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How do you know when you’re at the dawn of a new pop era?
It’s not like someone sends a memo. Sure, occasionally there’s a well-timed cultural event that offers a hint—the disastrous Altamont festival in December 1969, which signaled that the flower-power dream was over, or Comiskey Park’s Disco Demolition Night in July 1979, which warned that dance music’s days were numbered, at least with middle-American dudes. But even bright temporal lines like these only seem significant in retrospect, and they don’t actually change the sound of young America overnight.
The same goes for the Billboard charts, the Dow Jones Industrial Average of pop. Occasionally you get a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 that feels like a revolution instantly. Or there’s a blockbuster album that feels like a generational torch passing.
This week, the song sitting on top the Hot 100 doesn’t necessarily sound like a revolution. But from its title on down, “We Are Young,” the soaring, Janelle Monáe-assisted rock anthem by emo-pomp band fun, wants to be generational. Two weeks ago, fun. rampaged their way to the summit thanks to a pileup of digital sales. For each of the last two weeks, “We Are Young” has topped the very healthy sum of 300,000 downloads; it’s the only song to roll that many weekly downloads in 2012, let alone do it twice.
By current Top 40 standards, this lighter-waving song is so atypical that it’s prompted my colleagues at Popdust and our own Maura Johnston to wonder aloud whether we’re on the precipice of a new phase in the sound, or at least the rhythm, of pop. A few weeks ago, anticipating fun.’s eventual rise to the Hot 100’s summit, my co-columnist Al Shipley provisionally crowned “We are Young” as having “the most ‘indie’ vocals ever on a No. 1 hit.”
I share my colleagues’ sense of intrigue, but before we all get ahead of ourselves and label this smash the start of a movement, it’s worth looking below the No. 1 spot to figure out if the guys in fun. have coattails.
It’s been a long time in the wilderness for rock music, of any stripe. Depending on how liberally you define “rock”—music made by white dudes who don’t rap or dance—”We Are Young” is the first No. 1 hit by a rock act since Owl City’s blippy indie-style hit “Fireflies” in 2009. If you think that’s too poppy, then it’s the first since Coldplay’s florid “Viva la Vida” in 2008. Or, if that’s too synthetic, it’s the first since Plain White Ts’ acoustic, drum-free ballad “Hey There Delilah” in 2007. Or, if you have a stricter definition whereby rock songs sound like rawk, fun.’s hit is really the first such chart-topper since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” all the way back in 2001. Hell, only a couple of these prior hits even featured guitars.
The reason “Young” will be remembered by generations of chart geeks, however, has nothing to do with its guitar quotient. It’s No. 1 on the big chart the week Billboard changes its Hot 100 formula in a very significant way. As of this week, the big chart includes on-demand streaming music for the first time.
fun. feat. Janelle Monáe, “We Are Young”
Six streaming services—MOG, Muve Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker and Spotify—are now being tracked by Nielsen Soundscan and getting baked into the Hot 100 by Billboard. (The Hot 100 has already included Yahoo! Radio and AOL Music streams on a small scale for years, but they’ve had a fairly insignificant effect. The new Hot 100 formula will also include on-demand audio from MySpace and Guvera, video requests on Akoo, and non-demand radio streams from Rhapsody and Slacker. There’s no tracking of YouTube, Vevo or Pandora, likely for technical reasons, and no reports on when or if that might happen.)
Looking back on the half-century of Hot 100 history, this week’s infusion of streams into the chart isn’t as earth-shattering as some previous Billboard formula changes: for example, in November 1991, the switch to the more accurate Soundscan system for sales data and Broadcast Data Systems for radio counts; or, in December 1998, the addition of non-retail, airplay-only tracks; or, in February 2005, the inclusion of iTunes and other digital song sales. The charts that debuted after these Hot 100 rule changes were radically different, with records yo-yo-ing all over the place and new hits materializing out of thin air.
The 2012 changes to the Hot 100 are more modest. “We Are Young” would have been No. 1 under either the old or the new system; in this, its second week on top, it’s only more dominant, thanks to the 1.1 million on-demand streams it racked up last week. But the effects of streaming data on the chart go deeper than “Young.” According to Billboard , the formula change provides a serious boost to about a dozen other Hot 100 hits.
These stream-boosted hits have a few things in common, broadly speaking—like “We Are Young,” they are rockier, quirkier and more male. But more important, they don’t sound much like current Top 40 radio… and, it must be said, they’re mostly pretty cool.
Let’s start with “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the rueful ambient-rock hit by Gotye featuring Kimbra that is currently Billboard‘s No. 1 Alternative hit. A couple of months ago, it was already improbable that this ornate mid-’80s throwback was going to make the upper reaches of the Billboard charts. But there it is, at No. 5 on the Hot 100, up from No. 9 last week; under the old Hot 100 formula, Billboard reports that the song would have only risen to No. 8 this week. “Take Care,” the chillout duet by Drake featuring Rihanna and a standout on his album, built on a prominent sample from indie favorites The xx, reaches a new peak of No. 7; under the old rules it would’ve been outside the Top 10. “Rack City,” the minimalist, borderline-austere former Top 10 hit by rapper Tyga, rebounds to No. 15; it would have fallen to No. 18 without streams.
Down below the Top 40, electronic dance music (EDM) does particularly well under the new formula. Avicii’s “Levels,” the Etta James-sampling dance smash that formed the basis for a recent Flo Rida hit, rebounds to No. 66, instead of failing to No. 80 under the old system. Skrillex reenters the chart at No. 83 with his Grammy-winning, bass-dropping “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” And “Midnight City,” the lead single to my favorite album of 2011, becomes the first Hot 100 hit for dreamy French electropop act M83, debuting at No. 74 thanks to streams.
Add to all this the fact that fun.’s chart-topper brought the critic-beloved Janelle Monáe to the U.S. Top 40 for the first time, and this is arguably the Pazziest, Joppiest, hippest Hot 100 we’ve seen since around the mid-’90s.
M83, “Midnight City”
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is an unimpeachably good thing—personally, my love of most of the above songs is tempered by my wariness at a return to male-oriented radio hits. And I’m really, really uninterested in the deathless question of whether Rock Is Back.
But that’s not what Maura, Al, the Popdust gang and I are rooting for; none of us are rockists, and we all love our share of femme-skewed dance-pop. What we, and a lot of other Top 40 fans, want is change. We’re ready to turn the page on the four-on-the-floor sound that has—sometimes enjoyably, sometimes infuriatingly—smothered Top 40 radio since around the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration. (That sound you just heard was Mitt and Rick focus-grouping the idea of dance-pop as another thing that’s “all the president’s fault.”)
The question is, will Spotify bring us deliverance from the oppression of pop-house? Is this the moment of the great leap forward, and are fun., Gotye and Skrillex leading the charge?
Since I started this chart column about five years ago, my general mission has been to try to explain rather than predict. That’s because when it comes to pop-music trends, as William Goldman famously said almost 30 years ago about the movies, “Nobody knows anything.” But even when all you’re trying to do is explain a current hit record’s success, rather than predict the next one, you can really miss the mark. Check out this bit of chart analysis I penned around this time three years ago, when the No. 1 song in America was a little ditty called “Poker Face”:
“What accounts for [Lady Gaga’s] unusual success? Honestly, I can only theorize—compared with other circa-2009 pop hits, ‘Just Dance’ and ‘Poker Face’ are outliers on so many levels… . Her brand of blippy electro-dance with minimal R&B overtones has been pretty unfashionable on the charts for the last decade. We’ve seen some Eurodance crossover hits in the Top 10 this decade, but they’ve basically been one-offs—DJ Sammy’s ‘Heaven’ in 2002, Cascada’s ‘Everytime We Touch’ in 2006. Somehow, Lady Gaga has managed to break this pattern [even though she] seems to have entered the pop Zeitgeist through a space-time wormhole from 15 or 20 years ago.”
With snark like that, you’d think I was writing about Men at Work or Wilson Phillips—not the pop star who, for the next three years, basically rewired the sound of pop in her image. The best that can be said about my two-bit analysis on Gaga in early ’09 was that I correctly sensed her hits were an odd, dance-oriented tempo shift for Top 40 radio. What I failed to foresee was that within a year, all of Top 40—even the dudes—would sound like that.
My point is this: You can’t just look at a couple of hit acts to predict a shift in popular music. It would take cojones of steel to say that now, in early 2012, the rise of fun. and Gotye signals a sea change away from the post-Gaga sound of Top 40 radio. A lot of what’s happening on the charts can be explained by the same old market forces that always fuel hits.
Gotye feat. Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used To Know”
Forces like TV—”We Are Young” got a huge boost from the tube. The song was introduced to America in December as a cover by the cast of Glee; two months later, the original fun. recording was catapulted into the Top 10 thanks to a Super Bowl ad for the Chevy Sonic that featured the song prominently.
And yeah, Gotye’s arrival in the Top 10 is pretty damned improbable. But it went viral months ago thanks to a simple, vivid and effective music video that has rung up nearly 120 million YouTube views since last summer. (The fact that duet partner Kimbra looks and sounds a lot like Katy Perry doesn’t hurt; neither does the lyric, a classic Top 40-friendly he said-she said that’s like a sequel to the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”) The Drake duet is has a cooler vibe than his average hit, but he’s Drake and his singing partner is Rihanna, so that was going to catch on eventually.
What about all that electronic music crossing over? Avicii got a lift on the Hot 100 over the winter from the Flo Rida hit that stole his hook, and Skrillex has been on the rise since Grammy time. As for M83, mastermind Anthony Gonzalez’s sound is rock-oriented enough that “Midnight City” broke into the Alternative Top 10 a couple of weeks ago; throwing Spotify into the mix just amplified a track that was already starting to connect with mainstream listeners (and still has a ways to go to make the Top 40).
But that’s the point of Spotify, right? Its connections to Facebook and other social-media services help let people know what their friends are listening to. The fact is, digital music does deserve a certain amount of credit for our current wave of chart variety. Back in 2005, when radio programmers were focused on hip-hop, we saw how the dawn of the iTunes era fueled the shift toward tempo-driven, female-oriented pop. Radio program directors have been playing catchup ever since with fast-moving consumers, who’ve been paying about a buck a download for instant gratification. Now, streaming audio offers listeners an even cheaper, nearly frictionless way to infect friends with their favorite songs.
Under the new Hot 100 formula, iTunes and Spotify form a powerful Wonder Twins counterweight to the lumbering beast that is radio. Programmers are being pulled toward left-of-center records by rank-and-file listeners—instead of radio pushing listeners, as it has for decades. Of the half-dozen songs I listed above, all but one are ranked higher on Billboard‘s new On-Demand Songs chart than on its Radio Songs list. The disparity is stark, even for the songs in the Top 10: “We Are Young” is both the top-selling and top-streaming song in America, but at radio it ranks 19th. “Somebody That I Used to Know” ranks second in streams, fifth in sales, and 45th in airplay. And the EDM tracks aren’t getting chartable airplay yet at all. (The one exception to this trend is Drake’s “Take Care,” which ranks fifth on both lists—no better at Spotify than at radio, but also no worse.)
The charts are, and always have been, a feedback loop between the labels, radio and fans. The only question now is which way that loop flows. Perhaps the most important feedback loop now is among the fans themselves—a cool song like Gotye’s, which is catchy but sounds like nothing on the radio in 2012, passes from fan to fan, faster than ever, and its hit status becomes plausible. Now, Z100 has to play it.
I have a hard time believing that, in the aggregate, the charts are going to transform overnight into a paradise of quirky hits; Katy Perry will still use her privileged position to slam into the No. 1 spot from time to time. But I do think it’s safe to predict that the upper reaches of the Hot 100 will be dotted with more outliers—songs that, rather than adhering to the radio sound du jour, have caught on because pop fans told each other they were cool.
So, let’s call it: the pop trend of the immediate future is… no trend. This new era of omnivorous streaming hits may not be a movement you can label, exactly, like The Return of Rock, or The New Alternative. Maybe we should just call it fun.