In May, Billboard and Twitter launched the Billboard Twitter Real-Time Charts. True to their name, the charts rank songs shared on Twitter in the United States on an up-to-the-minute basis. One of the charts, the “Trending 140,” is akin to a hashtag Hot 100. As the latest effort to gauge how listeners interact with music in the social-internet era, these charts are logical and welcome.
But the charts’ quirks help drive home how the concept of a “one-hit wonder” has mutated in 2014. The performer who helped Billboard roll out its real-time charts was Austin Mahone, Young Money’s variant on one of pop’s oldest tropes, the teen idol. A YouTube personality like Justin Bieber, Mahone had his first big video hit with a Bieber cover; he calls his fans “Mahomies.” His involvement encapsulates a skeptic’s worst fear about these social-media charts, that they’ll become the pop chart equivalent of a BuzzFeed pug video.
In practice, however, the Trending 140 does admirably well at capturing the scatterbrained way we listen to music today, finding room for viral oddities (Britney Spears Auto-Tune-free “Alien” session) and critics’ darlings (Perfume Genius’s “Queen,” FKA twigs’ “Two Weeks,” Sophie’s sugary “Lemonade”) along with more traditional chart-toppers (Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, One Direction). And if the involvement of the bland Mahone illustrates one way real-time charts can go wrong, the way the charts have developed since then indicates another: specifically, that pop’s social media gate-crashers this year tended to be people who were already, in one way or another, insiders.
The rules officially changed in 2013, when Billboard started counting YouTube views in its Hot 100 methodology. The chart’s new formula helped Baauer’s meme-ified 2012 song “Harlem Shake” spend five weeks at the top. Ylvis’s absurd “The Fox” went to No. 6 and spawned a long-running meme that reached Saturday Night Live. This year’s prospective one-hit wonders have capitalized on the new chart math. Meghan Trainor’s body-positive bit of bubblegum, “All About That Bass,” has sold more than 4 million digital downloads, but many probably first experienced it through its video, which features Vine personality Sione Maraschino and already boasts more than 330 million YouTube views.
No bedroom DIY, though, Trainor was already well placed for a Vevo debut. In fact, Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid is credited with urging her to release “All About That Bass” as a solo artist. The Berklee School of Music graduate had previously written songs for Rascal Flatts and Hunter Hayes. Encouraging country music publisher Big Yellow Dog Music to sign her in the first place, according to The Boston Globe, was former NRBQ member Al Anderson, to whom she had an indirect family connection.
Magic!’s reggae-based trifle “Rude” has taken a slightly different route, but one that’s if anything more illustrative of how established hitmakers-for-hire can transition to making hits of their own. The Canadian group’s manager, Charles Chavez, told Billboard that he first saw the initial “Rude” YouTube stream in April 2013, but by the time he got Sony International interested, it was too late for summer 2013; the song got a push Down Under, where summer was just starting, and then received new promotion this summer in the States, where it has sold more than 3 million copies. The video, with model Ayla Parker, has more than 260 million views.
Nasri Atweh, Magic!’s singer, was far better connected within the business than Trainor. Collaborating with Adam Messinger as the Messengers, he’s one half of the songwriting and production team behind hits for Pitbull, Chris Brown and Bieber. (The two also worked on New Kids on the Block’s 2008 comeback album, The Block.)
Trainor and Nasri (the “Rude” star records under his first name because, he told Rolling Stone, “I just think it sounds cooler”) are the highest-profile examples of industry insiders with viral solo singles in 2014, but they’re hardly the only ones. Eric Bellinger, a songwriter for Bieber, Brown and Ashanti, soared up the Trending 140 in September with new song “Awkward.” Niykee Heaton, after becoming one of the first acts to partner with All Def Music, a YouTube-focused label co-founded by Russell Simmons, saw her debut EP, Bad Intentions, top the Trending 140 the same month.
An exception to the year’s pattern of insider-outsiders is Bobby Shmurda. The Brooklyn rapper’s homemade debut video for his “Hot N***a” single spawned the Vine clip of his “Shmoney Dance,” going viral and landing him a deal with Epic Records. In short, a single tossed hat, in a six-second clip, was enough to fire public imaginations to the point that L.A. Reid came calling. Shmurda, whose signature dance got a Lil’ Kim shout-out on November 30′s Soul Train Awards broadcast, was a true outsider in the year insiders went viral.
The other social-media stars of 2014, after their initial success, played it safe. There’s something dispiriting about Trainor’s follow-up single “Lips Are Movin,” which closely follows the neo-soul framework of “All About That Bass” and also arrives amid a $20 million Hewlett-Packard advertising assault; “Not only does her music work well with a fun, high-energy campaign, but she’s also a young, socially active creator herself who we knew would inspire our influencers and their fans,” an ad-agency exec told AdAge.
The chart’s potential impact won’t necessarily be negative. It could be quite the opposite; Eric Weisbard, speaking about his new book Top 40 Democracy with Eric Harvey at Pitchfork, argued that the much-maligned Top 40 radio format represents a kind of Tocquevillian competition among different groups of people. And Trainor’s stint at the top of the Hot 100 with “All About That Bass” coincided with the longest streak of all-female top fives, at seven weeks, in the history of the chart. In much the same way, the Billboard Trending chart has introduced a bit more noise and chaos into the charts. For better or worse, one-hit wonders have become prime currency in a way they haven’t been since the era of MTV. Whether they remain unpredictable or continue to be infiltrated by industry pros in disguise is yet to be seen.