Last week, with the help of an especially viral meme, Baauer’s woozy trap song “Harlem Shake” rocketed to the top spot of Billboard’s Hot 100. Some critics cried foul that what they perceived was a “bad song” was now No. 1 in the U.S., as if that spot represented an endorsement — though it is actually a reporting of fact. “Harlem Shake”’s victory was propelled by a big change in Billboard and Nielsen’s tracking methodology. In a press release, Billboard announced that it would now factor “all official videos on YouTube captured by Nielsen’s streaming measurement, including Vevo on YouTube, and user-generated clips that utilize authorized audio into the Hot 100.” This meant that each view of each reproduction of the “Harlem Shake” meme pushed the song further up the charts.
The change is long overdue. One need not look back further than last year to find examples of viral music videos that would have benefited from this shift — PSY, Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen come to mind. PSY, in particular, could have used the push; thanks to its radio dominance, Maroon 5’s “One More Night” kept “Gangnam Style” from ever reaching the top spot, despite the song’s ubiquity last fall. But viral music videos were not a 2012 phenomenon. Past musical memes that undoubtedly would have charted high include most of The Lonely Island’s repertoire, The Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder Song” and, of course, Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”
If it bothers you that “Friday” probably should have been a top 20 hit, just like it’s bothering certain parties that “Harlem Shake” is now No. 1, then it’s time you reassess the charts. Billboard and Nielsen’s purpose is to track music consumption; while what’s successful and what’s not have ramifications for pop music’s future, quality is irrelevant. It should also be noted that “Harlem Shake” was not the only benefactor of the change; Rihanna and Drake both posted gains this week from the strength of YouTube streams of their new singles and videos. To complain that “Friday” or “Harlem Shake” is charting high because they are bad songs misses the point that the chart describes our consumption patterns rather than prescribing them.
But “Harlem Shake” is different from its viral predecessors. Whereas viewers watched until the very end of the “Call Me Maybe” video to soak in its final twist, a “Harlem Shake” video is gone in 30 seconds. That’s only a sixth of the entire song’s length. One could argue that the song is only ancillary to the real action: the midway switch, the manic flailing, the random props. It’s as if there could have been any bass-y club track underpinning the madness, and it would have been just as much of a hit. The lumping together of all user-generated content that uses authorized audio regardless of length represents a large oversight in Billboard’s analysis. One wonders how many songs will become No. 1 based on tiny excerpts. True to fashion, the meme machine has already set the stage for this scenario: that screaming goat remix of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The video, which is 25 seconds long, has racked up over 2 million views in just four days. Does that mean that “Trouble” will be the Hot 100’s champion next week? It may be hard to tell, as the song is already far up the top 10, but the premise that repeat viewings of half of its chorus could put it there is just absurd.
As ham-handed as Billboard’s decision was to make the change when it just so happens to coincide with a viral event, they deserve credit for trying to increase the accuracy of consumption now rather than never. Maintaining this accuracy, however, will require more careful attention paid to the nuances of YouTube’s remix culture. Hopefully Billboard decides what truly counts as a single consumption of a song, and history will look upon these fleeting viral hits as a blip in the data.