The Billboard charts, once the gauge of pop song penetration across the nation, has limited utility these days. Although it now incorporates digital purchases, it still has both a bias towards recency (because people don’t purchase songs twice) and bias against the too recent (songs that have been leaked or have not been officially released).
A good example of this phenomenon is the chart performance of Rebecca Black’s novelty song “Friday.” It reached its peak in cultural salience in mid-March, and appeared on the Billboard charts at #72. The song peaked on the charts (at #58) two weeks after its peak in cultural salience. Conversely, the song’s conquering of Youtube happened almost instantaneously with a long tail as people continued watching the videos.
So, a brief tour of the differences in the two charts for this week. Youtube’s 100 still has the big hitters. Youtube’s Top 10 features 5 songs currently in Billboard’s Top 10, and 1 song that very recently was (“Super Bass” – #14 on Billboard). Yet its differences reflect its odd bent. For one, the chart tends to go a bit further afield than whitebread America, particularly in its inclusion of foreign/world/Spanish-language songs. “Rain Over Me,” a Pitbull song from this summer that peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, sits comfortably at #6. Shakira’s generally forgotten World Cup anthem “Waka Waka” still inexplicably holds a #18 position on the Youtube 100.
What to make of Michel Telo’s “Ai Se Eu Te Pego,” a Portuguese-language song from Brazil with 33 million Youtube views?
I actually have a soft spot for this cheeseball sing-along. Certainly such a song would never make it on the Billboard charts, and most of its audience is likely Brazilian. The Youtube 100’s global reach folds in K-Pop, Brazilian pop-country, and reggaeton.
Consider the kind of American hit that makes it on the Youtube charts but not the Billboards.
This is Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro.” The song hit number one in Austria, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, but not in the U.S. An American song written largely in Spanish with a large polyglot global audience fits the narrative of the new global music industry’s reach.
In addition to its internationalist bent, the Youtube 100 reads trends before they peak on the Billboard 100. For example, Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe,” a promotional single from his “well, his voice dropped” Christmas album is already trending downwards on Youtube even as it debuts at #11 on the Billboard charts.
In light of these differences, it’s worth pondering what music charts are worth anyways. What do these charts actually tell us? Are they a window into a nation’s soul? I mean, maybe. But charts are essentially ephemeral; they can’t tell us which songs will last as monuments and which songs will slide into oblivion. Cultural critics will capture the ego, and historians will capture the superego, but the charts are pure id. That’s what the Youtube 100 captures, and what the Billboard 100 increasingly cannot do.