In an era of out-of-nowhere hits and splashy No. 1 debuts, Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing With a Stranger” was an old-fashioned radio success story, topping Billboard’s Radio Songs and Adult Top 40 charts in May after 15 and 17 weeks, respectively.
The artists, along with Capitol Records executive vp promotion Greg Marella and iHeartMedia president of CHR programming strategy John Ivey, look back on its rise.
Smith: I had just gone through a breakup and the last thing I wanted to do was write a sad song. I was listening to a lot of really sexy music because it made me feel better, so I wanted the song to capture what I was doing: going to clubs and kissing people.
Normani: I happened to be [at the same studio as Smith] and heard Sam had a record to play me. Sam was like, “Do you want to jump on it?” And I was like, “Right now?” I wasn’t prepared! But Sam was my hypeman. You could just feel the energy.
Marella: When we were out playing this record [for DJs] and getting ready to launch, most people thought it was going to be an absolutely monster song. But they knew how long it takes to cut through. It’s not uncommon to take 18, 20 weeks to get to the top, especially with midtempo songs.
Ivey: It appeals to young and old: It’s easy to sing, it’s not offensive, it’s not a novelty record — it’s just a well-written, well-sung song. It was big at both [adult top 40] and adult contemporary [in addition to pop]. It’s a three-format record.
Marella: While we’re working the single, we could see all the consumption data, all the international data — it indicated that it was going to be really big. [It became] a weekly conversation of reassuring everyone that the data is there. It’s a process of spreading positive information.
Smith: The song launched me into a really beautiful space of writing and freedom. There’s a femininity within that song that has ignited a flame within me; it triggered the transition I’ve made into a nonbinary person.
Normani: Sam has a unique way of captivating the audience with vulnerability. That was different for me — my fans hadn’t been able to see me in that light. I’m happy the song will always be part of my story as a solo artist.
Ivey: I think we’ve played it 3,000 times [at KIIS-FM Los Angeles] and it’s still [in rotation] for us. It’s a song that people will be singing for years.