Five Burning Questions: Sam Smith & Kim Petras’ ‘Unholy’ Debuts at No. 3 on the Hot 100
It was already one of the biggest hits of 2022’s second half well before it officially dropped two Fridays ago: Sam Smith and Kim Petras‘ “Unholy” became a sensation on TikTok when it was first teased by the former artist on their account in mid-August, building up a month-plus of hype for its eventual release.
Now, the full song is here, and the early returns are fairly resounding: The clanging, sexually charged “Unholy” bows at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, while leading both the Digital Song Sales and Streaming Songs charts. It’s already Smith’s highest-peaking hit on the chart since “Stay With Me” reached No. 2 in 2014, and Petras’ first entry of any kind on the listing.
Which of the two artists does the song’s success mean more for? And how will its impact be felt on pop music in the next couple years? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. “Unholy” became one of the year’s most anticipated pop songs after becoming a much-shared sound on TikTok when Smith first released the snippet in mid-August. Why do you think the song was able to go so viral even before its official full release?
Rania Aniftos: It’s a mix of Sam Smith’s star power and Kim Petras’ explosive popularity among young music lovers. All of that with the scandalous lyrics made it such an expected 2022 TikTok hit – especially when there are a whole lot of famous daddies doing unholy business lately.
Jason Lipshutz: Sam Smith and Kim Petras both did a fantastic job of hyping up “Unholy” in the weeks leading up to its release, tapping in to their combined millions of followers with fun, engaging posts. Yet that hype doesn’t work if the “Unholy” hook isn’t quite so irresistible, full of sultry energy and a whiz-bang melody. The combination of heavy viral marketing and an immediate chorus has helped Smith score their biggest hit in years, and Petras her biggest hit to date.
Joe Lynch: Initially, it least, it seems fueled by clips of people going through some sort of style ‘upgrade,’ usually of the thirst trap variety, and since social media is fueled by the desire to see and be seen (not to mention hormones), it was a pretty good candidate for a viral moment. Plus, the heightened, bombastic drama of the sonics – which had a lot of people stymied why anyone was vibing to it in the first place – gave it a little boost of “huh?” that kept it going.
Kristin Robinson: I think the chorus feels incredibly different from most pop songs on the Hot 100, and this is actually backed up by music theory. “Unholy” uses a scale which is most commonly associated with Indian or other Eastern musical traditions. This perks up our ears on the first listen as we try to figure out where we’ve heard it before. I believe this is similar to how Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More,” which borrowed (“interpolated”) the melody of “Physical” by Olivia Newton John for its chorus, also added some initial interest for listeners. These unplaceable similarities make listeners feel like they distantly know the song already and may help them latch on. However, most of what I just said is likely subconscious for most people: In general, I believe some of the virality can also be attributed to hearing Sam Smith at their edgiest. It’s so fun!
Andrew Unterberger: I think it was particularly effective condensed to a teaser format, because the chorus is so striking and surprising and mysterious, especially coming from a top 40 fixture like Smith. Basically, it does what a good teaser should do — get you curious about the final product without giving too much away about it — and it’s not surprising that listeners were so immediately intrigued with it.
2. The No. 3 debut for “Unholy” marks Sam Smith’s first top 10 hit of the 2020s, and Kim Petras’ first Hot 100 hit ever. Which of the two artists do you think the song’s success is more meaningful for?
Rania Aniftos: While I’d be excited as either of them, I think a first-ever Hot 100 hit would be particularly special. Kim has been in the game for more than 10 years, it’s about time that her talent gets some recognition. Meanwhile, for Sam, the hit must be validating for the next chapter of their career and this new, fun sound they’ve been experimenting with lately.
Jason Lipshutz: Petras has a cult following and plenty of runway to develop as a pop personality, but Smith is an established hit-maker whose last few singles as a lead artist couldn’t crack the upper reaches of the Hot 100. “Unholy” represents an enormous win for both artists, but for Smith, this is proof of a type of staying power that is rare for modern stars, and suggests an ability to keep collecting hit singles in the second decade of their career as a popular artist.
Joe Lynch: 50/50 split? It’s Smith’s first major chart look since the Normani collab in 2019, and as a global pop presence with a mainstream audience, it’s huge for them to notch a No. 3 debut as they begin a new album era. Then again, for Kim, this is her first Hot 100 hit, period – obviously a feather in her cap. But Petras’ career is hardly predicated upon her being a Hot 100 presence with mainstream appeal in the same way that Smith’s career is.
Kristin Robinson: This is bigger for Kim Petras! I can’t think of another trans woman who has charted this high on the Hot 100 before, that’s a major milestone for trans representation in music. Additionally, it’s exciting to see someone like Petras who has grown such a loyal fanbase over the years break through from cult-favorite to chart-topper. It’s hard to achieve.
Andrew Unterberger: Petras is the obvious answer as the first-timer, but I’m leaning Smith here. Fact is, while Petras’ verse is strong — and her presence undoubtedly gives the song some cred for more underground pop fans who still think of Smith as Adele-fashioned Mom Music or whatever — this still sounds mostly like a Sam Smith song, and will be most closely associated with them moving forward. It should still open doors for Petras, but I don’t know if it will change her career arc all that much. For Smith, however, this could be the start of an entire second (or third) act — a reinvigoration of their career that could re-establish them as an A-lister for a second decade.
3. Though the song’s strong bow suggests an effective release, some folks have suggested the duo waited too long to drop the song, allowing TikTok power users to tire of it before the whole thing was even out. Do you think the “Unholy” debut tells us anything about the ideal release period for a song with a viral snippet on TikTok, or will we have to wait a little to see how the song endures first for that?
Rania Aniftos: Might I suggest they dropped it too early? I’ve actually been noticing that a lot of fans were underwhelmed by the final product, which makes me thing that if they put some more time to capture what fans loved so much about the hook in the verses, it may be a more long-lasting hit. I honestly don’t see “Unholy” staying in the top 10 for more than a week or two. There really is a sweet spot when it comes to the TikTok viral to release date timeline. And TikTok is still too new and too arbitrary to have a concrete answer as to when the right time is!
Jason Lipshutz: I mean… even if a few people did tire of “Unholy” before its official release, a No. 3 debut on the Hot 100 means that a whole lot more people did not! To me, the “Unholy” release is a game-changer in how pop singles are teased and marketed on TikTok, with labels trying to re-create the effect that Smith and Petras constructed with their viral clips. Don’t be surprised if launching a dance challenge for a song one month before it comes out, as they did for “Unholy,” becomes standard practice.
Joe Lynch: I don’t know if there’s much to learn from “Unholy” other than that a TikTok trend can push a song with no radio appeal up the Hot 100. Would a faster release have brought it to No. 1 on the Hot 100? I’m doubtful. In terms of timing and speed, I’d be wary of drawing any definitive conclusions.
Kristin Robinson: I’ve seen those comments too, and I agree they waited too long, given how short the actual full-length song was. If there was a big bridge or a third verse or something to lengthen it out, I’d feel better about the time frame, but they did push it a little bit too far. The smartest thing to do if you go viral is to release it as quickly as you can. Otherwise you could miss out on some major money on streaming services (TikTok does not pay much at all, if anything when an artist goes viral). Katie Gregson-McLeod’s demo version of “complex” – which was clearly rushed to release to meet demand – was an example of rushing to release, and I think it was a smart move.
Andrew Unterberger: I think we’ll have to wait and see — but my guess would be that even if the TikTok faithful have already grown wary of the song, its initial success has been resounding enough that it will ultimately connect with enough audiences elsewhere to make up for that loss. Moving forward, navigating how to capitalize on successful TikTok teases will be a question of what artists most prioritize: Do they want a massive crossover hit, or do they want to maintain their song’s (for lack of a better word) cool? Petras and Smith appear to have gone the former path, and have achieved that goal in the process.
4. “Unholy” is a noteworthy and potentially groundbreaking crossover hit both for its lyrics (implicitly queer-themed and delivered by two LGBTQ performers) and its production (deriving from the metallic hyperpop pioneered by the late Sophie and her PC Music cohorts). Which do you think is more likely to be impactful on the chart pop of the next few years?
Rania Aniftos: Truly both, but hyperpop production has been such a theme in what has been popular on TikTok lately. I think the resurgence of Y2K trends in fashion and television has led to the nostalgia for the club-ready pop that you might imagine Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan dancing to in 2003. I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot more pop stars and transitions to pop from a lot of singer-songwriters in the next few years.
Jason Lipshutz: I hope that a queer-themed song by two LGBTQ artists becoming a top 5 hit on the Hot 100 is a rarity that won’t be viewed as such in the near future, but for now, “Unholy” should not be overlooked for its groundbreaking representation. In particular, Smith has been a top 40 radio presence for years, but “Unholy” is their first top 10 hit since coming out as non-binary three years ago — and its immediate success proves once and for all that their gender identity does not put a limit of how far they can climb on the pop charts.
Joe Lynch: The former. A-list artists have flirted with hyperpop for years now, and it doesn’t seem to connect with radio, at all, and I don’t see that changing for any reason (sure, streaming and sales can pick up some slack, but radio’s lack of interest doesn’t bode well in the long run). As for the lyrical content, we’re in an era where one in five Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ, so songs speaking to that audience are no longer merely tolerated but sought out by folks.
Kristin Robinson: I think we’ve already seen the rise of queer themes and queer artists on the charts in the last few years, especially with success of Lil Nas X’s Montero album and Dove Cameron’s single “Boyfriend.” I expect that to grow a lot over the years as the next generation artists come up, many of which will be raised with much more progressive views towards gender and sexuality than the artists of today.
Andrew Unterberger: Obviously both, but I’m a little more curious to see how the song’s sonics — helmed by longtime mainstream veterans like Jimmy Napes, Cirkut and Ilya and even the magic man of 2021, Omer Fedi — end up reshaping the sound of modern top 40. Frankly, it’s a little surprising that it took this long for these sounds (which have largely defined pop’s underground for nearly a decade now) to make it to a crossover hit, but now they have, I wouldn’t be surprised if the floodgates really open on it. Just wait till Max Martin’s next big production.
5. The combination of an established veteran hitmaker with a cutting-edge cult-pop favorite appears to have been a winning one for “Unholy.” Who’s another pop combo of longtime top 40 mainstay and underground favorite you’d like to see enjoy a similar mainstream moment?
Rania Aniftos: Billie Eilish and The Marìas! Give us a creepy pop hit in time for spooky season!
Jason Lipshutz: In a few days, Harry Styles will be joined on tour by Jessie Ware, a vocal powerhouse who has recently reinvented herself as a disco siren. Can we get an uptempo collaboration that serves as a stopgap between Harry albums three and four? Pretty please?
Joe Lynch: Not even joking, a Justin Bieber/100 Gecs collab would be so interesting. He still has that Midas touch when it comes to songs that stick around on the Hot 100 for weeks, and I’d be curious to know if his presence could move the needle on hyperpop on the Hot 100.
Kristin Robinson: I want to see Kanye West drop his collaboration with James Blake. Does Blake count as underground? Doubtful at this point, but he hasn’t had a major Hot 100 hit of his own while West has had many. West recently teased the collaboration on social media, and I’ll be super disappointed if that never comes out!
Andrew Unterberger: Taylor Swift and Let’s Eat Grandma. I’ll take the 20-minute version.