This week, Baaur’s surprise hit “Harlem Shake” has debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks largely (almost entirely) in part to a sudden change in rules… now official YouTube views are being factored in! I can’t help but feel that this is another whimsical attempt to mix things up for no reason. Music videos going viral is nothing new; it’s not even new since the birth of YouTube. In the days when MTV and VH1 actually cared about music, the video was vital to an artist’s success, and the most popular ones got the most plays. Now, all of the sudden, music videos are no longer promotional tools… they actually mean something for the actual success of a song! But why now?! Three particular songs come to my mind as being completely robbed by this rule-change: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend,” and, most recently, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (only the most successful music video in YouTube history.) All three songs stalled at #2 on the Hot 100, despite having record-breaking YouTube views for their respective videos. All three tracks would have clearly been enormous #1 hits had the rules been changed ahead of the curve, instead of well-past the point of reason. They were held off by tracks that just happened to have more digital downloads and radio support.
For me, this is hugely reminiscent of another pseudo-recent Billboard rule change. After Whitney Houston’s passing, they changed their rules about previously charting songs, which were originally ineligible for return after dropping out. Over 20 years after its original release, Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” returned to the top-10 on the Hot 100. Strangely, the rules were not changed when Michael Jackson passed away, which would have easily seen a return of “Man In The Mirror” to at least the top-10, in addition to several of his other hits making a comeback. Now, I’m not belittling Whitney at all; she deserved the treatment she got, but not for Michael? That sounds completely unreasonable to me. So, again, we’re faced with this sudden, convenient rule change that pretty much just screws over everyone. Why? Because the music video has officially been made a requirement for success. It’s not like the days of MTV when having a music video increased your chances of having a hit, now you’re probably not going to have one sans-vid. Of course, you can choose to skip out on one, but even with successful digital sales and strong radio support, the edge will automatically go to your closest competitor. In addition, much like when digital downloads were officially folded into the mix, songs will spike fast and completely drop off. Take the Biebers and the One Directions and the Taylor Swifts… their loyal legions of fans rush to download the track en masse resulting in an enormous debut, but once they all have it, and the general public (more often that not) isn’t interested, the track, which maybe went in at #3, drops like a stone. Does anybody really think “Harlem Shake” is going to hang around? No, it’s a fad. It has nothing to do with the music. It’ll be forgotten about as soon as everyone’s had their fill.
Here’s my biggest gripe, though. The Billboard Hot 100 is a singles chart, not a music videos chart. I’m having enough trouble as it is believing that streaming (i.e. Spotify) is an acceptable factor, but this? If radio play is factored in with sales, wouldn’t this present the argument that videos aired on television should have been factored in all along? Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s because it is. Music videos should inspire hits, not be them. They’re promotional tools meant to peak interest in a song. Now, all of the sudden, they are literally being considered part of the song. It’s not just a sign of the times, either. Again, they’ve been popular and noteworthy for decades! To put this in perspective, “Thriller” came out 30 years ago. To me, it sounds like a cheap ploy by Billboard to keep interest in the Hot 100 after digital sales have borderline eliminated any real meaning to the word “hit,” because literally anything can chart (see pretty much every Taylor Swift song ever making chart appearances, and all of that Glee shit.) Once again, this is under the guise of “reflecting the times.” Does it even the playing field? In one perspective (the “Digital Download Anything Can Be A Hit Conundrum,”) it does. Singles are now more defined, but, then again, if you’re someone like Beyoncé who makes a music video for everything, that argument is even moot. Not to mention, it’s only a little too convenient that Billboard would change its rules the same week “Harlem Shake,” a moderately sized viral sensation, would find itself debuting at #1 as a result. I’m not conspiracy theorist, but tell me that’s not a strange coincidence.
Nonetheless, I’ll play devil’s advocate with myself. There’s still good that can come from this. For one, hopefully, this will end up raising that bar for what a good music video is. Artists will have to really pull out their best “Bad Romance” and “Single Ladies” if they want to really gain interest and have a hit. Counterargument: Justin Bieber could sit in a chair for 3 minutes dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, not even lip-sync to his song, and still end up getting hundreds of millions of views. Yes, this is different to the digital download argument (fans downloading in excessive amounts resulting in an unfounded big hit) because it’s very different to purchase a song legally than it is to press refresh and play on a website a thousand times a day (trust me, the Beliebers and Directioners are going to do it.) Regardless, for the artists that care, the caliber of music videos going forward could be incredible. Finally, not all YouTube videos are full-on music videos. Many times, artists release lyric videos that essentially just play the song with the lyrics posted to follow along in order to debut songs. In this case, it’s pretty much the same thing as just listening to the track, and (I’m assuming these count) that would be somewhat fair. In the end, though, what we consider a “hit” is, once again, having to change. Billboard is undermining the Hot 100 and belittling true artistry by aiding the acts with the biggest fanbases… fanbases, mind you, that will grow up and no longer care about their “idols” sooner than later. So congrats to Baaur on his #1 debut… it’s well-deserved, I just hope the success doesn’t taste too watered down (…cause it is.)