By Maura Johnston, a Boston-based Third Bridge Creative contributor who teaches at Boston College.
Thanks to the way the Billboard Hot 100's data sourcing has changed in recent years, the music consumption chart has been full of unexpected entrants from years gone by — like the 37-year-old Kate Bush banger "Running Up That Hill," which was propelled onto the 2022 charts by Stranger Things, or the 1977 cut from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours "Dreams," which returned to Pop's mainstream because of a chilled-out, cranberry-flavored TikTok clip.
In September, the Swedish Metal band Ghost enjoyed similar success, notching their first Hot 100 hit. "Mary On a Cross," a deceptively catchy cut from their 2019 EP Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, hit No. 90 on the Sept. 24 edition of that chart — the band's first time on the all-genre pop tally — thanks to 6M streams and 1K digital sales. The song initially came to prominence because of a fusion between Stranger Things and TikTok — and Ghost smartly capitalized on the trends, leading to the track's popularity soaring high enough that the band's masked frontman was invited to throw out the first pitch at a White Sox game in September.
A Masked Band of Metallurgists
Formed in Linköping, Sweden, in 2006, Ghost plays a style of metal that borrows from many different sub-sects of the genre — their home country's Black Metal and the sludgy sonics of Metal pioneers Black Sabbath can be heard in their mix, but they also have a Pop appeal that has nudged their music toward the mainstream. Their look helps, too: Frontman Tobias Forge wears elaborate costumes onstage in his various "anti-Pope" guises, and he's backed by hooded musicians who are known simply as Nameless Ghouls.
Ghost's striking presence and hooky songs have earned them a global cult followers; three of their albums have made it to the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, and they just wrapped up a tour of North American arenas that included stops at New York's UBS Arena and Montreal's Place Bell. Before "Mary On A Cross" came out three years ago, the band's most-streamed songs included the crunchy "Dance Macabre," a cut from their 2018 album Prequelle, and the churning "Cirice," which appeared on 2015's Meliora. In March of this year they released their fifth album, Impera; its lead single "Hunter's Moon" had actually premiered the previous fall, when it was used as the closing-credits music for the slasher flick Halloween Kills. It quickly hit the 3M stream mark on Spotify, and is now closing in on 27M streams there.
A Stranger Thing Happened
"Mary On A Cross" was the B-side of Ghost's 2019 single Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, which was meant to mimic a 45 that had been excavated "from the 1969 archives." (It was released digitally in the middle of September 2019 and put out on vinyl two weeks later.) The A-side, the chugging "Kiss the Go-Goat," was accompanied by a video shot in part at the famed Los Angeles club the Whisky a Go-Go, with the band flanked by go-go dancers. "Mary" is a lighter track than its A-side, incorporating the chiming guitars and swirling organs of that era's psychedelia into its metal mix.
A little less than three years after the initial release of "Mary," it crash-landed into the TikTok consciousness thanks to a video about Stranger Things, the Netflix series that aired its fourth season in the late spring of 2022. This year's run of the show was a boon for two songs on the fringes of '80s pop: Bush's thrumming Hounds of Love cut "Running Up That Hill" went all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 after its inclusion on the show, while a savvy use of Metallica's 1986 thrash classic "Master of Puppets" sparked interest in those metal pioneers for an entirely new generation.
The rise of "Mary On A Cross" was a bit different, however, spinning out of the Stranger Things universe into the wider TikTok world. It first came to prominence in a fan-made video about two of that show's characters, Will Byers (portrayed by Noah Schnapp) and Mike Wheeler (played by Finn Wolfhard, who is a musician himself). The clip, which plays off the retro sonics of "Mary" with filters, was initially posted in late July by the "multifandom comfort edits" account @editingtherapy, and it's been viewed 2.9M times since its initial posting, according to TikTok.
The Immortal World of 'Mary on a Cross'
A key part of "Mary" going viral is that it musically isn't tied to Stranger Things, which allows the TikTok videos that are hitting big with it to be all over the map, thematically. As of this writing, the top five videos using "Mary" are a montage of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent posted on August 24 (45.9M views), a plant being spliced with another plant posted on August 31 (31.2M views), a clip where Russian president Vladimir Putin is happy about a dog posted on September 2 (16.7M views), a live video of Ghost performing "Mary" in Vienna that was recorded in May but posted on Aug. 13 (10.5M views), and a video about "cuddling" fossils that was posted on Aug. 16 (9.9M views). As of Oct. 21, Chartmetric counted 75.4K TikTok videos using "Mary" in its various forms.
As seen above, the track's Chartmetric score was solid when it initially was released in the fall of 2019, then plateaued for a couple of years before the release of the initial Stranger Things fan video. The momentum of "Mary" has sustained beyond the band's blip onto the Hot 100, with interest peaking in mid-September — around Sept. 12, which was right in the middle of the tracking week for the Sept. 24 chart and a day before a scheduled Spotify Live event that unexpectedly crashed the streaming service.
"Mary" is regaining momentum this month, thanks in part to the track being included on Halloween-themed playlists like Spotify's Halloween Party, which currently boasts 701.8K followers.
Ghost and their label, Loma Vista, have also responded smartly to the unexpected popularity of "Mary on a Cross." In August, Ghost released a new version of "Mary On A Cross" that is slowed down and swathed in the reverb that makes so many TikTok hits catnip for creators. A few weeks later, both the original and slowed-down versions of "Mary" were included on [MESSAGE FROM THE CLERGY], which also included "Dance Macabre" and other popular songs by the band like "Spillways," from this year's Impera, and "Square Hammer," from Meloria. Loma Vista also released a video of Ghost playing "Mary" live to commemorate the end of the tour — and to show people curious about the song what Ghost's compelling live show looks like, drawing them into the band's singular world.
While TikTok might be known for helping Pop artists, both past and present, blow up on the charts, it's apparent that the platform is not only genre agnostic but potentially conducive for more niche genres like Metal to reclaim their place in the limelight.