there’s not necessarily a lot compelling Wallen to do more. 

Fair enough. But true pop stardom – from Madonna and Michael Jackson to BTS and Bad Bunny – has always been about more than just the numbers. It’s about impact, about presence, about being the whole package. It’s about putting yourself out there, in just about every way possible, and sometimes risking it all in the process. Wallen can and most likely will continue to top nearly every official Billboard chart while laying low, relatively speaking, but it’ll take him being a little more willing to step into the spotlight at his brightest to get to the top of these rankings.

Andrew Unterberger
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