Here’s how the United States could have its own “God Save the Queen” moment.
In May of 1977, a punk quartet from London called the Sex Pistols released a single titled “God Save the Queen.” The song’s name was plagiarized from the British national anthem, and the record released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, an exercise in monarchic pageantry conducted against a backdrop of turmoil. The previous year in England had seen convulsions of police violence, paramilitary terrorism, labor strife, and insurgent fascism. “God save the Queen/ she ain’t no human being,” snarled 21-year-old Johnny Rotten. “There is no future/ in England’s drrrrrreaming.”
Rotten’s notoriously haphazard band never sounded better, a lean, gnashing machine that roared all the way through Rotten’s instantly iconic outro: “No future/ no future/ no future for you.” The BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the single from radio and television immediately, but the bumbling censorship only amplified the song’s message of gleeful, paranoiac anti-authoritarianism. “God Save the Queen” hit No. 1 on the NME charts and No. 2 on the BBC’s “official” U.K. singles chart, prompting speculation that it was artificially kept out of the latter’s top spot by establishment pressures. By buying and listening to a record that authorities didn’t want them to hear, the Pistols’ fans and fellow travelers made “God Save the Queen” the biggest hit in England, despite the song being barred from national airwaves.
In late March, as Donald Trump was racking up GOP primary wins and slouching toward his party’s nomination for president, Los Angeles rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle released a scorching diss track directed at the candidate titled “FDT,” the last two letters standing for Trump’s initials, the first letter standing for “Fuck.” The song’s chorus dispensed with the acronym, guaranteeing the song would never get on mainstream radio, late-night shows, and most other channels through which music conventionally circulates. The internet, luckily, has no seven taboo words, and the song became a viral underground anthem, reaching No. 50 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop songs chart and No. 14 in the Village Voice’s annual best-singles-of-the-year critics’ poll.
It never made the pop charts, though—or rather, it hasn’t yet. But at a time when music and media landscapes are in disarray and the traditional gatekeepers of the entertainment industry matter less than ever before, there is no reason that the U.S. in 2017 can’t have its own “God Save the Queen” moment, 40 years after England’s dreamers showed us the way.
It would take a lot for “FDT” to hit No. 1, as my colleague Chris Molanphy explains below. But no matter its chart fortunes (past and future), it’s one fantastic song. YG is a terrific rapper, a charismatic and whip-smart M.C. whose meticulous, faux-vintage gangsta rap has made him a critical darling since his 2014 major-label debut, My Krazy Life. To deliver political agitprop through popular music is to tiptoe a narrow tightrope, one that requires balancing righteous provocation with the artistic demands of actual songcraft. “FDT” doesn’t just walk it; it pops, locks, and swaggers. Like “God Save the Queen” before it, the track works first and best as music on its own terms, an austere and sharp-edged trunk-rattler that packs the perfect combination of seduction and menace. Nipsey Hussle’s verse in particular is a master class in sloganeering (“Look, Reagan sold coke, Obama sold hope/ Donald Trump spent his trust fund money on the vote”), soul-of-wit brusqueness (“I’m from a place where you probably can’t go/ speakin’ for some people that you probably ain’t know”), and evocative wordplay (“You build walls? We’re gonna probably dig holes”).
Perhaps the best aspect of “FDT” is that, like another great presidential diss track that came before it, Stevie Wonder’s Nixon-taunting “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” (No. 1, 1974), “FDT” swaddles its excoriation in powerful assertions of unity. It’s an unexpectedly positive and inclusive song, starting with YG’s opening line: “I like white folks/ but I don’t like you.” (To drive this point home, YG went as far as recording a remix with Macklemore; personally I would have been fine just taking his word for it.) The song’s entire third verse is a call to solidarity with Mexican Americans: “It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans/ and if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin.” Even the song’s sheer existence is a testament to togetherness: Nipsey Hussle is affiliated with the Crips and YG with the Bloods. Though YG—like the Sex Pistols before him—may be an imperfect vessel, he’s since disavowed the life of crime he chronicles in his art and is now, by his own admission, “a fuckin’ square.” (Not that this has prevented consternation from certain circles. According to YG, the song has faced censorship and, like its spiritual ancestor from fellow Compton rappers NWA, “Fuck tha Police,” even provoked a response from federal law enforcement: “Secret Service hollered at the label,” the 26-year-old told TMZ, saying they asked to see the album’s lyrics and wanted “to take it off the shelf.” While the song was ultimately included on YG’s sophomore album, the LP version omits two lines, leaving silence in place of the expurgated lyrics.)
All of which makes “FDT” the perfect rallying cry for a voluble and unified resistance, and it’s already been catching on: In late January in Seattle, a pirate radio station began playing the song on loop for days on end; in Portland, Oregon, another station aired a version of the song every hour throughout inauguration weekend; and in illegal actions that Slate cannot condone, hackers have hijacked radio stations in Kentucky, Texas, and South Carolina to blast the song on repeat. YG and Nipsey Hussle have given Americans a chance to make art work with its public in the most powerful ways, as a raucous point of cohesion and collective intent. Much of the most consequential music in our history made its difference because people laughed and drank and sang and danced to it, and people did those things because they knew it was making a difference. “FDT” is a joyous, infectious excuse to come together and tell our corrupt president and the divisive worldview he represents: no future for you.
— Jack Hamilton, Slate’s pop critic
What It Would Take to Send “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” to No. 1
Though this is a topic of some dispute these days, our government is, still, a system of checks and balances—and so is the Billboard Hot 100. And like passing meaningful health care reform, getting a song to No. 1 on that chart is hard.
Three major elements factor into the Hot 100: airplay, sales, and streaming. The chart is an average of these three pools of data. If you wish to analogize the Hot 100 to the federal government, you can think of radio as the judicial branch—slow-moving and defined by custom and format. Sales are like the legislative branch—very responsive to each group’s base constituency (whether they’re anti-tax crusaders or diehard Beliebers). And streaming? It’s increasingly the largest factor on the chart, but it’s often the craziest and least predictable, liable to be driven by something as momentary as a Twitter meme. (You know who that would be.) It’s possible to place high on the Hot 100 relying on just one or two metrics, but it’s better to do well in all three.
Unfortunately, for “FDT” that’s probably impossible, because of radio. Given the lack of significant airplay for a single that is foul-mouthed, nearly a year old, and not being actively promoted to radio right now, one leg of this Billboard stool is effectively missing for YG and Nipsey. The pirate radio play Jack notes above is microscopic by Billboard standards (and possibly not even measured by Nielsen). And anyway, that renegade airplay already happened; scoring a Billboard chart-topper means concentrating consumption into a single week.
That leaves sales and streaming, the two more directly consumer-driven legs for the song to stand on. Can a song get to No. 1 with minimal-to-no radio support, relying only on these two factors?
It’s certainly happened before. Just in the three years I’ve been writing the “Why Is This Song No. 1?” series for Slate, a half-dozen songs have debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, led largely by explosive sales totals: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”; Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?”; Adele’s “Hello”; Zayn’s “Pillowtalk”; Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”; and the current chart-topper, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” Of course, all of these songs were by name-brand artists with rabid pre-existing followings, but not all of these superstar singles debuted on top with strong out-of-the-box airplay—Bieber’s “Mean” and Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” had such minimal airplay that during the respective weeks they topped the Hot 100, neither one appeared on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart. As for big streaming hits, in this same three-year period, on-demand video and audio have been the dominant factors driving three rap songs to No. 1: Desiigner’s “Panda,” Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee.” In all three cases, airplay in the song’s chart-topping week fell below the Radio Songs threshold.
So it is possible to get to No. 1 with airplay lagging, relying purely on digital consumption. The question, for those looking to foment a movement, would be this: Could YG and Nipsey debut at No. 1? Or would it make more sense to grow “FDT” into a hit, more gradually?
If anti-Trumpers were to attempt the former, here’s what they’d have to pull off. Billboard and Nielsen measure sales on a Friday-to-Thursday schedule for each week’s Hot 100. So if fans agreed to pick a Friday through Thursday and buy and stream “FDT” like crazy during that seven days, they could conceivably line up enough sales and streams in a specific seven-day period to force this left-field single onto the chart. To overcome the lack of radio love, the song would need at least 200,000 to 300,000 in weekly sales—a typical range for songs that debut high on the chart—and a seven-day streaming total in the tens of millions, preferably 20 million or more.
Sound far-fetched? It’s basically unprecedented in American chart history—virtually all of the songs that have debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 have been new singles, not year-old ones. But not in British chart history. Above, my colleague Jack offers the galvanizing example of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 U.K. near-chart-topper “God Save the Queen.” But there’s another piece of foul-mouthed agitpop that offers a closer model: Britain’s Christmas 2009 chart-topper, “Killing in the Name.” That Rage Against the Machine song topped the British charts 17 years after it was released, and all because of a social media-driven, power-to-the-people campaign.
The British in late 2009 weren’t protesting then–Prime Minister Gordon Brown. They were, in essence, protesting Simon Cowell. For more than 40 years, England has had a wonderfully nerdy annual tradition of hyping the single that reaches No. 1 the week of Christmas. British tabloids cover the contest like it’s the Super Bowl, and for the first three decades of the sweepstakes, a wide array of charitable, holiday-themed, or novelty singles took the honor. But starting in the mid-2000s, Cowell’s British TV juggernaut The X Factor began dominating the annual chart competition. Each year’s X Factor winner would drop his or her debut single the week before the holiday and inevitably take the Christmas No. 1. After a half-decade of Cowell co-opting the national pastime, this began to infuriate a surprisingly large chunk of the U.K. public (rank-and-file Brits watch their pop charts with a fanaticism we American chart nerds can scarcely fathom). So in 2009, a gang of British citizens fomented a movement to have everyone in the nation buy a different song to deny that year’s X Factor winner the Christmas week top slot. They settled on the Rage Against the Machine song, specifically for its aggro outro: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Amazingly, this campaign worked. More than a half-million U.K. citizens bought “Killing in the Name” on digital services the week before Christmas, and the 17-year-old Rage song hit No. 1.
So could America do the same, with its own F-bomb–laden statement of defiance? It’s not impossible, but it would be challenging. For starters, the U.S. charts work fundamentally differently from the U.K.’s—radio has never been a factor on their charts. That’s why the U.K. Christmas No. 1 competition is even possible: British citizens “vote” for a holiday single by buying (and now, streaming) it, and no radio-programmer middlemen are involved. On the other hand, even in the absence of American radio airplay, 500,000 downloads would be more than enough to top our Hot 100 most weeks—that’s the number of Brits who bought “Killing” in one week in 2009. But British citizens were already trained over decades to concentrate their singles-buying into a single week in December. We have no similar concentrated singles-buying week in America.
This is why it might ultimately be more plausible for fans to grow “FDT” into a No. 1 hit, rather than debut it at the top. Memes take several weeks or months to reach the level of virality it takes to send a song to No. 1—even the recent mannequin challenge meme that fueled Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” to the top of the charts, or the “rain drop, drop top” meme that powered Migos’ “Bad and Boujee.” A video-and-streaming meme for YG and Nipsey might need a few weeks’ runway to take off. That way, Americans would have more time to make mashups like the ones below, prepared by Slate and inspired by the mashups that helped propel “Bad and Boujee” to the summit. (In most cases, these YouTube videos contain more than 30 seconds of “FDT,” meaning that streaming them actually counts toward the song’s chart placement.) It takes time to build that kind of momentum.
As I have chronicled in my chart series before, America rarely makes a pure protest record its No. 1 single—we tend toward “topical” hits more than rallying cries. As Jack points out, hits such as Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” are inspiring, but they are all too rare (and Stevie in 1974 was at the imperial peak of his chart-topping powers). “FDT,” on the other hand, would be a true, up-from-nowhere No. 1 hit that marshaled the power of 2010s streaming media to express dissent on a mass scale—the censor-bedeviling agitprop of the Sex Pistols, combined with the virality of Rage Against the Machine.
— Chris Molanphy, author of Slate’s pop charts column “Why Is This Song No. 1?”
Content retrieved from: https://slate.com/culture/2017/02/could-ygs-fdt-fuck-donald-trump-become-americas-no-1-song.html.