According to Billboard, the Hot 100 chart ranks “the week’s most popular current songs across all genres.” How it has calculated that popularity has changed several times since its inception, most recently in the February decision to factor in streaming play alongside radio play, digital downloads and physical purchase [cue sound effect]. The YouTube change belied the Hot 100’s more elusive but possibly more important mission: to reflect the most influential, culture-defining sounds in America, even if their effects only last for a couple of weeks at a time. Looking back through Billboard archives should be (and is!) like looking at a fossilized pop cultural thumbprint, objectively documenting our changing tastes in all their alternating brilliance and stupidity. But in its recent efforts to improve its snapshot of the zeitgeist, Billboard has strayed outside its original, music-only frame.
The YouTube amendment is not unprecedented — before it was known as the Hot 100, Billboard tracked the popularity of singles by three metrics: records sold, radio play, and jukebox play. The first two are self-explanatory, and still contribute to the calculation of today’s chart, but jukebox play was Billboard’s way of tapping into a kind of on-demand popularity that didn’t require the listener to necessarily make the investment in a hard-copy recording. Jukeboxes were the ’50s monoculture streaming service, and tracking their play was perhaps the most direct line to what the average American wanted to hear, whether they were sipping malts at the diner or drowning their sorrows at their local watering hole.
Jukeboxes didn’t have video screens, though, and there was no such thing as viral jukebox hits. The addition of YouTube into the Hot 100 equation was ostensibly to take into account inescapable novelty songs like “Gangnam Style” and “Harlem Shake,” but those songs remained in our consciousness not just because of their earwormy-ness but because of the endless barrage of user-generated video content that accompanied them. In the case of “Harlem Shake,” the first song to reach no. 1 based on streaming activity, people who clicked on the multitude of video interpretations weren’t even hearing the whole song — the clips would usually cut off before the one-minute mark. YouTube automatically detects sound clips that are used in uploaded videos, but the song needn’t play all the way through for that data to be collected and sent to the Billboard number-crunchers. Some viewers may have decided to watch a clip of their college roommates flail-dancing in the dining hall because they just really wanted to hear that Baauer drop again, but most of them probably just wanted to see a group of people acting silly for 30 seconds. But according to the charts, it was the no. 1 song in the country for five weeks, even though it didn’t come close to toppling Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” in radio play and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” in digital downloads.
That’s just YouTube being YouTube, and Billboard mistaking viral heat for musical popularity. And it’s not as if the Baauer track was absent in every other delivery system — it inevitably reared its head in clubs and in radio rush-hour mixes for a solid couple of months. But Billboard seemed to have made the decision to integrate a streaming video service into its system without taking into account the whole video aspect. And that left the door open not only for viral phenomena to hijack what is supposedly a measure of music popularity, but for record labels to as well. Case in point: Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video, which spawned a few notable parodies but mostly just got traffic on its own thanks to Miley’s naked hammer exploits and the Internet’s collective hyperventilating over them. The song quickly took the no. 1 spot on the Hot 100, and at the time I wrote what I still believe: That song would have gotten there eventually by virtue of its strength as a ballad, but it would have taken six or eight weeks as opposed to one. That week Miley’s body (and tongue) was no. 1, not the actually very good song it bared itself in order to promote. If Billboard wants to amend the Hot 100’s mission statement to be a measure of marketing brilliance, that’s its call, but as it stands the chart is still supposed to be about the music.
This has inspired some hand-wringing over what kind of outrageous envelope-pushing videos pop stars will come out with, now that it’s clear such moves will get you to no. 1 not just on VH1 countdowns but the official industry rankings as well. That’s an interesting creative prospect from the video director’s angle, but muddies the waters from the artist and producer’s angle. And all the promotional calculation in the world is still susceptible to anachronistic glitches like Kanye West’s “Gone,” a 2005 track that landed at no. 18 last week because of former NMA employee Marina Shifrin, whose open resignation letter set to the song went viral. How many Rickrolls will it take to get Rick Astley to no. 1? (Here’s hoping that someone at 4chan or Reddit is planning some strategic Billboard sabotage by setting their next viral phenomenon to “Yakety Yak.”)
Streaming video is a huge way that we experience and seek out music, but there has to be some accounting for all the times when the music is the secondary or tertiary draw to content. Billboard has the right idea by giving on-demand platforms the potential to take precedence over radio play, which has long been marred by third-party payola and is only a reflection of current tastes as filtered through the record execs with a vested interest in controlling them. So how do you keep what’s good about the YouTube-ified Hot 100 while not compromising its stated purpose? My proposed, admittedly pro-man solution: Stop using hits from user-generated content, and only calculate traffic from official label videos and VEVO clips. I don’t have access to the exact algorithm Billboard uses, but theoretically this would mean that YouTube hits would take up less of the pie in the streaming play metric, meaning other music-only services like Spotify and Rhapsody could potentially have more clout. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing old Kanye jams on the charts, it’s that I think we’re on a slippery slope once we let anything other than music — no matter how much blood it draws from your eardrums — drive a song to no. 1.