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Music | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Modern chart hits don't need to be modern anymore

Time ain’t what it used to be. That’s what I’m assuming at least – by the time I was ten years old in 2008, the idea of something being “old” was no longer synonymous with something being “passé”. With some major assistance from the proliferation of the internet, the idea of a piece of art, the cut of a video, or a note of music being lost forever was now not only extremely unlikely, but almost impossible. Just ask Barbra Streisand – if it was online at one point, someone still has it.

The effect that this would have on the world of music wouldn’t fully be appreciated for another decade or so. That’s when something strange happened on the Billboard Hot 100: Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’, a song released all the way back in 1994, hit number one for the first time in December of 2019. The chart that was conceived solely to reflect the newest and most contemporary songs had seen a 25-year-old track become the biggest song in the country.

How did this happen? Well, it was largely thanks to two different policy changes. The first was obvious: streaming numbers were given greater weight, even if actual purchases were still given priority. The acknowledgement that most music listeners got their music from Spotify, YouTube, or a similar streaming service began to change which songs landed on the Hot 100. But Billboard also decided to mess with their rule on recurring songs as well.

In 1991, Billboard began trying to curtail the appearance of older songs that were still technically selling above newer singles by removing them from the Hot 100. The current criteria are that if a single has been on the chart for 20 weeks and has fallen below number 50, it gets moved over to the separate Hot 100 Recurrent chart. It’s why you don’t see ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa on the regular Hot 100 right now. Special exceptions are made on a song-by-song, but Billboard hasn’t divulged who gets preferential treatment just yet.

But Billboard isn’t the only chart in existence. Spotify’s charts are becoming increasingly referenced in the streaming age since they better reflect the way most people listen to their music. There could come a time in the future when number one songs are decided by a streaming service and not Billboard, but that time has yet to pass.

That doesn’t change the fact that the damage from the streaming service takeover has already been done. We’ve entered into a new Wild West-style shootout for number one singles where literally every song ever written has a theoretical chance of reaching number one. We live in a less nostalgic-averse culture in the modern day: Stranger Things is the most popular television show in the world, which brings us to our second major winner of the post-modern chart age – Kate Bush.

You’ve certainly heard that thanks to a prominent feature as a life-saving plot device in season four of Stranger Things, Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ has ascended all the way to number one on the UK Singles Chart 36 years after its original release. Its success has given us the second major example of a contemporary music culture losing a stronghold on itself after Carey defied the laws of logic back in 2019. Now, a mostly-retired ’80s icon has landed her second number one single in the UK, 44 years after she landed her first.

So what can we learn from these unique case studies? On a surface level, they could just be flukes – ‘Running Up That Hill’ was a top five hit in the UK in 1985, and ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ likely would have done the same in the US had Billboard not made it ineligible due to some wacky rules. Maybe these songs were always chart-toppers, existing in a vacuum and taking a little longer than normal to blossom into their full potential.

More likely, though, is that streaming, changes in chart metrics, and the proliferation of nostalgia in pop culture has started a brand new era in pop music. That could very well be a good thing: there a hundreds – if not thousands – of songs that were worthy of a being number one hit without ever having reached the summit. If all it takes for a great song to reach number one is a well-timed appearance in a film or TV show, we should be welcoming that change.

Sure, it means that the opposite is true: official charts are probably more susceptible to trolling and remarkably unworthy of ascending to the top of the charts but is that even that big of a deal. Outside of someone like me, who tracks chart movements for a living, who really cares what song is at number one? It’s nice to reference when anomalies get to number one, but on a day-to-day basis, the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK Singles Chart are less relevant than they’ve ever been.

So let the era of the post-modern hit single officially begin. Now it’s time to start taking stock of what should be pushed to number one. Get the Duffer Brothers on the phone, because Nancy should get saved by “Weird Al” Yankovic’s ‘Eat It’ in the next Stranger Things episode.

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