What Even Is a Hit Anymore?

What Even Is a Hit Anymore?

“I want the world to know, that Billboard is a lie. You can buy No. 1s on Billboard,” is how rapper troll 6ix9ine kicked off an Instagram video he posted in May of this year. His purpose was to allege that he had been cheated out of reaching the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, the most trusted weekly tally of the most popular songs in the United States. The rapper, whose conviction and sentencing in his 2015 use of a child in sexual performance case was covered extensively by Jezebel, made unsupported claims that Ariana Grande’s and Justin Bieber’s teams had purchased “with six credit cards” plays and downloads of their duet “Stuck With U,” which boxed out his “Gooba.” Their song debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart dated May 23; 6ix9ine’s came in at No. 3.

His Instagram video received a lot of attention, as virtually everything that comes out of 6ix9ine’s mouth is prone to, unfortunately, and his baseless allegations—ones disconnected from the reality of Grande’s and Bieber’s longevity as musical juggernauts whose collaboration was bound to do huge numbers, no matter how musically underwhelming the final product—resulted in refutations from Grande, Bieber, and Billboard itself. The magazine published the explainer, “How Billboard Came to Its Calculations in This Week’s Race For the Hot 100 No. 1.” There is no reason to believe that 6ix9ine knew what he was talking about (that is, outside of expressing an outsized ego that the public’s response to him has undoubtedly justified in his head)—but his tantrum was eerily prescient. This was, after all, a year in which a large segment of the population, including lame-duck President Trump, argued for the great importance of numbers… unless they didn’t like what those numbers meant, in which case they must be fraudulent. Months before Trump would, 6ix9ine was warning the public of its faith in tabulating institutions.

Both men’s grandstanding was rooted in ego, and as liars and hypocrites, they are unreliable sources at any rate, but the doubt they cast on consensus dovetailed with an uncertainty that prevailed this year over culture in general, and pop culture in particular. The concept of the hit—the irrefutably popular song, movie, or TV show with which familiarity bespeaks cultural literacy—started to noticeably unravel more in 2020 than ever before, and across media. This is due in part to the way we consumed media, which necessarily became a more individualized in lockdown (reopened movie theaters suffered greatly, as a result). Less communal media consumption reduced the notion of music being just out there in the ether—the inescapable pop hit was easier to miss if you weren’t going leaving your house. Streaming, too, has altered what a hit means—it’s less and less something spoon fed to us by corporations and more a democratic designation.

But so has the methodology of charting success. Evidently failing rubrics in our charting systems added to the overall sense of disorientation and disconnectedness. Platforms that stream movies and television are rarely forthcoming with concrete viewership statistics.

That is not to say that people didn’t find television, movies, music, and books to bring them together while apart, but that the true sense of just how popular these things were has become increasingly ambiguous. Whether this has brought us closer to truth (by potentially exposing cracks that already existed in our trusted tabulating systems) or further from it (by obscuring true popularity) remains to be seen, but it seems clear that a change is afoot and there’s still adjusting needed in order to understand what exactly constitutes a hit in modern culture.

Apologies in advance for turning the discussion back to 6ix9ine for a bit. Just over a month after his “Gooba” tantrum, the rapper’s tune regarding Billboard had changed, when he did hit No. 1 on the Hot 100—his song with Nicki Minaj, “Trollz,” debuted at the summit of the chart dated June 27, 2020. In response, 6ix9ine posted a video of himself spraying champagne and screaming in celebration. The video’s caption read, in part: “YOU CAN SAY WHAT EVER IM NUMBER 1 AND YOU CANT TAKE THAT FROM ME I WENT UP AGAINST THE MUSIC INDUSTRY AND WON!!!!!!!!!”

But it was soon taken away, and how. In its second charting week, “Trollz” took a bigger tumble down the chart than any other No. 1 in its history, sliding from the top spot to No. 34. (Note: Earlier in the year, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” fell off the chart entirely after spending three weeks at No. 1, as radio play and streaming for Christmas songs drops precipitously after the holiday.) “Trollz” charted for a paltry four weeks, leaving about as much impact as a dud match that flares and immediately extinguishes.

In light of its overall performance, 6ix9ine’s No. 1 record manages to look more like a flop than a hit, precisely because it reached that coveted apex of the chart. Looking at the nosedive of “Trollz,” one could reasonably conclude that a large segment of the listening population had exposure to a song, and then simply opted not to listen again. It’s one thing to miss a song entirely; it’s another to actively miss that with which one is already familiar.

The truth is a little more complicated than that—“Trollz” had strong first-week sales (a reported 116,000 physical copies moved), a relative rarity in an industry that is primarily reliant on streaming. Buying a copy of a song—either digitally or physically—costs more than streaming it, and so it follows that a sale gives a song more chart points than a stream. Complicating matters even further is the practice of bundling music with merchandise and concert tickets, a widespread book-cooking practice in the industry (that is, until Billboard issued a new policy in July, about two weeks after 6ix9ine hit No. 1, that disallowed bundled music to count toward charts). As Forbes explained:

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of artists who have scored No. 1 albums or singles with major assistance from bundles in 2020 alone: Lady Gaga, Kenny Chesney, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, 6ix9ine, Nicki Minaj and the Weeknd. The latter currently holds the biggest album debut of 2020 (at least for a few more days) with After Hours, which moved 444,000 album-equivalents in its first week, bolstered by a ticket bundle and over 80—80!—different merchandise bundles.

Ideally, No. 1 signifies societal penetration—the week’s event listening/viewing in its respective field that the informed simply must be familiar with. The world, though, is not an ideal place, and the world of big business is even less so. Practices like payola (labels paying radio stations and other outlets for plays) have undoubtedly skewed chart performance historically, subverting the will of the audiences that the charts are supposed to reflect. But purchased cultural saturation is still saturation—today’s charts on occasion reflect what is clearly not the most popular song but that which invites the most intense curiosity, or has the biggest fan army behind it. Bundles or no bundles, the practice of releasing limited physical singles, as Grande and Bieber did, can inflate early numbers. Months after Billboard enacted its no-bundle policy, BTS’s “Life Goes On” fell from its No. 1 debut to No. 28 on the following week’s chart. As the first U.S. No. 1 sung predominantly in Korean, it may be remembered as such (if it is remembered at all). Its plummet is no match for its legacy, and besides, who has the attention span to follow up in its second week? To so many, the luster of No. 1 outshines all else, even if it effectively means less than it once did.

As streaming has dominated charts and fan armies have increased their connectivity and organizing capability, the anatomy of a hit is an inverted shell of what it once was. Traditionally, songs would spread across culture slowly, the most dulcet of infections. While various chart formulations did yield seeming smashes on arrival (particularly in the early-to-mid ‘90s, when physical singles were all the rage, and during the iTunes store’s heyday in the aughts), now we’re more and more seeing the hit of diminishing returns, that which is destined to taper.

Part of this is a symptom of long-tail dilution, but the overall effect is one that softened our cultural touchstones in a year that saw a pandemic and fraught election divide us more than ever. The elusiveness of that which “everyone” is consuming is hardly confined to music. Certainly No. 1 never meant less than it did at this year’s covid-decimated box office. Theater closings and scant offerings from major studios made for a year in which 10 of the movies that landed at No. 1 on the weekend box office charts made less than $5 million—in their entire runs. (To put this into perspective: A gross of less than $5 million on opening weekend for any movie with decent distribution generally signals flop. Glitter made $2.4 million domestically during its first weekend, nearly 20 years ago.) These ranged from the early-lockdown pittance earned by Resistance (total gross: $7,464) to the healthy-seeming in comparison The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (total gross: $4.8 million). The summer’s biggest release, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, has, as of December 30, 2020, grossed $57.9 domestically, over four months after its release. In any preceding year of the past two decades, if a $200 million movie by a distinguished director did Tenet’s overall gross in its first weekend, it would be considered dead on arrival. It spent six weeks at No. 1.

Of course, in our various states of lockdown this year, streaming movies and shows seemed a safer and more convenient option than theaters and out-of-the-way drive-ins. But the lack of transparency regarding popularity in that arena has long been documented, and intensified this year when Netflix announced this year that it counts two minutes of viewed content as a stream. There are a variety of reasons why they may do that (a purchased movie ticket, after all, in no way guarantees the film was actually viewed by the buyer), but the most prevailing reason that they do this is because they can. We are at the mercy of individual platforms, who tend to keep their data ambiguous, and send out press releases full of inscrutable proclamations: Amazon claimed “huge engagement” and “great success” for its Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, while Hulu sent out a press release after the first streaming weekend of its Happiest Season, announcing the movie “was the most-watched film across all acquired and Hulu Original films during its opening weekend. The hit holiday film also generated the highest engagement with Hulu subscribers: Happiest Season secured the most hours amongst all Hulu Original films through its first weekend on the service.” Whatever any of that means!

In the Vulture article “The Rise of the Netflix Hit,” Bilge Ebiri wrote about the confusion that ensues from this deliberately opaque self-reporting:

…This trend had started well before COVID-19 hit. Two of 2019’s most talked-about films, The Irishman and Marriage Story, were released into theaters by Netflix, but we didn’t get any official box-office numbers for them. A month or so later, they started streaming and, judging by the number of memes they generated, became viral phenomena. We never really knew if they were hits; we just sort of had a sense that they were. (Netflix now says that the first two [2] minutes of The Irishman were watched by 64 million people in its first month. This is good, I think?)

Sounds good? Probably is good? Who knows? Nielsen, the third-party viewership tabulator, does publish a streaming chart (using a Shazam-like technology to detect what its participating households are streaming), though the chart’s accuracy has been refuted by Netflix. It is incomplete, at the least, since Nielsen only reports on that which is streamed on the televisions of its participating households, and not on mobile devices or computers. That this information does technically exist but is being withheld or shared in dribs and riddles makes the obfuscation clear and that much more frustrating. A start-up named Parrot has begun to track “demand expressions,” which incorporates a host of factors (like Google searches, Facebook likes, and pirated downloads) into its rubric. Another stab at the truth of what people like.

Our culture is increasingly a numbers game. The proliferation of social media means that those who participate have numbers attached to their name, which the public uses to orient itself. These numbers can mean the difference between getting work or not, appearing on television or not, being taken seriously or not. The entitlement and debased behavior of influencers is enough to illustrate why this is not a good thing. Humankind has a hierarchy problem, and the equality that many of us spent so much time this year considering and fighting for is at odds with our cultural predilection for ranking any- and everything, including ourselves. Our apparently lessening grip on what is truly popular has yielded a fuzzier understanding of the hit, one that surely is informed by whatever our feed says. (How many mentions do you think it takes to convince your brain that a TV show is “something people love?” I’m guessing maybe 20?) Our conception of relevance is vulnerable and increasingly individualized—we’re watching things alone together, sure, but we’re also watching them alone.

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