100 & Single: How Digital Changed The Charts, From Gwen To GoonRock

By | July 15, 2011

Village Voice

There’s some evidence of that boomlet this week atop the two main Billboard charts, which are sleepy coming off the July 4 holiday. Both are led by repeaters.

On the Hot 100, the sound of oontz-oontz-oontz is represented by California electro clowns LMFAO, who sit tight for a second week in the penthouse with “Party Rock Anthem.” The Lauren Bennett and GoonRock-supported global smash stole the No. 1 slot from Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” last week, largely on the strength of heavy digital sales, and another 236,000 downloads keep it atop the chart this week. “Anthem” has now spent at least two weeks atop charts everywhere from the U.K. (four weeks) to New Zealand (an astounding 11 weeks).

The Billboard 200 album chart is commanded by our leading queen of pop-and-B, Beyoncé. After debuting on top last week, another 115,000 in sales keeps 4 at No. 1 for a second week—oddly, the first of her four chart-topping albums to do so. Lady B, who normally releases her albums in the more competitive fall season, can thank a weak July 4 release schedule for her continued dominance; the chart’s highest debut this week is Lloyd’s King of Hearts, down at No. 10.

Beyoncé has been a star since before the iPod was a gleam in the eye of Steve Jobs, and so she probably would be commanding our charts in 2011 even if we were all still listening to music on physical discs. But LMFAO, Bennett and GoonRock: does anybody seriously think their Europop-style trifle would be topping the U.S. charts right now if we hadn’t spent the last half-decade awash in 99-cent club anthems?

When looking back on decades of music history, you can oversimplify each into halves—generally, we wind up with two dominant strains of pop per decade. Very roughly speaking, the ’70s can be divided into the rock-and-easy-listening half and the disco half. The ’80s divides into the MTV-fueled electro-pop half and the big-hair (metal and divas) half. The ’90s divides into the alternative-rock half and the bling-bling-and-teenpop half. There’s usually a pivotal chart-topping record sometime in the middle of the decade that bridges the divide, signaling that the shift is about to happen: the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” in 1974, arguably the first disco No. 1; Van Halen’s “Jump” in 1984, signaling that metal was about to get slicker and even more commercial; the one-two punch of Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Hanson’s “MMMBop” in early 1997, clearing the way for Britney’s and Backstreet’s emergence later.

The ’00s fit this pattern nicely: It had a hip-hop half and a dance-pop half.

The first half of the decade found rap and other R&B-derived music—Usher, Nelly, Ja Rule, 50 Cent, OutKast, Mary J. Blige—at their absolute zenith of popularity on the Hot 100. From 2001 to 2005, virtually every week on the big chart was commanded by a song that was simultaneously at or near the top of Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. (The only exceptions, and they were rare, were singles by such early American Idolfinalists as Clay Aiken, and a couple of white-boy rock hits by Nickelback and Crazy Town.)

By contrast, the second half of the decade was conquered by female-oriented club-pop, from Nelly Furtado in 2006 to Ke$ha in 2010. For rappers, the tables have turned: except for Kanye or Jay-Z on a good day, they’ve found it difficult lately to dominate the Hot 100—and when they do, they’d better come packing a four-on-the-floor beat, like Pitbull.

So what was the pivotal, signal-shifting chart-topper? I’d argue it was a record you probably haven’t heard much lately but surely dominated your club six years ago: Gwen Stefani’s 2005 smash “Hollaback Girl.” Its timing was perfect, if totally accidental.