Day 936: Number One With An Irreverent Bullet

originally published July 24, 2014

Here’s the part where the guy twitching in the hungry crosshairs of 40 tells you how the music topping the charts these days won’t inspire so much as a quiver of his trigger finger. But really, who cares? The purveyors of popular song have no interest in capturing my iTunes money. Just as my parents wondered desperately who on earth would want anyone to Rock Them Amadeus, I can’t fathom why Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, a piece of simplistic monotony with a Clueless rip-off video, spent a month this summer at #1.

Ever since the end of the halcyon days of 80’s pop, the soundtrack that flipped the pages of my childhood, I have paid scant attention to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While MC Hammer’s parachute pants flapped in the raucous wind of his success, my high school friends and I were discovering the mystical quests within the grooves of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. So I guess I haven’t been hip in about twenty-five years. I’m okay with that.

I’d always been a trifle suspicious of this chart anyway. What is it counting? Sales? Radio airplay? Likelihood of ending up as a parody on Weird Al’s next album? There is actually some math to this madness, and it’s far too complex for my mid-week brain to tabulate without a nap under its belt. But I’ll do my best.

For almost two decades prior to the Hot 100’s debut in the pages of Billboard (yes kids, Billboard was and is an actual magazine. A magazine is kind of like made out of trees), the chart tabulators kept track of three separate stats: the best-sellers, the songs most played by disc jockeys and the songs most played in jukeboxes. That last one was key, as a disgraceful clump of radio stations were refusing to play rock ‘n roll in the mid-1950’s. Billboard had to track what was big with the kids.

On August 4, 1958, Billboard devised a points-system which combined sales and airplay (jukeboxes were already moseying toward antique malls and retro-joints), and created the Hot 100, the chart which would come to define success within the industry. Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” was #1 on that initial chart, and it remained the only single to debut at the top spot (albeit by default) until 1995 when the calculation rules changed.

That’s where things get confusing. The changes.

The juggling act involved in determining the nation’s top songs has had to rely on that staple of the American market: sales. This became problematic as the methods of delivery shifted. 45RPM records weren’t squeezing tunes off the sales floor quite as much during the cassette-dominated 80’s or the CD-strong 90’s. A change was made in 1995, then again in 1998 when the magazine decided that a song didn’t need to be released as a single to qualify for the charts.

This shift atoned for some of the so-called injustices in the 1990’s: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” sat atop the radio airplay chart for a whopping 16 weeks in 1996. That insipidly catchy theme song the Rembrandts wrote for the show Friends spent two months as an omnipresent annoyance on the radio in 1995 but like No Doubt, those guys never hit the Billboard charts because their big hit was never technically a single. The 1998 adjustment for album cuts also paved the way for that really necessary tweak: online music.

In the 1960’s, the only real Hot 100 controversy came over the decision to count double-A-sided singles as one unit instead of two separate songs in late 1969, right when this adjustment would have helped out the Beatles’ “Come Together” and “Something” single. In the last decade and a half, Billboard has had to account for iTunes, Amazon, MusicMatch, Rhapsody, and a half-jillion streaming music sites. They’ve had to change the formula so often, it’s a wonder the math-minds at the magazine haven’t snapped and shot up the place.

Presently, the formula wobbles a little each week, counting 35-45% sales (which are pretty much all online at this point), 30-40% airplay (I wonder if satellite radio factors into this) and about 20-30% streaming music. Since early 2013, Youtube hits have also factored into that last statistic. So if, like me, you’re feeling wholly disconnected from the stuff at the top of the hit parade, it might have something to do with the rather boring and non-innovative technology with which you listen to your tunes.

At some point around the mid-60’s – perhaps the very moment the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds hit store shelves and urged the music industry to collectively unleash rock’s album era – the limitations of the Hot 100 to accurately reflect society’s boogieing zeitgeist became evident. Pink Floyd’s appearance on the chart was rare and fleeting, despite the band’s perpetual ability to fill stadiums and their 1973 epic, Dark Side of the Moon’s residence on the album charts right through 1986.

Led Zeppelin hardly ever saw the sunny side of the top 10, same with the Grateful Dead. Reaching above the clouds on the charts is no indicator of enduring success, any more than it indicates what the public truly cares about in a lasting way. That horrific abomination called “The Macarena” spent all of three months at the top of the Hot 100 in 1997, but how much money would anyone spend to see those two schmucks live today? How much would anyone have spent in 1998 for that matter?

The real sin with the Hot 100 is that it has always been open to manipulation. The payola scandal from rock’s early days elbowed songs that were played on the radio for cash up the charts. Big labels have been known to discount singles to a financial loss just to bump the song’s sales. Labels would hang on to singles, dropping them when there was no real competition from established artists. There are a number of ways to jostle the charts if you’re desperate enough to gain some street cred for your struggling singer.

The Billboard Hot 100 remains the best method we have at our disposal for determining what songs are pulsing through our culture with the greatest intensity, despite its imperfections. But with music tastes so wildly splintered now – even us crotchety old folks who still seek out new tuneage do so with nary an eye batted toward the auto-tuned pablum of the present-day pop that owns the charts – how relevant is it in our lives?

The Beatles, who for one bizarre week in April of 1964 owned each of the singles in Billboard’s top five slots, landed an impressive string of hits in that coveted #1 spot for years, a streak that finally ended when “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” only made it to #2. The top song that week? “Rescue Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck. Good luck finding anyone who sings that tune in the shower nowadays, or could even pick that song out of an auditory lineup.

#1 is nice, but it ain’t everything, kids.

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