"Harlem Shake" is the No. 1 song in the United States of America this week, which means that now is your chance to listen to more than fifteen seconds of it. Baauer's meme soundtrack is the beneficiary of a Billboard rule change--YouTube views have been added to the Hot 100 calculations, joining physical and digital sales, radio airplay, and streams in the formula.
It's not quite as anarchic as it sounds--views only count when the video's usage is "authorized," meaning YouTube kindly asks you to buy it--and it's not as sudden as it feels, according to an article in the New York Times. But it sounds very anarchic, and it feels extremely sudden, so you'll be forgiven for imagining that the charts shifted completely in the space between "Guy in mask not doing the Harlem Shake" and "everybody not doing the Harlem Shake."
But as surprised as I was by the timing, I'm not sure I can blame them for the move. They've already watched one of their charts become completely irrelevant.
The Hot 100--that's Billboard's singles list--still tracks popular music pretty well. Starting about a year ago you'd get the three ubiquitous summer songs--"We Are Young," "Somebody That I Used To Know," and "Call Me Maybe"--cameo appearances from Taylor Swift and the inexplicably multi-hit-wondrous Flo Rida, and longer stays from Maroon 5, Rihanna, and Bruno Mars. Most recently Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop" had a month-long run.
All that sounds about right. Whether you wanted to or not, you probably heard all of those songs several times over the course of the last year.
By comparison, Billboard's albums chart--once much more important to music-industry-watchers--is a complete mess. Topping the Billboard 200 over the same time period are such cultural phenomena as Lionel Richie (two weeks running), Adam Lambert, Linkin Park, the Zac Brown Band, dcTalk refugee TobyMac, and Matchbox Twenty and Dave Matthews Band (back to back.) Oh, and Adele's 21, which was the best selling album of 2011 and 2012.
At some point post-iTunes, albums stopped measuring broad cultural vitality and started measuring the ability to muster a narrow fanbase that likes physical media--that is, bands that tour well, down-on-their-luck or aging superstars, CCM acts, country artists, et cetera. Exactly the opposite of what it measured, say, in 2000, when 'N Sync, Eminem, and Santana collectively held the top spot for more than half of a year.
The Hot 100 was in no immediate danger of the same fate, but it had lost its edge. If you look down the list you'll see exactly the phenomenon it missed in 2012--the piece of musical history it wasn't able to relate to us.
If the "Harlem Shake" is still confined, to some degree, to a 30-second clip and among the kind of people who consume memes semi-professionally, "Gangnam Style" was almost certainly the most broadly heard song on earth last year. It crossed every possible demographic--age, race, language, web browser. And it never topped the Hot 100, because its 1.3 billion YouTube views didn't count for anything.
Lord knows it's difficult to get away from Maroon 5, but whatever the Billboard Hot 100 was measuring late in 2012, when "Gangnam Style" was continually thwarted by "One More Night" for the top spot, it wasn't the way people listen to singles in 2012.
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There are still a lot of arguments to have about the Hot 100's methodology for its new formula; are people really listening to "Harlem Shake," in the short bursts that have made it famous, or is it just a glorified sound effect, a cue?
But it's hard to argue with the decision they made. For a generation of people who hate Spotify's low-production-value commercials and/or really want to make racist comments while they listen, YouTube is the radio. Billboard could adjust to that, or it could watch as its most important property stopped measuring popular culture and started measuring the way one particular demographic consumes music.
So here's to you, Baauer. You're not on the front page of your own YouTube search page, but you do have the most unavoidable song in America. And you've forced Billboard to measure it. As of this morning, the complete version of that No. 1 megahit has... five million views.