Junk numbers: How Billboard’s new chart formula champions the Harlem Shake but undermines the song

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Is “Harlem Shake” the most popular song in America right now?

That’s what Billboard‘s new chart formula would have you think. In fact, Baauer’s track — the musical basis of the “wow, that escalated quickly” viral video craze that bears its name — just joined a rather elite club as only the 21st song to debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

“Harlem Shake” is currently number one on both the American and Canadian iTunes stores, so it’s not surprising that it would make a mark on the chart this week. But that’s not the main reason behind its ascent to the top.

This week, Billboard announced that it is partnering with Nielsen to add YouTube video streaming data into the formula that determines the Hot 100 chart. This means that every time you click “play” on a music video on YouTube, that data gets considered alongside digital sales, online radio streaming, on-demand audio streaming and traditional radio play in ranking the hottest songs of the week.

Billboard‘s story about the change notes that even without including YouTube data in the Hot 100, the huge spike in download sales of “Harlem Shake” (262,000 last week) would have placed the track in the top 15. But it’s that YouTube data — 103 million views — that skyrocketed Baauer’s song to the top. (It also led to big leaps for the latest singles from Rihanna and Drake.)

On paper, this change to the formula makes sense: for many music fans (especially younger ones) YouTube has been a music listening destination for some time now. It’s why you see songs uploaded with lyric videos, or static images, or crudely iMovie clips that overdo it with the Ken Burns effect. Unless you have access to a streaming service like Spotify or Rdio, YouTube is the simplest, cheapest way to hear a song. So if Billboard wants its Hot 100 to accurately reflect the musical tastes and interests of the nation at a given point in time, YouTube data absolutely needs to be there.

But here’s the problem: just how is Billboard counting “103 million views” for “Harlem Shake”? The two most popular videos I can find that feature the full 3:18 song have, combined, just under 19 million views.

The answer, of course, is that you only get to 103 million views if you count the homemade viral videos that use “Harlem Shake” as their soundtrack. And if you’re at all familiar with the (admittedly confounding, to me at least) video meme, you know that a Harlem Shake dance video is only 30 seconds long.

This is why seeing Baauer at the top of the Hot 100 is so misleading. “Harlem Shake” is not the most popular song in America. The first 30 seconds of “Harlem Shake” is the most popular song in America.

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As you might well expect by the title of this post, I have a litany of issues with this. But first, in the interest of devil’s advocacy, let me make a polite case as to why it’s not entirely crazy to consider hearing the soundtrack of a YouTube clip as a legitimate musical interaction.

First, we need to accept that assessing music’s impact in the 21st century requires us to move past purchasing and radio play and consider the weight of casual engagements. The musical sounds that matter in our lives float in and out of spaces, through television shows and shopping malls, dive bars and pop-up ads, Songza playlists and car commercials. With music commerce becoming more of a niche activity than ever, a chart like the Hot 100 needs to start taking into account other forms of data.

Secondly, though it’s short and strange, the Harlem Shake meme is certainly musical. The videos are organized around the most popular sonic trends in contemporary EDM: the rise and the drop. Though its manic dance scenes are unchoreographed — and, as these Harlem residents note, has nothing to do with the actual Harlem Shake — they reflect an in-the-moment abandon that’s essential to modern dance music, and the zany costumes and uncontrolled madness of the best Harlem Shakes match perfectly with the tuneless pulses and fevered beats that explode in the second half of the song’s first 30 seconds. There could not be a Harlem Shake meme without “Harlem Shake.” It just wouldn’t be the same.

Of course, people aren’t going gaga for the Harlem Shake meme because of the song – it’s mostly about the silly dancing and the quick juxtaposition between order and chaos. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that’s a problem; think about how many songs of the MTV era became hits mostly on the strength of their music videos. Music and image are not just linked, but inseparable in our age, and it would be foolish to dismiss the value of a musical interaction simply because its pictures catch the eye ahead of the song grabbing the ear.

But…we’re not really considering a song grabbing the ear. We’re considering 30 seconds of a song. And I hope I’m not alone in seeing that as a problem.

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It feels a bit weird to be defending the integrity of the song in our deconstructionist age, when so much of our culture is built remix-ready. But at a time when we’ve already lost the idea of the album as a singular entity (a rockist concept I’m quite fond of), the idea that we’re now accepting a 30-second clip as having the same musical weight as listening to a full, complete song is maddening to me.

Just imagine telling someone that you only play the fast part of “Stairway to Heaven.” Or you’d heard all you needed of “Since U Been Gone” from that track where Girl Talk uses the chorus in a mashup. Or that you’ve listened to Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie,” when you’d really only heard the slow-jammed first 45 seconds.

These are rather ridiculous ideas, every bit as absurd as the suggestion that hearing 30 seconds of “Harlem Shake” means that you’ve “listened” to “Harlem Shake.”

Admittedly, it’s not like the song is full of surprises. I could easily make an argument that you’ve heard most of what you need to hear from “Harlem Shake” in those first 30 seconds. But if Baauer had envisioned “Harlem Shake” as a 30-second song, why’d he bother with the remaining three minutes? There are still nuances as the song moves along, particularly its middle portion and then towards its end, where the final build adds an extra, high-pitched static to ramp up the tension even more. Aren’t these also key parts of the track?

Look, I get it: we live in an age where the chorus is paramount, where the drop is privileged, and where a piece of music can succeed almost entirely by repeating its moments of excessive stimulation. There’s nothing wrong with excising 30 seconds from a song and enjoying it in a different context; that’s the 21st century way. But Billboard is not just a cultural institution but a musical one, making great strides in recent years in incorporating real data based on real actions by music listeners (rather than relying on payola-drunk and corporate-susceptible radio). Its goal is to measure the top songs in America at any given moment. And its new formula doesn’t just complicate that goal, but outright undermines it.

I hope this doesn’t come across as a schematic argument. It’s important that we know how popular the Harlem Shake meme is, both culturally and musically. But if we’re trying to quantify the impact of songs, we can’t presume that they stop and end at 30 seconds. We can’t consider a song’s chorus in a commercial, by itself, to be a song. We can’t consider an iTunes preview to be a song. If those inspire people to dig deeper and listen/consume/love a song, great. That’s worth measuring. But let’s not pretend that the clip should be consider as musically significant as pressing “play” and letting a complete song work its wonders.

For more on Billboard’s chart change — particularly as it relates to how we perceive novelty and charted pop music — check out this great back-and-forth between Jody Rosen and Chris Molanphy over at Slate.

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5 responses to “Junk numbers: How Billboard’s new chart formula champions the Harlem Shake but undermines the song

  1. The only people who think Billboard charts are still relevant are the Music Snobs and the liberal media. Dick Clark is dead, Casey Kasem is retired and Rick Dees is all but retired.

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