Let’s talk about Christmas music. Festive, nostalgic, whatever.
I can’t stand to hear any Christmas song more than once each season. However, I do appreciate the fact that Christmas music serves as an annual barometer of how we listen to music and how we measure American chart success in the streaming age.
First, consider Christmas 2011. “We Found Love” is atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Adele’s yearlong “21” reign is slowly ending and the Glee Cast has five songs on the chart. For the tracking week leading up to December 25, no holiday songs charted at all.
Then, three months later, in March 2012, the chart changed its ranking formula to accommodate a growing shift in music consumption: the dawn of streaming.
In the 1950s, chart positions were determined by counting radio station spins, jukebox plays and record store sales. Between the 1990s and the 2000s, the chart had been based mostly on digital sales on platforms like iTunes and radio airplay.
The New York Times noted soon after the change that it would give prominence to musicians with online fame that had not yet reached mainstream success — think indie hitmakers like Tame Impala and electronic composers like Avicii.
Now, back to Christmas — consider Christmas 2012. One holiday song makes an appearance on the chart, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” an annual staple since.
Since 2019, the song has topped the chart at No. 1, and it’ll likely go No. 1 in the U.S. every Christmas until the end of the chart.
But in 2012, the song peaked at No. 25. Why such a huge difference? Has the world simply fallen more in love with Mariah in the last ten years? Do we simply buy more Christmas music now?
No. This column would be eight words long (and pointless) if I were simply trying to say that “streaming has replaced purchasing in the music industry.”
It’s deeper than that. What has streaming done in terms of visibility? In terms of how we perceive “successful” musicians?
Once upon a time, Hot 100 achievements were hard to come by. Now when songs stick, they stick hard. Out of the 12 songs that have spent the most weeks in the top 10, 11 of them are from the past seven years.
It’s monumentally easier for a song to stay at No. 1 now because Billboard prioritizes listening — not necessarily streaming — over buying.
When Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” stayed at No. 1 between 1992 and 1993 for 14 weeks, it wasn’t because people couldn’t stop listening to it. It was because people couldn’t stop buying it. To stay at the top of the chart, Houston had to push an absurd number of units, week after week after week. Those who purchased the song the first week might have listened to it a million times, but that did not matter.
When Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" stayed at No. 1 for 19 weeks in 2019 — now the longest-charting No. 1 of all time — he rode a wave of popularity with a specific demographic. It was a song that people listened to over and over and over again, not purchased.
Succinctly put, it is monumentally easier to chart at No. 1 and stay there, than it was twenty years ago.
I came across a Tweet that used the term “album bomb” for the first time this week. It made me curious about why entire albums occupy the top of the charts now.
In 2010, Taylor Swift became the first female artist to chart every single song on an album the week “Speak Now” was released. For the sake of argument, let’s consider this the first “album bomb.” Its 11 charting tracks had an average position of 54.
Cut to 2022 and tracks from Swift’s “Midnights” immediately took up the entire top 10. Similarly, tracks from Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” took up nine spots in the top 10 after its release in 2021.
What is going on?
The Billboard Hot 100 was once a molasses chart that ambered the success of legendary musicians like Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Madonna and even their younger counterparts like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Rihanna.
Now, it is a water chart, cheering on viral TikTok songs and the liquid rise and fall of burnout singles.
The chart used to not only reflect but bolster an artist’s status. While it gives artists with hyper fixated fan bases — think BTS, Taylor Swift and Drake — greater prominence, it now sacrifices the legitimacy of its ranking in exchange for industry standards.
It’s annoying to get caught up in chart politics, especially with faceless hordes on Twitter screaming at you to stream the worst song you’ve ever heard. Even though I love to nerd out about the Hot 100, I don’t listen to music for the charts, and I encourage you to do the same.
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