The headline-grabbing music story of the week isn’t on the Billboard charts—it’s the U.S. debut of Spotify. With the streaming-music service less than 48 hours old here, it’s a bit too soon to analyze what songs are getting the most play on its celestial jukebox and why.
How do I know? Because we’ve been living through the Digital Era on the pop charts for about six years now, and the changes have been seismic, arguably bringing about our current four-on-the-floor dance-pop radio boomlet almost single-handedly.
LMFAO, “Party Rock Anthem”
There’s some evidence of that boomlet this week atop the two main Billboard charts, which are sleepy coming off the July 4 holiday. Both are led by repeaters.
On the Hot 100, the sound of oontz-oontz-oontz is represented by California electro clowns LMFAO, who sit tight for a second week in the penthouse with “Party Rock Anthem.” The Lauren Bennett and GoonRock-supported global smash stole the No. 1 slot from Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” last week, largely on the strength of heavy digital sales, and another 236,000 downloads keep it atop the chart this week. “Anthem” has now spent at least two weeks atop charts everywhere from the U.K. (four weeks) to New Zealand (an astounding 11 weeks).
The Billboard 200 album chart is commanded by our leading queen of pop-and-B, Beyoncé. After debuting on top last week, another 115,000 in sales keeps 4 at No. 1 for a second week—oddly, the first of her four chart-topping albums to do so. Lady B, who normally releases her albums in the more competitive fall season, can thank a weak July 4 release schedule for her continued dominance; the chart’s highest debut this week is Lloyd’s King of Hearts, down at No. 10.
Beyoncé has been a star since before the iPod was a gleam in the eye of Steve Jobs, and so she probably would be commanding our charts in 2011 even if we were all still listening to music on physical discs. But LMFAO, Bennett and GoonRock: does anybody seriously think their Europop-style trifle would be topping the U.S. charts right now if we hadn’t spent the last half-decade awash in 99-cent club anthems?
When looking back on decades of music history, you can oversimplify each into halves—generally, we wind up with two dominant strains of pop per decade. Very roughly speaking, the ’70s can be divided into the rock-and-easy-listening half and the disco half. The ’80s divides into the MTV-fueled electro-pop half and the big-hair (metal and divas) half. The ’90s divides into the alternative-rock half and the bling-bling-and-teenpop half. There’s usually a pivotal chart-topping record sometime in the middle of the decade that bridges the divide, signaling that the shift is about to happen: the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” in 1974, arguably the first disco No. 1; Van Halen’s “Jump” in 1984, signaling that metal was about to get slicker and even more commercial; the one-two punch of Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Hanson’s “MMMBop” in early 1997, clearing the way for Britney’s and Backstreet’s emergence later.
The ’00s fit this pattern nicely: It had a hip-hop half and a dance-pop half.
The first half of the decade found rap and other R&B-derived music—Usher, Nelly, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, OutKast, Mary J. Blige—at their absolute zenith of popularity on the Hot 100. From 2001 to 2005, virtually every week on the big chart was commanded by a song that was simultaneously at or near the top of Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. (The only exceptions, and they were rare, were singles by such early American Idol finalists as Clay Aiken, and a couple of white-boy rock hits by Nickelback and Crazy Town.)
By contrast, the second half of the decade was conquered by female-oriented club-pop, from Nelly Furtado in 2006 to Ke$ha in 2010. For rappers, the tables have turned: except for Kanye or Jay-Z on a good day, they’ve found it difficult lately to dominate the Hot 100—and when they do, they’d better come packing a four-on-the-floor beat, like Pitbull.
So what was the pivotal, signal-shifting chart-topper? I’d argue it was a record you probably haven’t heard much lately but surely dominated your club six years ago: Gwen Stefani’s 2005 smash “Hollaback Girl.” Its timing was perfect, if totally accidental.
Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl”
“Hollaback” was first issued in 2004, buried on Stefani’s solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The album was shaping up as a bit of a dud, after its first two singles petered out: leadoff track “What You Waiting For?” missed the Top 40 entirely, and the Fiddler on the Roof-sampling followup “Rich Girl” peaked at a just-OK No. 7. The album, a high-profile priority for Stefani’s label Interscope, was barely platinum and had been knocking around outside the Top 10 for months, before March 2005, when “Hollaback” was tapped as the third single.
Coincidentally, less than two months before Stefani’s single dropped, Billboard made a pivotal change to its formula for the Hot 100: It added digital sales to its chart formula. The time was ripe. By the beginning of 2005, the iTunes Store had been up and running just over a year and a half. The record industry—after suing Napster out of existence, failing with their own DRM-laden services, and launching their ill-starred lawsuit campaign against ordinary users—was finally finding a path via iTunes to legit (if modest) profits on song downloads.
In the early months of the digital-powered Hot 100, no song benefited more from the new formula than Stefani’s bananas anthem. “Hollaback” positively vaulted up the chart, debuting at No. 82 and reaching No. 1 a mere five weeks later. Its rapid chart moves were powered by singles sales rather than radio—a big shift from the patterns seen on the Hot 100 in prior years. In the early days of iTunes, a hit digital download would move perhaps 30,000 tracks a week; Stefani obliterated that mark, selling 58,500 buck-a-song downloads in late April. In early May, with Top 40 radio catching up, “Hollaback” took over the Hot 100, evicting 50 Cent’s third career chart-topper, “Candy Shop”; Fitty hasn’t been back to the penthouse since. “Hollaback” holds the distinction as being the first digital song in history to sell a million copies.
What made “Hollaback” the perfect bridge song was its blend of the two strains of dominant 21st-century pop: early-aughts hip-hop and late-aughts dance-pop. Produced by the Neptunes, which gave it a frisson of urban-radio cred, the song has one toe on a street corner and one in the club. With 20/20 hindsight, its army-of-girls singalong lyrics were a clarion call to fans of femme-pop: We’re taking over, ladies!
After “Hollaback,” the route to a Hot 100 No. 1 ran through iTunes, not urban radio. Hip-hop held sway for another year or two, but songs that would have had difficulty reaching the penthouse under the pre-digital, hip-hop-dominated Hot 100 began doing so regularly: Daniel Powter’s girly, lite-pop trifle “Bad Day”; Shakira’s polyglot powerhouse “Hips Don’t Lie”; Nelly Furtado’s shimmering “Say It Right”; Avril Lavigne’s brattier-than-Gwen shoutalong “Girlfriend.” Lady Gaga’s entire run of pop dominance—beginning in 2009, and powered by blockbuster iTunes sales—is unthinkable without the digital revolution.
Six years after “Hollaback Girl,” we are firmly ensconced in a girlypop era, powered by digital music. As noted in this space two weeks ago, in 2011 the Hot 100 has been onerwhelmingly commanded by female pop stars. And the few songs by men to occupy the penthouse this year haven’t been big R&B/Hip-Hop crossover hits. (The one exception, Wiz Khalfia’s Superbowl-powered chart-topper “Black and Yellow” in February, didn’t even make the R&B chart’s Top Five.)
The thing is, with the 2010s already 18 months old, we’re about due for another half-decade trend shift. Billboard hasn’t indicated when or if it will add Spotify streams to the data used to compile the Hot 100, which includes numbers from iTunes, AmazonMP3 and smaller streaming services. But if Spotify captures Americans’ fancy as expected, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t.
The interesting question is what that would do to the chart. Pop fans’ ability to stream even more music, even more cheaply, might give a renewed boost to hip-hop, where trends shift quickly and fans are more willing to sample new sounds for free.
Or perhaps Spotify will just track the same hits already on the charts. In its first 24 hours in the U.S., the top five songs on the service’s Top Lists tab—”Party Rock Anthem,” “Give Me Everything,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”—match the Hot 100’s Top Five exactly. You have to go well below the Spotify list’s upper reaches to see much distinction, and it’s minimal. Then again, it took the iTunes Store a couple of years after its 2003 debut to find its pop identity; we’ll need months of Spotify observance to really judge where its listenership is headed.
For now, it’s safe to place a marker on 2005 as the start of the Digital Era on the charts and leave it open-ended. Perhaps LMFAO’s pal GoonRock is in a recording studio somewhere, recording his own brain-sticky anthem that no one will want to pay $1.29 for, but everyone will be psyched to stream over and over.