Here's a list of a dozen chart-topping songs from across the 55-year history of Billboard's Hot 100. Each wound up as Billboard's No. 1 song of the year. Which song, arguably, has the strongest legacy?
1958: Domenico Modugno, "Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu)"
1961: Bobby Lewis, "Tossin' and Turnin'"
1967: Lulu, "To Sir with Love"
1979: The Knack, "My Sharona"
1981: Kim Carnes, "Bette Davis Eyes"
1986: Dionne Warwick (& Friends), "That's What Friends Are For"
1994: Ace of Base, "The Sign"
1997: Elton John, "Candle in the Wind 1997"
1999: Cher, "Believe"
2006: Daniel Powter, "Bad Day"
2012: Gotye (featuring Kimbra), "Somebody That I Used to Know"
2013: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (featuring Wanz), "Thrift Shop"
Depending on your age, you can probably sing half or more of the songs on this list. At least a couple, including Lulu's '67 smash, Warwick's '80s AIDS-charity single and Sir Elton's '97 elegy for Princess Diana, are considered pop standards.
But for this thought experiment, the correct answer is 2013's No. 1 single, "Thrift Shop." Why? Because it wasn't Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's final No. 1 hit.
I'm not seriously arguing that the Seattle rap-pop duo, less than two years into their career as stars, have a stronger legacy than Elton John. But if there's one thing the Billboard charts reinforce over and over again, it's that — to borrow a term from Wall Street — past performance is definitely no guarantee of future results. In the age of YouTube, iTunes and Spotify, the machinery that allows acts to rocket out of nowhere and top the charts has expanded and accelerated; it's never been easier to become a flash in the pan.
Then again, it wasn't terribly difficult in the pre-digital era, either. If we define a "legacy hit" as a song that furthers an artist's career, many songs that have wound up as Billboard's No. 1 song of the year have been the opposite of that — flops, flukes or final acts. The artists listed above didn't just fail to return to No. 1; some never again saw the inside of the Hot 100's Top 10 (e.g., Lulu, Carnes) or even the Top 90 (Modugno, Gotye). And I'm not just talking about ephemeral acts like The Knack or Powter — the legendary artists on this list weren't helped by their fluke hits, either. For all the admiring coverage and huzzahs Cher received for her late-career smash "Believe," since it peaked in '99 she hasn't again hit the Top 40.
Macklemore and Lewis have defied these odds. They have two songs within the Top Five of Billboard's Hot 100 Songs of 2013 chart. In addition to their homage to scoring bargains at secondhand stores, which was No. 1 for six weeks from February through April, they also scored with "Can't Hold Us," which topped the chart for five weeks in May and June and ranks fifth for the year. This twofer makes them one of 2013's most dominant pop acts. (A third hit, their marriage-equality ballad "Same Love" with Mary Lambert, just missed the Top 10 over the summer — peaking at No. 11 — and ranks 43rd for the year.) Whatever you think of their kitschy rise to fame — with the goofy "Thrift Shop" video as the linchpin to their success — what is inarguable is that they managed to turn their viral pop moment into something resembling a career.
Compare Macklemore/Lewis to Robin Thicke, who very nearly wound up with the year's top hit with his Song of Summer victor "Blurred Lines." The Pharrell- and T.I.-supported hit did well by all three metrics that combine to form the Hot 100: it sold more digital copies, 6.4 million, than any other song this calendar year; it spent 11 weeks as the most-played song on U.S. radio, more than any other 2013 song; and thanks to its racy video, Thicke's hit even did pretty well on YouTube — "Blurred" was the seventh-most-streamed song of 2013. In the end, "Blurred" wound up No. 2 for the year ("Thrift Shop" edges it by Billboard's yardstick, because the magazine's "chart year" goes from December to November, and the Macklemore hit was already amassing sales and airplay in the last month of 2012).
So, post-"Blurred," how's Thicke's legacy shaping up? Not great — he never returned to the Top 20 after his ultramegahit's epic summer. The followup single, "Give It 2 U," peaked at No. 25 and doesn't make the year-end list at all. Luckily for Thicke, one-hit wonder status is already a non-issue, thanks to his earlier standing as a core urban-radio star ("Lost Without U," the No. 1 R&B song of 2007, reached No. 14 on the Hot 100 that year). But to Top 40 radio listeners, he may be unfairly perceived as a flop.
Thicke isn't alone among the big hitmakers of 2013. Only three of Billboard's Top 10 songs of the year were followed by another Top 10 song, the benchmark of major-hit status. Again, Macklemore/Lewis rank at Nos. 1 and 5, Thicke at No. 2; the rest are Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" (No. 3), Baauer's "Harlem Shake" (No. 4), Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors" (No. 6), P!nk's "Just Give Me a Reason" with fun.'s Nate Ruess (No. 7), Bruno Mars's "When I Was Your Man" (No. 8), Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" (No. 9) and Katy Perry's "Roar" (No. 10). Of this set, Macklemore, the Dragons and Mars were the only three acts to come back with another big hit.
Timberlake, P!nk or Perry don't have much to worry about — each has endured momentary lulls in hitmaking, only to come roaring (sorry) back. (Perry is currently working two new singles, each of which has so far peaked just outside the Top 10.) But FGL's "Cruise" — a crossover hit from the Country chart where, thanks in large part to a hokey Nelly hip-hop remix, it set a dubious record — looks like a fluke that won't be repeated, at least on the pop charts. And then, speaking of flukes, there's Baauer — the first and biggest beneficiary of Billboard's new YouTube rule.
I spent a good deal of my year as a chart analyst discussing how YouTube had changed the Hot 100 (or, in some observers' opinions, wrecking it). There's no question YouTube has revised our understanding of what a hit song is. But the fact is, ephemeral pop careers have always been with us. If a '60s British lass could score her only American Top 10 hit thanks to a trifling Sidney Poitier movie, why shouldn't a viral 2013 video of grown Norwegian men in fox costumes do similarly?
Still, "Harlem Shake" really tests one's belief that YouTube should factor into the charts. Billboard's new rule not only counts views of official music videos toward the Hot 100 but also any fan-created video that uses a chunk of the original song. (If I were in charge, I'd make the bar for counting songs in fan videos higher — maybe a two-minute minimum.) The fan-video rule worked like gangbusters for the largely instrumental "Shake," which last winter was benefiting from an absurd, awkwardly postmodern and deracinated meme in which gangs of costumed people pelvic-thrusted their way through the song.
The new Hot 100 formula weights a YouTube view far less than a digital sale or a radio play. But the numbers Baauer's ditty was racking up in February made its vault to the penthouse an inevitability. The week it reached No. 1, "Shake" was heard in YouTube videos more than 100 million times. No other hit video in 2013 — not even Ylvis's viral trifle "The Fox" (No. 6 in October, No. 73 for the year) — had even half that many streams in a single week.
It's absurd to talk about Baauer the artist, as if the identity of the trap-music producer had anything to do with the success of "Harlem Shake." We're not just talking about an act that won't score another major hit; the guy arguably wasn't even a presence on the one hit he did have. Then again, neither were Los Del Rio, the credited artists on the No. 1 song of 1996, "Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)." If you were alive that summer, like it or not you heard "Macarena" and probably danced to it. It became an American smash thanks to the trio of producers who remixed it with English lyrics and, of course, that dance; Los Del Rio, the pair of middle-aged Spaniards who sang the song, are no more integral to its success than Baauer was to "Harlem Shake." "Macarena" was the ultimate pre-YouTube meme; the song may be noxious, but no one would argue it wasn't a hit. Let's call "Harlem Shake," then, a hit meme rather than a hit song — a concept I'm not entirely comfortable with, but it was a hit something.
Besides Baauer, no one in 2013 rode the YouTube train to success further than Miley Cyrus, whose two songs in the year-end Top 20 were both fueled by lurid videos. "We Can't Stop" (No. 2 in July, No. 17 for the year), a critically acclaimed "doomy, boomy party anthem," was already a growing radio hit when its tripped-out, twerky video rocket-fueled the song to the runner-up slot just behind Robin Thicke (she paid him back at summer's end by making him irrelevant at the MTV Video Music Awards). For her follow-up, the torch ballad "Wrecking Ball" (No. 1 in September, No. 18 for the year), Cyrus got even nakeder. And thanks to nearly 40 million YouTube views in its first week, the song shot to the top of the Hot 100 before it had even become a Top 30 radio hit, leading us to question whether the song was a hit at all.
"Wrecking Ball" eventually became a major airplay hit, and truth be told, it's a well-constructed pop ballad. But it became even harder to defend the song as a hit on its own merits when, in December, it returned to No. 1 — two months after it left — fueled by a new wave of viral YouTube-watching. This time, fans weren't clicking on Cyrus's own official, lewd video; they were watching coquettish Chatroulette user Stephen Kardynal's uproarious video lampoon of the song. Again, it's valid to ask: Is a song that spent all three of its weeks at No. 1 thanks largely to titillated or trollgazy YouTube views an actual hit? To me, the success of Kardynal's video actually strengthens the argument that "Wrecking Ball" was a for-real hit — if only because most of Kardynal's fellow-chatters are singing melodramatically to the ballad, and they know every word. It's the MTV Era all over again, now made more participatory — like we've all been invited into the hormonal fishbowl of Total Request Live.
Indeed, as in the original MTV Era, making a video is now a baseline expectation for scoring a chart hit. For example, Daft Punk were probably hurt a bit by not making an "official" video for their summer smash "Get Lucky," relying largely on a looped TV commercial showing the robots jamming with Pharrell and guitarist Nile Rodgers. The song peaked at No. 2 in June and winds up at No. 14 for the year — remarkable for one of the hippest acts to score a chart-topping album, if slightly underwhelming given the song's acclaim and cultural ubiquity. Daft Punk have yet to score a followup hit; perhaps, like Elton's "Candle" or Cher's "Believe," "Get Lucky" will prove to be the robots' final act as hitmakers, an example of longtime fans tipping their hats to a well-played career.
As we enter 2014, then, the question remains: Has the meme-ification of music reached its logical end? Have songs been permanently devalued, below the glossy video, the promotional campaign, the brand tie-in? Can you score a hit — and, critically, follow it up — without any of these stratagems?
As a child of MTV v1.0, I can't be too cynical about music promotion as pop art. But, for argument's sake, if you're looking for a tangible exception, consider the act with Billboard's No. 15 song for the year: Lorde.
The New Zealand teenager born Ella Yelich-O'Connor scored a massive left-field success with "Royals," which topped the Hot 100 for nine weeks from October to December — second only to Thicke's "Blurred Lines" for 2013's longest penthouse run (if the song had charted earlier in the year, it would likely have finished higher than No. 15 on the year-end list). What was most remarkable about Lorde's success wasn't her hit's gently satirical, ambivalent lyrics, which as some critics have noted have been overpraised for their precociousness (and other commentators have accused of worse).
No, what's notable about Lorde's success is how many millennial pop-radio rules her song defied on its way to chart domination. "Royals" broke first at Alternative radio; when it topped Alternative Songs in August, Lorde became the first solo female to lead that list (formerly knows as the Modern Rock chart) in 17 years. Then, like Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" in 2012 — another airy, ethereal track that became an improbable smash — "Royals" crossed from the top of the Alternative chart to the top of the Hot 100, still a rarity. Before the song's run was over, it had crossed to formats ranging from Latin radio to R&B.
Most pertinent to our discussion here, while "Royals" had a video, it didn't do much to boost Lorde on the charts. With about 130 million views to date, total — just 30% above what "Harlem Shake" racked up in a single week last winter — "Royals" has amassed solid, if unremarkable, video numbers for a blockbuster hit song. According to Billboard, "Royals" comes in 17th among Streaming Songs for the year, and it likely got as much of a boost in that ranking from audio-streaming services like Spotify than it did from YouTube. Moreover, unlike Gotye, Lorde is doing a pretty good job following herself up: Her second single, "Team," is already a Top 20 U.S. hit and rising — and its polished but unspectacular video is unlikely to generate much drive-by YouTube peeping. The cynic might say this anti-marketing campaign is really just a sneaky form of marketing. But the numbers don't lie — Lorde's light-on-video approach is working.
As followup hits go, "Team" doesn't sound to me like a nine-week-chart-topper in the making for 2014. At this writing, it's not even guaranteed to break Lorde back into the Top 10. But it's already doing better on the Hot 100 than did Lulu's "Shout!," Kim Carnes's "Draw of the Cards," Cher's "Strong Enough" or Gotye's "Eyes Wide Open." If Lorde achieves nothing else next year, her trajectory suggests that — even now, in the age of the ephemeral hit — it's still possible to build a pop career more than four minutes long.