What are you doing right this second? Reading this article, right? And maybe toggling between several other tabs, blasting some music, sipping some iced coffee, and/or twirling your hair? Maybe you’re reading this on your phone while waiting for a dentist appointment or attempting to merge into highway traffic? Maybe you can’t pay attention because you’re buzzing about the World Cup, or maybe you’re reading through tears, having just found out your cat has feline leukemia. Let me ask you something: Is this little personal snapshot meaningful? More importantly, is it definitive? It certainly represents something about your existence at this point in history. But does it adequately sum up the whole of that existence? Is it the moment you’d like people to remember you by? More likely, we’d get a better picture of what your life looks like if we followed you around for a full week, right? And we’d understand you even better if we zoomed out to see your entire year — all your triumphs and sorrows, your many thrills and mundane digressions into normalcy — wouldn’t we? Maybe it’s an exceptionally good year, or maybe you have been running into an unusual amount of bad luck. How much can this particular moment reading Stereogum’s weekly pop column while listening to your leaked copy of Ultraviolence and munching on edamame really tell us about you?
Here’s a subjective statement about objective facts: Music charts are fun. If you’re like me, it’s endlessly intriguing to see which artists are connecting with a large swath of people, to track the rise and fall of iconic figures and even the ever-changing ways we experience music. Stats can offer strategic guidance — just ask the Sabermetricians who endlessly assess baseball minutiae to deepen their understanding of the game or FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who accurately predicted which candidate would win every state in the 2012 presidential election. Stats are why Adam Sandler keeps getting to make movies and why CBS keeps churning out lobotomized sitcoms. But evolved statistical methods are also the reason many a cult favorite TV series has remained on the air — DVR tallies, Netflix streams, social media buzz, and critical clout can be measured too. Cold, hard numbers aren’t the only factors, but they do factor in. In the same way, music charts have objective value for record companies trying to figure out how to market their artists, bands trying to figure out where to route their tours, or radio stations trying to figure out how to keep people listening.
Aside from any practical function, though, it’s just wildly entertaining to measure the seismic impact certain music makes (or doesn’t make — better luck next time, Elusive Chanteuse) on our culture. Regardless of what critical intelligence can be gleaned from understanding the record-setting staying power of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” or the behemoth gap between the Frozen soundtrack and every other album this year, following those things is as much of a blast as watching an athlete race to break a record — even if, as with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run battle of 1998, the winners aren’t always playing fair.
All that in mind, I was of course intrigued by the Trending 140, Billboard’s new real-time music chart that tracks the most shared music on Twitter at a given moment. It’s essentially a music-only version of Trending Topics meant to zero in on the songs that are captivating tweeters around the world at this very moment. What are we all listening to together? Which song could unify the world right now? As of 2:37 p.m. EDT, that song was “BO$$” by Fifth Harmony, a girl group formed on The X Factor. I’ve never heard it before, so I can’t speak to its world-unifying power, but becoming the most-shared song on Twitter at a given moment has to mean something. That said, considering Australian pop singer Cody Simpson’s “Love” was at #1 a couple hours before that and now isn’t even in the top 140, Fifth Harmony’s tenure on top might be too short-lived to truly bring us together. A chart as democratic and instantaneous as this offers some unique thrills, especially the appearance of music that might never crack Billboard’s Hot 100. Still, this time last week Fredo Santana, Caribou, and Cage The Elephant had songs in the top 10, and none of them are on the chart now. As with anything involving Twitter, success on the Trending 140 is fleeting.
Unless it’s not fleeting, in which case you’d have a genuine hit on your hands. That’s where keeping it real-time goes wrong: We can’t understand the value of anything without seeing how it compares to something else. We need context to make sense of our world, and context is exactly what the traditional chart system provides. To be fair, it’s not like the Trending 140 exists in a vacuum; of course Pitbull and Shakira’s respective World Cup anthems are buzzing near the top of the chart (and Ricky Martin’s crossover-making 1998 hit “The Cup Of Life” is in the mix at #33) with the tournament’s opening match just minutes from kickoff. For the same reason, it’s no surprise that “God Level,” the song Kanye West licensed for an Adidas World Cup ad, is in the top 10. Also, the chart provides a handy summation of the past 24 hours, which does lend at least a little perspective to the proceedings. (Incidentally, that Cody Simpson song that was leading earlier today had enough endurance to win the past 24 hours, so the guy might actually be on to something.) So even the people behind this up-to-the-minute enterprise realize the importance of stepping back to see the bigger picture.
Much of the value of music charts is the value of perspective, of demarcation. An artist can flare up in popularity for a few hours, as Lady Gaga’s catalog did when her fans apparently gamed the system and shot several of her songs into the top 10 during the Trending 140′s first afternoon. But in order to chart well for an entire week, a song has to have some actual legs. That’s why I like Spotify’s charts: They aggregate an entire week’s worth of streams and shares, so you have less chance of some statistical anomaly throwing the whole thing off. The space between weekly charts allows us to see movement, not just a snapshot of the present, and that movement is what gives us context. In the same way, the year-end charts offer a more telling look on what really mattered in a given year. Critics’ picks offer a different kind of snapshot — to go back and examine old Pazz & Jop polls is demonstrative in a number of ways, not least of which is wondering how Tricky ever had enough critical cache to finish second in the albums poll with Maxinquaye. Zooming out too far can be troublesome too. For instance, Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album” is the best-selling album in Nielsen SoundScan history, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most influential album of 2014. Still, the fact that it’s still on the chart after 23 years does mean something. It is so much more than a flash in the pan. I’m guessing Fifth Harmony’s single won’t last on the charts for one year, let alone 23.
Does that mean the Trending 140 is useless? Hardly. The internet has afforded us the thrill of watching the chain reaction as a song catches fire. We can debate the merits of Twitter and the effects of its disposable communication all day, but digitally sharing an experience together in real-time is surprisingly alluring. It’s exciting to see which music is connecting with people at this very moment. But even this instantaneous method of measurement is best experienced with a little patience. The truly astounding achievement will be to keep listeners clicking again and again, to continue trending for days and weeks. The most eye-opening effect of the chart will be discovering which unexpected artists wedge their way to that sort of ubiquity; of course Radiohead will climb the chart next time they release a new song, and of course Drake’s “0 To 100″ spent the better part of its first 24 hours on top, but which unknown artist is about to catch us off guard by ruling the chart for a week solid? That sort of perspective requires patience, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with a society that’s become obsessed with convenience and stimulation. It’s like Jimmy Smith said on a 1982 recording Drake illicitly sampled last year: “Only real music’s going to last. All that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow.”
You have to move a million units to go platinum, and while Miranda Lambert’s latest is far from that mark at this point, she’s off to a good start. Platinum sold 180,000 to debut atop the Billboard 200 this week, her first ever outright #1 and fifth straight #1 on the Top Country Albums chart. Billboard notes that Lambert owns a highly unusual sales trajectory at this point in the music industry: She scores better first-week sales with each successive album. The same can’t be said for the week’s only other top 10 debut, 50 Cent’s Animal Ambition, which clocks in at #4 with a paltry (by 50′s standards) 47,000.
Frozen’s soundtrack is back up to #2 with 52,000, followed by Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am at #3 with 48,000. Coldplay’s Ghost Stories, which prevented Gilbert from going #1 the past two weeks, is down to #5 with 46,000, and Now 50 lingers at #6 with 41,000. The 7-10 spots are all returns to the top 10: The Fault In Our Stars soundtrack is back up to #8 with 36,000, while the reissues of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums clock in at 7, 9, and 10 respectively.
Iggy Azalea maintains her dominance at the top of the Hot 100 singles chart, as her Charli XCX collab “Fancy” and Ariana Grande’s Iggy-featuring “Problem” remain locked at #1 and #2 for a third straight week. More stasis at #3 and #4 courtesy of John Legend’s “All Of Me” and DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.” The highest new climber of the week is Jason Derulo and Snoop Dogg’s “Wiggle” at #5. Pharrell’s old hit “Happy” is at #6, followed by Canadian reggae-pop act MAGIC!’s new hit “Rude” at #7. Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” is at #8, Calvin Harris’ “Summer” is at #9, and we have a new top 10 entrant in the form of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” at #10. Bet they’re wishing they’d stayed with Sam Smith now, eh?
Psy – “Hangover” (Feat. Snoop Dogg)
Talk about meta. The post-viral comedown is going to hit Psy hard.
Gerard Way – “Action Cat”
Does this count as pop? Only insofar as My Chemical Romance used to make waves in the top 40. Anyhow, I’m glad Way took some time off from his illustrious comics career to make music again. We need more unabashed rock stars like him.
Train – “Angel In Blue Jeans”
In case you thought Train couldn’t get any more nauseating, they’re now ripping off Avicii’s attempt to mash up Mumford Folk with EDM. This band is the plague.
La Roux – “Tropical Chancer”
Not much to say about this one except La Roux is three for three on Trouble In Paradise singles. That album will almost certainly be a winner.
Bleachers – “Rollercoaster”
I’m already on record as loving Jack Antonoff’s solo project, and “Rollercoaster” blends ’80s nostalgia and futuristic pop-rock sheen almost as potently as “I Wanna Get Better.” Even as a Fun. fan, it’s exciting to hear this guy unmoored from that band’s particular structure and Nate Ruess’ voice.
Passenger – “Scare Away The Dark”
This dude is halfway between Ed Sheeran and the Tallest Man On Earth, which is to say he’s entirely whitebread but it’s not surprising in the slightest that he’s taking over the world. I’d rather listen to Passenger (AKA Michael David Rosenburg) master his wheelhouse than suffer through Sheeran’s clumsy attempt at dance-pop, but did Rosenberg really have to indulge in a mid-song tirade against Twitter and “Gangnam Style”? (Alternately, after critiquing Twitter’s music chart and Psy’s follow-up single in this very column, do I really have grounds to judge him for that?)
John Legend – “All Of Me (Remix)” (Feat. Jennifer Nettles & Hunter Hayes)
“All Of Me” will go back to #1 on the strength of this shit. Mark my words.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Taylor Swift and Max Martin got back together for some songwriting, which means her next album is going to be fantastic. [Idolator]
- Robin Thicke’s new album, the one designed to win back estranged wife Paula Patton, is called Paula. [Rap-Up]
- Kacey Musgraves joined her tourmate Katy Perry for a run through “Roar” on their CMT Crossroads special. [MTV]
- Kylie Minogue will star alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in an action movie about earthquakes. [The Hollywood Reporter]
- Child slavery is terrible, so I wish Incubus guitarist Mike Einzinger would’ve written a better song to fight it. (Also, is it just me or does Pharrell sound like Miss Piggy here?) [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
This week’s fun-time sendoff comes courtesy of Iggy Azalea’s father, via our friends at Idolator. Take it away, Brendan…