Bulls, Bears, And Bullets: 50 Years Of The “Billboard” Hot 100

When this column debuted on Idolator, I briefly referred to the Hot 100, Billboard‘s premier singles chart, as “the Dow Jones of pop.”

As quippy as that might have sounded, I wasn’t kidding. Like the Dow Jones Industrial Average — which signifies the health of the U.S. economy for millions of people who understand little about what the Dow means or how it works — the Hot 100 has been around long enough to become both a fixture and a shorthand for the current state of U.S. popular music.

The Hot 100 is exactly 50 years old this week. The first No. 1 song on the chart Billboard launched the first week of August, 1958, was Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” an ode to a teasing girl and her bedeviling kiss. It’s a considerably politer — if more spiteful — song than the current chart-topper, which tackles a similar topic.

I’ve been following the Hot 100 avidly for about half of its 50 years, from the first time I heard Casey Kasem on the radio. So before I go on a two-week vacation and put “100 & Single” on a brief hiatus, I hope you’ll indulge me as I tackle why I think the Hot 100 matters — even as the industry it was invented to track comes crashing down around it.
I have vague memories of hearing Kasem’s “American Top 40” in the car with my cousins as early as 1981, and watching his “America’s Top 10” on Saturday-morning TV around the same time. But I definitely recall listening, rapt, to his top 100 countdown of the biggest hits of 1983 during Christmas week of that year. By the winter of ’84, I was listening to the whole four-hour Top 40 countdown every Sunday; along with the church services I was required to attend, this was my religion.
Among Kasem’s various pet radio phrases, including that bit about reaching for the stars, he would periodically remind listeners that he was “countin’ down the hits, according to Billboard magazine.” When I finally scraped together the allowance money in the fall of 1985 to buy a copy of said magazine at a newsstand, I grasped that the 40-position list I’d been following was the sizable tip of a 100-position iceberg. You could see songs on the Hot 100 that hadn’t made the Top 40 yet and maybe never would. The magazine would even tell you, on separate charts, what was (supposedly) getting the most radio play and what was selling the best.
What made the Hot 100 ground-breaking in 1958, and what continues to differentiate it from any other music chart, is the smashing-together of these two distinct pools of data: radio airplay and song sales. Other, now-defunct competitors to Billboard (Radio & Records, Cashbox) produced song charts relying primarily on radio or sales; England’s main singles chart has relied for years on sales only. But the Hot 100’s combo formula — to me, and pretty much anyone who takes this stuff seriously — is clearly best. Over the last half-century, that formula has been tweaked countless times — at times, heavily overhauled. But the principle of sales-plus-airplay remains the same, despite changes over all those years in how radio works (from AM radio back in the day to heavily niche-focused FM today) and how people buy music (from 45s to 99-cent downloads).
Sales and airplay, I’ve decided, are the proverbial chocolate and peanut butter of the music industry — much more palatable in combination than they are on their own. Singles sales are direct votes by consumers of their favorite songs, but they also reflect casual whims and momentary fads. (“Laffy Taffy,” anyone?) Radio airplay, on the other hand, is slow-moving and focus-grouped to death, but it has a calming influence on the charts, reflecting what the more casual, passive music fan is likely to find pleasurable.
We’ve now got 50 years of Hot 100 data to examine and dissect (as one group of very avid chart fans has been doing online for more than a decade), and if there’s one clear conclusion I can make, it’s this: The Hot 100, and pop charts in general, work best when sales and airplay exert roughly equal influence.
Airplay-heavy charts are deadly. That’s the situation we had in the early 2000s, when iTunes hadn’t been invented yet and the labels had killed off the retail single. The result: in 2002, just eight songs went to No.1 all year — half of them involving either Nelly or Ja Rule — and the Hot 100 recorded its lowest number of total charted songs in history.
Sales-heavy charts are a bit more interesting — right now, thanks to iTunes, we’re arguably going through one of the most sales-skewed periods in history — but leaning too far that way can have unpleasant effects, too. In 1991, after the launch of SoundScan, which revolutionized the album charts, Billboard brought similar sales data over to the Hot 100, at last making it accurate and immune to most label-payola shenanigans. Unfortunately, for most of the ’90s, the new formula favored songs that sold heavily long after they’d become too tired for even Top 40 radio to play. We have SoundScan to thank for the three-to-four-month runs at No. 1 by such schlock as “End of the Road,” “I Will Always Love You,” “One Sweet Day,” and “Candle in the Wind.”
It’s hard to trust the data that formed the backbone of the Hot 100 before the SoundScan explosion of 1991. But, say this for the old, “dirty” system: we had balance. Sales and airplay for most songs back then tended to march in lockstep, and it produced some great chart periods, like the mid-’60s and the early ’80s. By contrast, I’d argue that the schlocky charts of the ’70s were the result of imbalance: the advent of big rock “hits” unreleased on 45, a la Led Zeppelin; and the evolution of radio toward the FM model, which segregated rock from R&B and left only the cheesiest bits on those Top 40 stations that reported to the Hot 100.
If you want a good chart, you need checks and balances: the Congress that is the consumer, versus the tyranny of the Chief Executive that is radio. (You also need a supply of good songs, obviously, but there’s not much a chart can do about that.)
But here’s my larger point: the Hot 100 has proven surprisingly strong and resilient, even through fallow periods, because it’s got the most stuff going into it. Is radio sleepy? Maybe a left-field hit will start selling in stores. Are sales down? Hey, radio’s got all those hours in the day to fill. In just the last year, Billboard has added to the Hot 100’s data pool new tracking of streaming media and on-demand requests of songs, from the likes of AOL and Yahoo! Music. It’s a flyspeck on the windshield right now, but if traditional terrestrial radio gives up the ghost in five years, the shift to services like this will feel smooth as silk and keep the chart humming.
It’s naïve to think we’ll still be consuming music in the same ways a decade or two from now, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that a coherent Hot 100 could continue to exist. That is, if the industry that follows it, and pays Billboard‘s bills through advertising, doesn’t die out completely. Which brings me to one last point: Who is the Hot 100 for, anyway? Us, or them?
Whenever chart-trivia god Fred Bronson posts a letter from an irate chart geek about this or that unfair Hot 100 happening (usually declaring that a pop diva like Mariah or Madonna was robbed somehow), he often starts his response with something like this: “We must keep in mind that the main purpose of the Billboard charts is not to entertain. The charts are a tool for people who work in the music business, and that’s who they are designed for.”
With great affection and all due respect to Bronson, I have long felt this canned answer doesn’t pass the smell test. I think it’s reductive to say the Hot 100’s dominance of chart-related matters for half a century has nothing to do with the general public. I also submit that Billboard‘s chart staff, at least somewhere in the backs of their minds, are thinking of public perception, and not just the industry, when they formulate the Hot 100.
I mean, how exactly does this chart benefit the industry — as a measuring tool? No, there’s not much that can be measured by just looking at the Hot 100. If you’re a label rep, only the niche data (sales by region, airplay by market, etc.) is going to give you what you need to do your job. As a predictor of future airplay or sales? That’s a crapshoot; the list of both established acts and one-hit wonders who followed a top 10 smash with a low-charting dud is a long one. A radio programmer will have a better idea of how a future Britney track will fare with his listeners by looking at a previous Britney track’s airplay numbers by market; likewise, a retailer can’t look at the Hot 100 and decide what singles to order — many of them are only available online, anyway. Bigness of hits, which is what the Hot 100 measures, is a pretty abstract concept, and not one that industryites use day-to-day to get stuff done.
So how is the Hot 100 useful? Simple: as a bellwether. And in that role, it’s not only unsurpassed, it’s almost more useful for the general public than it is for the industry. Just as the widely disseminated weekend box-office top five is theoretically a profit yardstick for Hollywood, but more importantly one of its biggest marketing weapons with moviegoers, I firmly believe the music industry sees the Hot 100 as their arena for bragging rights, and not much more. The reason a label strategically times a new single’s iTunes release, thereby scoring a No. 1 Hot 100 single, isn’t to make money — the labels all complain that they don’t make much on digital songs — it’s to satisfy egos, win bragging rights, and build buzz. All of these reflect the public’s perception of the Hot 100, not just the industry’s.
Again, it’s like the Dow. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is quoted endlessly in newspapers and the evening news; and all over Wall Street, after 4:00, everyone’s first question is, “What did the Dow do today?” But Wall Streeters also know that the Dow is not a very accurate yardstick for the health of the financial markets: it’s made up of just 30 stocks, it’s heavily weighted toward big companies, and it only reflects activity on one major stock exchange. The analysts I represented in my former life as a Wall Street flack almost always use the S&P 500, a much broader grouping of stocks, to make predictions, track trends, and generally measure the market. But the Dow will never go away: it’s an institution, and it’s still a fine bellwether that has come to represent something much larger than Wall Street. It even marks the beginnings and ends of eras in American history.
Like the Dow, the Hot 100 reflects something larger in the culture, something no other music chart tries to accomplish. Like the Dow, the Hot 100’s formula is rejiggered every few years, to better reflect the bigness of hits. It wasn’t useful for anyone, for example, when ’90s airplay-only songs like “Don’t Speak” and “When I Come Around” were absent from the country’s bellwether of big hits, so Billboard changed the rules. Now, any song radio is playing can chart. It wasn’t helpful, in a modern world of so many radio formats, for the chart to only reflect Top 40 radio playlists. So now they’re all included. Why? Because that’s how the public hears music, not because the industry markets all of its songs that broadly.
Because even if the public doesn’t know what the “Hot 100” is, they know what it means to be No. 1 in Billboard. Call me a shameless poptimist, but all these years after I first discovered Casey Kasem, I can’t be cynical about that.
Top 10s
Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):
Hot 100
1. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks)
2. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 2, 16 weeks)
3. Chris Brown, “Forever” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks)
4. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 15, 6 weeks)
5. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks)
6. Lil Wayne, “A Milli” (LW No. 8, 14 weeks)
7. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 4, 20 weeks)
8. Kardinal Offishall feat. Akon, “Dangerous” (LW No. 9, 12 weeks)
9. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 6, 24 weeks)
10. Jesse McCartney, “Leavin’” (LW No. 10, 14 weeks)
Hot Digital Songs
1. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 151,000 downloads)
2. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 7, 122,000 downloads)
3. Jonas Brothers, “Burnin’ Up” (LW No. 4, 108,000 downloads)
4. Miley Cyrus, “7 Things” (LW No. 3, 103,000 downloads)
5. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 6, 97,000 downloads)
6. Chris Brown, “Forever” (LW No. 5, 91,000 downloads)
7. The Pussycat Dolls, “When I Grow Up” (LW No. 8, 90,000 downloads)
8. Estelle feat. Kanye West, “American Boy” (LW No. 17, 84,000 downloads)
9. Metro Station, “Shake It” (LW No. 9, 77,000 downloads)
10. Shwayze, “Corona and Lime” (CHART DEBUT, 74,000 downloads)
Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 1, 18 weeks)
2. Lil Wayne, “A Milli” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks)
3. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 5, 14 weeks)
4. The-Dream, “I Luv Your Girl” (LW No. 4, 22 weeks)
5. Chris Brown, “Take You Down” (LW No. 6, 18 weeks)
6. Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West, “Put On” (LW No. 7, 12 weeks)
7. Alicia Keys, “Teenage Love Affair” (LW No. 3, 24 weeks)
8. Plies feat. Ne-Yo, “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” (LW No. 8, 22 weeks)
9. Jazmine Sullivan, “Need U Bad” (LW No. 11, 13 weeks)
10. David Banner feat. Chris Brown, “Get Like Me” (LW No. 10, 22 weeks)
Hot Country Songs
1. Alan Jackson, “Good Time” (LW No. 1, 16 weeks)
2. Sugarland, “All I Want to Do” (LW No. 3, 10 weeks)
3. Keith Urban, “You Look Good in My Shirt” (LW No. 5, 10 weeks)
4. Taylor Swift, “Should’ve Said No” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks)
5. Brooks & Dunn, “Put a Girl in It” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks)
6. Keith Anderson, “I Still Miss You” (LW No. 7, 26 weeks)
7. Blake Shelton, “Home” (LW No. 2, 27 weeks)
8. Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead” (LW No. 8, 30 weeks)
9. Jimmy Wayne, “Do You Believe Me Now” (LW No. 15, 18 weeks)
10. Josh Gracin, “We Weren’t Crazy” (LW No. 10, 41 weeks)
Hot Modern Rock Tracks
1. Foo Fighters, “Let It Die” (LW No. 1, 17 weeks)
2. Weezer, “Pork & Beans” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks)
3. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 4, 8 weeks)
4. The Offspring, “Hammerhead” (LW No. 3, 12 weeks)
5. Disturbed, “Inside the Fire” (LW No. 5, 18 weeks)
6. Staind, “Believe” (LW No. 9, 5 weeks)
7. Linkin Park, “Given Up” (LW No. 6, 21 weeks)
8. Seether, “Rise Above This” (LW No. 7, 23 weeks)
9. Saving Abel, ” Addicted” (LW No. 8, 19 weeks)
10. Carolina Liar, “I’m Not Over” (LW No. 10, 13 weeks)

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