Top of the Pops: YouTube Shakes Up the Billboard Charts

By Jody Rosen and Chris Molanphy

Jody Rosen: Chris, yesterday we learned the big news that Billboard has overhauled its marquee chart, the Hot 100, by adding YouTube views to its formula for determining hits. The implications are many. The impact is immediate: This week, “Harlem Shake,” the nattering dance track by Brooklyn-based producer Baauer that has launched a thousand dorky viral videos, leaps to the top of the pops. Much to discuss here, including the fraught culturalpolitics of the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon. Then there’s Baauer’s record itself—an assaultively dullsville piece of music, IMHO.

But first: You’re the sharpest chart-watcher I know—the Nate Silver of pop hitography. That’s why I wanted to reach out to you to help me understand how this Hot 100 overhaul is going to change music, commercially and creatively. Are we entering a new Video-Killed-the-Radio-Star era, a period in which, more than ever, we’ll watch our hit songs? Does this represent a shifting of center of pop’s center of gravity: away from megastars to weird up-and-comers, one-offs, novelty acts, Rick-Rollers? (Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing for the last year, anyway, with the rise of Gotye and Fun and Carly Rae Jepsen and Macklemoreand Psy, and now, of course, Baauer?) Have we entered a new golden age of vernacular dancing, where the music follows the moves, where hits begin with Stanky Leggs and horse-gallops?

Is this a populist sea change, a redistribution of power from record companies and radio programmers and artists to, well, us—the pop audience, the mob? How will record moguls and superstars respond? Will we see lots of desperate guerilla marketing efforts from major labels, attempts to foment “grassroots” viral video crazes? Is there a team hard at work in Island Def Jam headquarters right now, storyboarding The Bon Jovi Shimmy?

And by the way, Chris, when was the last time we had a chart-topping instrumental? (I know that there are a few vocal snippets in “Harlem Shake,” but there’s no singing, as such.) School me, please.

Chris Molanphy: The mammoth change to the charts today is a clear case of “Be careful what you wish for.” Chart wonks like me have been saying for years that YouTube needed to be baked into the Hot 100 if it was truly going to retain its status as the Dow Jones of Pop. Whether you’re talking to grade-schoolers or their parents (as a 41-year-old, I wind up talking to their parents a lot), YouTube is how pop hits are made in the 2010s.

It was hard for me, as a pop-chart devotee, to explain to my non-music-nerd friends a few months ago why “Gangnam Style” wasn’t the No. 1 song in America. It peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, thanks largely to radio being willing to play a mostly Korean-language song only so much (on iTunes, it sold like crazy).

Radio has had a major role in the Hot 100 since its inception in 1958, and as long as terrestrial radio still exists, it should still have a role; it reflects what more passive music consumers are hearing, which is sometimes boring but still valuable. But in the last decade, digital music in all its forms has taken a greater role. Digital retailers were added to the chart in 2005 and have had an outsize effect since then; Spotify and other on-demand streaming was added a year ago. But iTunes alone couldn’t give Psy his No. 1 song in America. If YouTube had a say in the Hot 100 last year, “Gangnam”—which was top of the hit parade in every schoolyard, backyard and rec room in our nation last fall—would doubtless have been a Casey Kasem–worthy chart-topper.

So in some ways, this is justice, whatever your opinion of Psy and his horsey-dance. To answer one of your many good questions, adding YouTube is definitely a populist move on Billboard’s part—maybe the most populist move in the Hot 100’s 55-year history. What I think we chart-watchers all hope is that Billboardgets the balance right. YouTube, in terms of sheer audience, is just so much larger than any other forum by which music is consumed these days.

Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” the 2010 hit that was once YouTube’s all-time viewership champ, has blown past 800 million views. When Psy’s “Gangnam Style” took the YouTube crown away from Justin late last year, it went on to exceed one billionviews. Those are cumulative numbers, sure—but it’s not unheard of for a video to pile on 10 million views in a single week; 10 million is also the number of sales that Adele’s album 21, the blockbuster disc that helped save the industry in 2011 and 2012, has sold in two years. It’s a larger number than any 99-cent digital song has ever sold.

The Hot 100 formula is Billboard’s Coca-Cola, carefully guarded recipe and all. Unlike the album charts, which are essentially a straight rundown of pure sales every week, the Hot 100’s magic lies in the streams of data that flow into it. Radio, record stores, iTunes—these are mature forms of music consumption; YouTube’s audience, on the other hand, just keeps growing. You don’t want the Hot 100 to simply reflect how big YouTube is and consequently reward any song that can catch the public’s fancy on it, like the heretofore unknown Baauer. Billboard has been remarkably good at getting the balance right over many years, and I trust they have figured out how to tame the YouTube beast—lest we lurch from dance craze to dance craze at No. 1 all year long.

Long story short: This is a necessary move on Billboard’s part, but YouTube is an 800-million-pound gorilla. Let’s hope it doesn’t crush everything.

Jody Rosen: Right: YouTube crushing everything does seem like a concern. I love novelty songs, I ride hard for novelty songs—but if, suddenly, all our big hits are goofy YouTube-incubated one-offs, the novelty song will cease to be novel. Novelty is good as a palette-cleanser: every once in a while we need a break from the strobe-lit sheen of Big Pop Product. Me, I like pop stars: real ones, like Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, and even pipsqueak “pop” “stars,” like Gotye. I don’t want to outsource all my No. 1 hits to Joe Schmo and his laptop camera. My populism only runs so deep.

Chris Molanphy: You and I are on the same page here. A Psy No. 1 hit would have made me happy, because it would have reflected something real—America’s genuine amusement at the exploits of Psy, the undisputed star of his video. I’m not sure Baauer deserves to be sitting on top of the Hot 100 with a song that doesn’t reflect his skills as a trap-music progenitor so much as people’s obsession with a watered-down version of a years-old dance.

This is the danger of pouring piles of YouTube video views for “Harlem Shake,” many of which have nothing to do with Baauer, into the Hot 100. To be fair, I’m not sure many pop fans remember Jan Hammer as well as they remember his theme from Miami Vice (the last instrumental No. 1 on the Hot 100, in 1985, to answer that question), but that was arguably still as much about the music as the images.

At the risk of sounding like a conservative company man, I almost wish Billboardwere only counting views of official, Vevo-sanctioned videoclips rather than every video tagged “Harlem Shake.” But then, that would negate the delightful populism of YouTube, surely.

You mention Gotye, whose one big hit was the No. 1 song in America last year (and one of my top two favorites of 2012). Since I know you and I are both fans of “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and even a hater of the song wouldn’t deny its infiltration into the culture, that might be an example that gives us hope—a song that definitely broke in America thanks to its striking video. You could say the same about Carly Rae Jepsen and “Call Me Maybe,” another pop phenom that burst on the scene by way of its clever twist-ending video and the many covers it inspired. Virality giveth (Gotye and Jepsen), virality taketh away (Baauer).

I suppose the cynic could say two things about all of these video-fueled hits of the past year: (a) The artists in question are all one-hit wonders (though not really in the case of Carly Rae); and (b) this is just a rerun of what some music fans would call the style-over-substance MTV days. To which I say, bring it on! The early MTV years shook the charts out of their post-disco blahs and gave us both the Police’s biggest hit and Cyndi Lauper’s. We’ve been here before.

Then again, MTV plays were never added to the Hot 100.

Jody Rosen: I suppose a word or two about Baauer’s record is necessary, here. I don’t know enough about electronic dance music generally, or trap music specifically, to render expert judgment on “Harlem Shake.” I know enough, though, to say that all of the songs’ moves—the braying vocal samples, the honking synths, the clattering beats, the build-ups and breakdowns—are clichés, none of which fire my particular pop pleasure centers. I might feel differently if I were wearing a pink onesie, but I doubt it.

As you know, there has been much hue and cry about the politics of the “Harlem Shake” craze. Generally speaking, I’m hostile to musical authenticity arguments. The flow of sounds, ideas, and influences in pop is too complicated, too dynamic; the search for an urtext—the real ragtime, the first rap—is usually a fool’s errand, and even when it’s not, the real cultural combustion, the best art, often emerges when the original gets spiked or diluted. I don’t think, in other words, that the “true” Harlem Shake—the vernacular dance popularized by P. Diddy and other Bad Boy rappers a decade ago—is a sacrosanct Harlem Shake, against which all other variations must by definition be found wanting.

That said: Given the history of white appropriation of, and white profiteering off of, black music, the “Harlem Shake” craze is still complicated. Harlem is certainly not a neutral term; the spectacle of thousands (millions?) of white folks boogying arhythmically to a deracinated “Harlem Shake” song understandably strikes some as a tasteless lampoon of black culture—especially given the current real-world deracination of Harlem itself, one of New York’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Anyway: personally, I wouldn’t want to appear in any video for that song, especially dancing like an epileptic wombat.

Chris Molanphy: It is complicated. Although I do wonder whether—if YouTube had existed in the mid-’80s, when The Cosby Show was at its height—one of its mugging on-camera credits sequences of Bill and the cast dancing wouldn’t have caught on and inspired similar affection, mammoth video views, and countless imitations.

If nothing else, “Harlem Shake” is very of-the-moment in the sense that it’s a nominally hip-hop song that owes its sound more to the club than the street. It’s also the second consecutive hip-hop song (in the very broadest sense of that genre) to top the big chart in a row, after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop.” Those two songs, both viral hits forced on radio by online audiences, broke a two-year losing streak for anything connected to rap (assuming we consider recent hits by Pitbull and Flo Rida club-pop rather than rap). Prior to this pair, the last straight hip-hop joint to top the chart was Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” in early 2011.

Mind you, none of this is going to give our fellow critic Jon Caramanica any comfort regarding his recent concerns about the watering-down of hip-hop culture. More optimistically, I have to imagine the inclusion of YouTube on the Hot 100 might allow hip-hop-derived phenomena—whether white people are watering them down or not—to return to the center of Top 40 culture after a half-decade in which black music has been in a digital-and-dance-fueled slump. If something as goofy as “Harlem Shake” can top the chart, I’d like to believe Miguel’s “Adorn” could go viral, too. (Maybe it needs an even sexier video?)

Indeed, to Billboard-watchers, there’s something eerily poetic about the word “Harlem” being atop the Hot 100 thanks to a change in methodology. When the trade magazine began tracking black music in the 1940s, its first chart was called Harlem Hit Parade. (This was before Jerry Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues.”) Everything old is new again.

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