Taylor Swift and the Continuing Decline of the Billboard Hot 100

Today Billboard released the latest Top Ten of their flagship chart, the Hot 100, and historically speaking, it’s a doozy. For the first time ever, one artist has dominated the entire ten spots. That artist is Taylor Swift. And all the songs are from her newest album Midnights.

For those of you who are chart watchers like myself, you already know how this happened. For those of you who don’t, basically Billboard changed its rules regarding the Hot 100 a few years back to better reflect the public’s tastes in the Streaming Era. And while the company has altered its policies many times before, this time it was particularly significant, in that, over time, it has completely transformed the look (and relevancy) of the chart.

In the 1990s, record companies got the bright idea that they could ship singles to radio and decline to press physical copies, forcing consumers to purchase the entire album outright. Once the practice got so ridiculous that HUGE songs weren’t seeing proper placement on the country’s biggest singles chart, Billboard decided to change the rule. Another big change happened in the mid-2010s, when streams and sampling on platforms like Spotify and YouTube were included in tabulations, resulting in the overnight success of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” meme and Psy’s ubiquitous “Gangnam Style.”

But the latest major rule change to the Hot 100 has basically rendered it an absurd shell of the important document it once was. Now ANY song, new or old, single or album cut, can see placement on the chart. It’s no longer a singles chart, it’s a songs chart. And that means when a blockbuster album from a marquee artist drops, you will see most, or usually, all, of the songs from that album chart on the Hot 100, in addition to the actual project topping the album-focused Billboard 200.

This post isn’t an album review, for the record. I’ve got nothing against Taylor Swift or her record-setting feat here. She’s a huge star, and huge stars should rack up big numbers. To paraphrase the artist herself, she’s NOT the problem, it’s NOT her. Billboard, and the way they have diluted the relevancy of their most prominent product, is the problem.

Today’s record-breaking feat has been a long time coming; just last year, Drake notched nine out of the ten spots when his Certified Lover Boy project dropped. So really today’s news isn’t surprising, or even interesting, it’s just exasperating. Why should we care when chart records are broken in the streaming age, when they’re seemingly broken three or four times a year? When the Beatles captured the top five spots in April 1964, it was at the height of Beatlemania, a cultural phenomenon that dominated almost every single conversation happening around Western culture at the time, with record buyers packing into retail stores and purchasing stacks of physical copies of 45s, calling radio stations nonstop to hear those singles repeatedly, and even dropping spare change into jukeboxes to listen ad nauseam. Those five singles are all remembered fondly; they are compositions a huge number of the population still know every word to. In a word, they are timeless.

That Top Five dominance was an unprecedented chart record that remained unbroken for five decades. But once Billboard retooled their rules to better reflect the numbers in the streaming economy, that record was decimated. And the result is a handful of songs topping the biggest music chart in the world that will leave no lasting cultural footprint. Ask yourself this: will those top nine Drake songs be remembered the way “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “Please Please Me” is? How about those deep album cuts from a veteran pop star’s tenth album? Of course not. Some of them might not even be on the chart at all next week, as we have seen countless times before.

The other frustrating thing with the Swift album (and of course we’ve seen this before, too) is a song’s chart placement based on where they fall on the album’s tracklist, as an astute Stereogum commenter noted today (and I’ve screenshot below). Basically this is evidence that these songs aren’t actually liked by the public, they’re just being listened to as millions of people browse the album for the first time. The ones out of order usually get a boost because they were also released as promotional singles or achieved virality through memes or TikTok. As evidence of a larger trend, because the streaming economy has rendered music a near-valueless product, we can now see the Hot 100 not as an indication of how people are spending their dollars on songs, but rather how they are spending their time. And the public’s attention is very, very fleeting.

To be fair, the Hot 100 has always been a reflection of the populace’s music tastes at any given time, and so it is usually, from week to week, a stale endeavor, as songs of varying quality slowly rise and fall as tastes ebb and flow. Historically, however, and as a whole, the Hot 100 is a beautiful way of researching cultural trends, changing behaviors and shifting attitudes. To an extent, it still can be. Even before Taylor Swift’s gatecrashing, the chart recently saw the slow TikTok-aided climb of indie artist Steve Lacy’s well-deserved number one smash “Bad Habit,” not to mention the first number one from both a non-binary and transgender artist in Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy.” And once the dust settles, it’s very likely the hits that were previously atop the chart will return next week (with a couple of enduring Taylor tracks, most likely the singles she’s decided to make promotional videos for). Of course, their reign will be disrupted once again after Drake and 21 Savage release their highly anticipated collaborative project Her Loss on November 4th. And here we go again.

So, then, what’s the point of this chart at all? What does it signify now? Is it now just another indication of the collapse of the monoculture, a glimpse of how ephemeral our society has become? I’m not sure exactly how Billboard should fix this problem – and, though others might disagree, it’s definitely a problem, not just for Billboard, but the industry at large. Because in its current iteration, the Hot 100 looks absurd, and if the trend continues, the entire chart might become something it’s never been before: utterly meaningless.

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