If you’re a pop fan, I’m going to guess you like at least one of the last three No. 1 songs in America. In many ways, 2012 has been an entertaining year for discriminating chart-watchers, as a slew of left-field singles have made strides on Billboard‘s Hot 100.
I’ve met people who love fun.’s “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monáe—it spent six weeks atop the Hot 100 for a reason—and people who hate it. But at least some members of the latter group have a soft spot for the record that ejected it from No. 1 in April, Gotye’s Kimbra-assisted “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
That Gotye smash, one of the least predictable chart-toppers of the last decade and the current frontrunner as Billboard‘s 2012 song of the year, inspired both admiration and passionate loathing during its eight weeks on top. But virtually everyone I know who hates “Somebody” loves Carly Rae Jepsen.
I mean, does anybody hate “Call Me Maybe”? About the worst thing anyone’s said about it is it’s like a drug. Frankly, even those of us who loved the Gotye record were rooting for Carly Rae to take over the penthouse, which she finally did in late June. Her smash is now in its ninth week on top.
Here’s the bad news: Since late winter, these three songs, and only these three, have held the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100. As fascinating as this triptych of smashes has been as a pop phenomenon, you’d be well within your rights wishing they’d step aside. As recently as three weeks ago, all three of them—including the bordering-on-ancient fun. record—were still sitting in the Top 10. (Now, only Jepsen and Gotye are still up there; the latter is at No. 6, a chart position that it hasn’t gone lower than since mid-March.)
The six weeks commanded by fun., eight weeks owned by Gotye and nine ruled by Jepsen mark only the second time the Hot 100’s 54-year history that three consecutive singles have held the penthouse that long. With apologies to Fall Out Boy, this ain’t a trend, it’s a goddamn oligopoly.
Slow turnovers at No. 1 are more noticeable when one act is in charge the whole time. In 2009 the Black Eyed Peas lay siege to the Hot 100 for 26 weeks—a full half-year—with just two earworm singles, “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.” Five years before that, Usher commanded the chart for 22 weeks with three hits in quick succession—”Yeah!,” “Burn” and “Confessions Part II.” (Usher almost went uninterrupted at the top with that trio, but stepped aside for a week thanks to that year’s American Idol coronation song, Fantasia’s “I Believe.”)
Looking back before the hip-hop era, in early 1978, songs by assorted Gibb brothers controlled the chart for 14 solid weeks: Andy Gibb’s “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” flanked on either side by the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever”—all three co-written by brother Barry. And in early 1964, famously, the Beatles succeeded themselves twice at No. 1—still an unbeaten consecutive three-hit streak—with their debut U.S. smashes, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” for a total of 14 weeks.
This year’s handoff of the penthouse key is different. We’re getting variety in terms of artists and songs—fun., Gotye and Jepsen offer three flavors of centrist pop—but they’re taking forever to pass the baton.
Nelly, “Hot In Herrre”
Since the Hot 100’s founding, there have been 19 calendar years when at least three songs have each spent a half-dozen weeks or more on top. All 19 of those years were after 1980. Only as Billboard‘s data-gathering technology improved—particularly after the adoption of Soundscan in the ’90s—have we learned just how slow America’s pop-song metabolism is: When we like a song, we tend to hold onto it for a month or two. The pop charts are not the same as the movie box-office; in the U.S., a new movie debuts on top most weeks and is lucky to hold onto the top slot for more than three weeks. In music, chart-toppers don’t turn over nearly as much.
But usually we alternate between dominant chart-toppers and short-lived chart-toppers; a seven-week No. 1 will be followed by a one- or two-weeker, and so forth. It’s rare to see so many months-long dominators in a row. Out of those 19 slower-moving years atop the Hot 100, only two—2002 and 2012—have lined up three consecutive half-dozen-week toppers in a row. Let’s examine both of those years to figure out what was, and is, going on.
In the late winter of 2002, Jennifer Lopez rose to No. 1 with “Ain’t It Funny,” her second straight chart-topper remixed to feature pop-rapper Ja Rule (after 2001’s “I’m Real”). The Craig Mack-sampling remix of “Ain’t” sat at No. 1 for six weeks, uninterrupted. J. Lo then handed off the penthouse key to Ashanti, 2002’s R&B/hip-hop it girl, with her DeBarge-sampling smash “Foolish.” That held the top slot for 10 weeks, again with no interruption. Finally, in late June, Nelly took over the top slot with his Chuck Brown-interpolating summer jam “Hot in Herre,” which ruled for seven uninterrupted weeks.
These three songs exemplify everything that made 2002 the most dreadfully dull year on the pop charts. Only eight songs, total, topped the Hot 100 all year, the lowest rate of turnover in the chart’s history. There were some good hits that year—Nelly’s “Herre,” the radio masterwork by then-dominant production team the Neptunes, has held up well. But the fact that more than half of the year’s chart-toppers involved some combination of Nelly (“Herre,” “Dilemma”), Ja Rule (“Always on Time,” “Ain’t It Funny”) or Ashanti (“Always on Time,” “Foolish”) showed Top 40 radio was in a serious rut.
What all these songs had in common was that you couldn’t buy any of them, individually, in a store. None was released as a single.
In effect, the charts of 2002 represented the last throes of the Great War Against the Single, a decade-long music-business epoch I’ve discussed frequently over the years. To sum up: For all of the 1990s, the major labels colluded en masse to kill off the single as a retail medium. Then in the late ’90s, consumers fought back by discovering file-sharing and downloading their favorite songs. Finally, by the early 2000s, the industry fought back, successfully shutting down the original Napster in the courts in 2001 but failing to either provide a viable alternative or slow the cratering of music sales.
The charts of 2002, therefore, reflected the culmination of a trend away from a la carte sales and toward the radio hit (which might partially explain why Jeep-booming hip-hop did so well during this period). The labels, desperate to prop up album sales, had ceased releasing virtually any radio hits as retail singles. The iTunes Store, which would revive the concept of the easily purchasable song, wouldn’t launch until 2003. And Billboard was left with a pop chart dominated entirely by radio, since the consumer—unable to buy her favorite songs—no longer had any measurable input into what made songs hits.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
What sucks about a Hot 100 dominated by radio is what sucks about radio in general: It is slow-moving and averse to change. Once an Ashanti record is market-tested and listener-adopted, it is played and played and played, commanding the airwaves for months. What makes the Hot 100 work so well as a national pop barometer is its balancing of passive, glacial radio playlists with active, hair-trigger consumer purchases. In 2002, half of that formula was lopped off, and a snoozy Hot 100 was the result—the consumer was out of the picture.
A decade later, the consumer is definitely back in the picture. Thanks to legal digital music, sales of songs have a major impact on the Hot 100. The three big hits of 2012 have each shifted more than five million copies—the highest number of quintuple-platinum singles in a year, not just in digital music history, but quite possibly recorded music history (it’s hard to know before the advent of Soundscan). In the post-iTunes era we’re living in, radio, to a large extent, takes its cues from singles-buyers, rather than the other way around.
So if the pop-song consumer is now driving the bus and radio is stuck in the back, why do the charts of 2012 look so much like the deadly charts of 2002? Essentially, as in 2002, we’re once again reaching the culmination of a pop trend, not unlike the radio-dominated hip-hop era of the early aughts.
We are now nearly a decade into the legal-digital-music era, where people can tote around smartphones and able to buy songs for a buck on a whim. Three or four years ago, a best-selling song on Billboard‘s Digital Songs chart (used to compile the Hot 100) would sell roughly 150,000-200,000 copies a week. Now, 250,000-300,000-sales weeks are far more common. “We Are Young,” “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Call Me Maybe” have all rolled those numbers routinely. In the first half of 2012, at least one of this year’s three pop megahits broke the 250K mark 20 out of 26 weeks; in five of those weeks, more than one of them did. For at least one week each, one of these three songs broke the 300,000 mark, formerly a rarefied sum. In its first week on top of the Hot 100 back in April, sales of Gotye’s hit crossed the 500,000 mark, one of only five songs in history to do that—and that was without Christmas or first-week sales boosting it.
You can call this the period of the snowball smash. The consumer starts a hit rolling downhill: Our three big 2012 smashes all started selling six-figure sums at iTunes before radio programmers gave them serious play. But once that hit is adopted by more casual pop fans, the snowball attains deadly momentum.
It’s when the snowball is halfway downhill that radio becomes a big factor—once programmers pick up on a hit, just like in the days of Ja Rule and Ashanti, they hold on tenaciously. The fun. and Gotye hits each wound up topping Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart—the airplay component of the Hot 100—for a month and a half apiece; Jepsen’s hit peaked in the runner-up spot at radio for more than a month.
(“Call Me Maybe” missed the top slot at radio because it got stuck behind Maroon 5’s current smash “Payphone,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100. “Payphone’s” best sales week was its first; if it had been a strong-seller over a longer period it would have topped Jepsen on the big chart for a couple of weeks. Reinforcing the point: nowadays, radio can help make a hit, but you need big sales to top the Hot 100.)
Ellie Goulding, “Lights”
So the difference between 2002 and 2012 is that the former was a sleepy year where radio dominated and played hits too long, whereas 2012 is a year that’s had several exciting left-field moments by first-time artists—but these hits turn sleepy once latecoming buyers and radio join the party. A decade ago, we were at the nadir of the retail single. In 2012, we’re at a new all-time peak for the single, but the chart result is the same: big hits dominate the field for long stretches and don’t let anything else through. I haven’t even touched on the stasis in the Top 10 this year, during which the aforementioned Maroon 5 hit set a record for most weeks in the Top Three without reaching No. 1 (15) and a Nicki Minaj hit, “Starships,” didn’t get past No. 5 but spent its first 21 chart weeks in the winner’s circle, also a record. These songs are products of the same sales-and-radio stasis generating chart-toppers: hits get big, then sit stone.
What makes pop fandom and chart-watching fun is turnover. The fun., Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen hits all have merits as pop phenomena—I am fond of all three—but each has become a mini-“Macarena,” a faddish pop totem everyone feels compelled to own. Radio, eyeing the same digital-led fad, follows suit.
What will it take to juice up the charts and let a few more singles have a turn at No. 1 or in the Top 10? If digital sales and radio airplay are getting over-aligned, what could shake things up?
Generally, these sorts of things go in cycles—for all we know, in 2013 we could see a string of one- and two-week toppers again. The mid-’90s on the Hot 100 saw a string of long-lasting No. 1 megahits by the likes of Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and Puff Daddy; but all of a sudden, when the hyper-competitive teen-pop boom took hold in the era of Backstreet and Britney, we enjoyed more rapid turnover again; 1998 and 1999 saw strings of one- and two-week hits.
One possible source of diversity on the charts could be Spotify and other the on-demand music services, which were added to the Hot 100 formula in March. But five months in, the addition of streaming music hasn’t provided as much diversity on the Hot 100 as I initially hoped—at least in terms of chart-topping hits. Since March, the song on top of Billboard‘s On Demand Songs chart, which is factored into the Hot 100, has matched the No. 1 song on the big chart every week but two.
In one of those weeks, Maroon 5’s “Payphone” topped the On-Demand chart—but then Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” went right back to the top; so much for diversity. Just last week, we finally saw the other song that topped the On-Demand chart that isn’t a Hot 100 No. 1 (yet): Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.” That song is now at No. 2 on the Hot 100 after one of the longest, slowest climbs in chart history, and it may be about to take over the top slot this week.
Let’s hope so, because we could use some fresh blood at the summit. It would make Goulding the fourth consecutive artist to top the Hot 100 with a first-time U.S. hit, and these new artists have brought some excitement to the charts in 2012. No one would have guessed at the start of the year that a post-emo rock band, a Sting-aping Belgian-Australian, or a teen-friendly Canadian not named Bieber would rule the U.S. charts. I just wish these kids would give a few more acts a turn at the top.