America…Not So ‘Great’ On The US Pop Charts?

For the past year or so, ever since Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the highest office in the land, his slogan “Make America Great Again” has been the mantra for his followers who claim they are fed up with the direction in which they believe the country is headed.  It’s the rallying point around which Trump hopes voters will be swayed in his favor come November 8.

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Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump

In the interest of giving equal time here, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has countered that message by daring anyone to claim that America isn’t still great.  At her nomination acceptance speech on July 28, she boasted that “America is great because America is good.”  The long line of notable speakers at the Democratic National Convention this past week echoed similar themes in their messages supporting Clinton.

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Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton

Well, if the Billboard Hot 100 charts are any indication – at least as far as the state of American-made music is concerned – Trump and his fans may be on to something.

For 52 out of the past 55 weeks, the number one song on the list that measures the most popular music in this country – the Hot 100 – has been by non-American artists.  The three exceptions were during the month of May this year: New York rapper Desiigner held the #1 spot for two weeks with his début smash “Panda” and two weeks later, Tennesseean Justin Timberlake (who hails from Memphis) got one week in with his most recent hit, “Can’t Stop The Feeling!.”

American chart-toppers Justin Timberlake (top) and Desiigner.
Chart-toppers Justin Timberlake (top) and Desiigner have been the sole American flag wavers atop the Hot 100 the past 13 months.

Other than those few weeks in May, every other #1 song since the chart week ending July 18, 2015, has been by someone who was born outside of the U.S.

The current #1 on the list is by an Australian and a Jamaican: Sia featuring Sean Paul, whose “Cheap Thrills” reached the top on the chart dated August 6 after a 23-week climb by dethroning Canadian rapper Drake, whose “One Dance” completed a ten-week run and has become his biggest hit to date.

And Drake contributed his rap-singing services to another long-running #1 hit earlier this year when Barbados-born superstar Rihanna topped the chart for nine weeks with her patois-laced smash, “Work.”  The song featured Drake and it gave the duo their second #1 collaboration (“What’s My Name,” 2010).

Canadian rapper Drake is having his best year ever on the American charts.
Canadian rapper Drake is having his best year ever on the American charts.

Drake’s #1 chart presence this year put a punctuation mark on what has been a banner year for Canadians on the Hot 100.  Aside from the Toronto-born rapper, the Canucks have been represented atop the American charts by Justin Bieber (born in London, Ontario) and The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye in Toronto).

Bieber pulled the proverbial hat-trick with three record-tying (or breaking) smashes that each reached #1 and spent five months apiece in the top ten (mostly overlapping): “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” and “Love Yourself.”  The last of those three now holds the chart record for spending the most consecutive weeks (22) in the top ten after debuting there – a record that had been previously tied at 21 by the first two songs.

And interspersed with Bieber’s number-one runs were the chart-topping performances by last year’s breakthrough, Grammy-winning wonder, The Weeknd, who combined for nine weeks at the top with “Can’t Feel My Face” (3 weeks in August/September) and “The Hills” (six in October/November).

The first of those two songs did battle with another Jamaican artist, newcomer OMI who started this whole trend with his song, “Cheerleader.”  That tune topped the charts beginning on July 19, 2015, by displacing American rapper Wiz Khalifa, whose #1 song “See You Again” (with fellow American Charlie Puth) spent 12 weeks at the top.  Interestingly, the two Americans were at #1 in June 2015 when Trump declared his Presidential intentions and remained there for a total of 12 weeks before yielding to OMI.

In addition to all the above, two British acts also got a piece of the non-American pie on the Hot 100: Adele, from London, whose “Hello” debuted at #1 in November and spent ten weeks there.  And former OneDirection member Zayn (born Zain Malik in Bradford, England), who topped the chart for one week in May with “Pillowtalk.”

So, to recap, that’s eleven of the last 13 #1 singles (representing 52 of the past 55 weeks) that have been by foreign artists.

These eight foreign-born artists account for eleven of the last thirteen #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100.
These nine foreign-born artists account for eleven of the last thirteen #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100.

Aside from the sheer magnitude of their recent dominance, there’s nothing unique about foreign-born artists topping U.S. music charts.  It’s been happening with regularity for over half a century, particularly since the first British Music Invasion of 1964 and even before.  But rarely has there been an occasion like this where so few Americans have been able to crown the Hot 100.

Contrast this with the mid-2000s, particularly the years 2004 and 2005 when EVERY #1 song was by an American artist.

So why is there a dearth of U.S.-born citizens topping the Billboard pop charts these days and what does it all mean?

If anyone knew the answer, they’d be inclined to bottle it up and send it to the producers of the next singles by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga or Katy Perry (whose latest single – the Olympics-inspired anthem “Rise” – entered the chart at #11 this week).

Though no one can really say with any certainty why this has happened, there’s certainly room for speculation.

Could American artists be suffering from a lack of imagination or creativity?  I’m sure fans of some of America’s biggest stars would take issue with the mere suggestion of such a thing.  Beyoncé’s Beyhive, for example, are calling her latest album, Lemonade, and its singles her most daring yet (they claim that America simply isn’t ready for its messages).

A rising American pop starlet, Meghan Trainor, who topped the chart with her début hit in 2014, has come close a few times since.  She’s a Grammy-winning singer from Nantucket, Massachusetts who has broken some of music’s norms with her unique blend of throwback pop, and is likely on the verge of achieving that next #1 soon.  She just hasn’t yet been able to duplicate that big “Bass” hit from two years ago.

Then there’s superstar Katy Perry, whose “Rise” at #11 has to be somewhat of a disappointment for the “California Gurl” who’s used to seeing similar anthems rise to or even début at #1.  Three years ago, “Roar” debuted at the top under a less glaring spotlight – sans the Olympic tie-in.  And the similarly uplifting “Firework” is one of Perry’s biggest #1 singles.

However, “Rise,” wasn’t even able to penetrate the top ten its first week out and is a bit underwhelming as far as songs go.  This song and its sub-par chart performance (so far) could be a case of Perry going to the triumphant power-anthem well one too many times – although it’s certainly not too late as the tune could certainly see a surge to #1 once the Olympics start and especially after her performance of it at the Dem National Convention on Thursday.

Or just maybe the reason for the American #1 shortage is bad or differently targeted marketing.

Some American artists who were this country’s biggest beneficiaries of #1 hits in the 2000s have made missteps in more recent years.  The best still-relevant example I can think of is Kanye West.  The highest that any of the songs from his latest album, The Life of Pablo, has reached is #34.  The album’s limited availability for streaming and purchasing had something to do with that, although one could argue that West’s music may not be as accessible to the mainstream as it was five or ten years ago.

Limited availability for song streaming could also be blamed for poor chart showings of singles by Beyoncé and other artists who are increasingly more focused on album sales and downloads than in year’s past.

Or it could just be a matter of bad timing.

I’ve always been a believer that sometimes the difference between a #1 and a #2 single is bad timing for the runner-up.  Certainly other Americans (besides Desiigner and Timberlake) have come close to reaching the top, but have just fallen short while having to settle for that silver medal.

In the most recent case, the alternative rock duo Twenty One Pilots gave Americans a pretty good shot to end what was then a 30-week non-American #1 streak when “Stressed Out” reached #2 this February.  That song had the misfortune of having to go up against the juggernaut that was Justin Bieber, a Herculean task the band from Columbus, OH could never accomplish.

Another American collaboration, the Chainsmokers featuring Daya, came close when their tune “Don’t Let Me Down” peaked at #3 just last month.

That song, along with the latest hit by Twenty One Pilots – “Ride” – likely represent Americans’ best chances to reclaim Hot 100 chart supremacy.  They currently reside at numbers five and six, respectively, on the August 6 dated Hot 100 chart.

In order to accomplish that, though, they’d have to get past the recent and current number ones above them (“Cheap Thrills,” “One Dance” and “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”) as well as the superstar pairing of Scottish DJ Calvin Harris and his familiar Barbadian partner Rihanna.

Remember, they teamed up for Rihanna’s biggest chart single, the electro-house smash “We Found Love” in 2011.  They currently sit at #3 and climbing with the equally electro-house tune “This Is What You Came For.”

In a few weeks, that song could be the next #1, giving Harris his second and Rihanna her (gulp!) fifteenth #1 Hot 100 single!

Barbados-born Rihanna has had fourteen #1 hits in America and is aiming her 15th next week.
Barbados-born Rihanna has had fourteen #1 hits in America and is aiming her 15th next week.

And it would continue what has been a foreign domination of the American charts unlike ever before.

But if that happens, don’t ever let anyone tell you that American music isn’t great.  It still is…it just isn’t looking too good right now, at least not on the Billboard Hot 100.

DJRob

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