“Harlem Shake” Hits Number One Thanks to Dubious Billboard Rule Change
My eyes bugged out a little when I saw the headlines about Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” debuting on top the Hot 100 this week. I knew the song would be in for a big debut, having topped the iTunes chart recently, but is still sold less than the incumbent number one “Thrift Shop,” and with virtually no radio play or availability on streaming services needed to contribute to the On-Demand section of chart calculations. This is all a big chart-nerdy way to say that despite all the hooplah about his song in the last week, Baauer was too new, too unknown to possibly top the charts, at least not yet.
But no, the song is indeed number one this week, and it’s because of a brand new rule in chart methodology—the addition of a “Streaming Songs” section of the chart designed to account for a song’s presence on YouTube and other video-sharing services. With that addition to the calculations, “Harlem Shake” becomes the runaway chart-topper, as the song registered over 100 million streams last week—over ten times as many as the chart’s number two, “Thrift Shop.” (In case your internet connection has been out the last two weeks, the nine-digit views come courtesy of these countless meme videos in which people freak out dancing to the song.)
In fact, the debut of the new chart seems purposely timed to coincide with the big entry for “Harlem Shake”—if this was pro sports, the newly added rule would probably be heretofore referred to as “The ‘Harlem Shake’ Rule” for how clearly it seems custom-designed to express the popularity of the song. It’s a little frustrating for long-time chart-watchers such as myself, because when you make dramatic changes to the chart like this, it makes it hard to put the fact that Baauer, just about the last person you’d ever expect to top the Hot 100 going into this year, into the appropriate historical context. What does it mean that Baauer now has more number-one singles than Justin Bieber, Drake and Nicki Minaj combined? It’s impossible to say.
Now, there’s an argument to be made that this is actually a good thing, that it makes the Hot 100 a more accurate chart. If you were to ask simply, “What’s been the biggest song of the past week?,” by most definitions, the answer would be “Harlem Shake,” so by that pure logic, it makes sense that it should be number one. Similarly, the greatest chart oversight of last year was that Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” a song that will be remembered by anyone who lived through it as the most popular song in the world for at least a couple of months, never got past #2 as it was blocked at #1 by Maroon 5′s “One More Night,” a song that many pop listeners have probably already forgotten the existence of. Had The “Harlem Shake” Rule existed in late 2012, “Gangnam Style” would certainly have hit #1, and might have stayed there for about 15 weeks for all we know. That would have been the good and fair thing.
But here’s my grievance with this specific rule change: Saying that a song being viewed on YouTube is roughly analogous to a song being played on the radio or streamed over Spotify, as this rule implicitly does, isn’t something I agree with. “Harlem Shake” isn’t getting all these views because people just love the song that much—it’s because they want to see these new crazy videos were people go nuts to the song in forever newer and crazier ways. People liking the song plays a part in that, sure, but it’s just a small part of it. Tellingly, the original “Harlem Shake” song has only 13 million views on YouTube—which is still a whole lot, especially for an unknown like Baauer, but less than, say, “Harlem Shake (original army edition)” or “UGA Men’s Swim & Dive Harlem Shake.” Nobody’s watching these videos to listen to the song specifically, and indeed, the song only lasts for half a minute anyway.
A working, though imperfect analogy to this would be the popularity of certain music videos on MTV. Very often, the popularity of a song on MTV would fuel its popularity on the charts, but because music video play wouldn’t directly factor into chart calculations, sometimes an MTV hit never appeared on Billboard. For instance, Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” was one of the most popular videos of 1997, even winning Video of the Year at that year’s VMAs. but never even cracked the Hot 100. This made sense, as the video was really only popular for the video portion itself—the wacky spinning room with the bleeding furniture and lead singer Jay Kay’s big-ass hat. The song itself was OK, but would never have been that memorable (and certainly didn’t fit into any radio station at the time) without the video. It made sense that it wouldn’t crack the Hot 100.
Now, we’re saying that a song’s video going viral is the same thing as the song itself becoming super-popular. That might end up being true in Baauer’s case anyway—the fact that the song is still #1 on iTunes certainly supports that—but I have to wonder where we draw the line. Under these rules, would O-Zone’s “Dragonstea din tei” have topped the charts while the Numa Numa guy was a viral sensation? What about Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”? Would Rebecca Black’s “Friday” have spent, like, the entirety of 2011 on top the Hot 100? It doesn’t seem right to me, and I really hope Billboard knows what they’re doing with this.
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