As NCAA March Madness bounces through its second and third rounds this weekend en route to crowning a new national champion in men’s basketball – and, by definition, the Number One college basketball team in the country, I thought: “how can I leverage America’s current fascination with the tournament and its brackets, and use that as a (shameless) plug for my next “djrobblog” article?” Then, I thought: “Hey, it’s right in front of me.” And it all starts at the top or, in the case of the NCAA tourney, the endpoint: Number One.
Number One has always been important to many people for many reasons. For starters, it symbolizes and begins order – something that right-brained individuals like myself thrive on. It denotes rank, often signifying the best, the most, the highest, the longest, the favorite or even – simply – the first. And despite being the smallest of integers or the “loneliest number,” it’s that goal that people strive for – often times in vain as the number can be as evasive as it is simple. In sports, such as the NCAA Tournament, it usually means first – as in first-place or champion. Or, depending on one’s perspective, it could also – ironically – suggest last, as in the last one standing when the tournament ends.
In music, the term Number One mostly takes on a singular meaning and it usually implies “top” – as in top of the charts, top-selling, top artist, etc. And as simple as we would like to think the concept of being Number One is, particularly in the music business, the mere mention of it usually brings about more debate, controversy, ambiguity and scrutiny than just about anything else in the entertainment industry.
For example, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is often regarded as the number-one-selling album of all-time. This claim is usually based on worldwide sales statistics. But, members of the rock group, the Eagles, and their fans may take issue with that. The Eagles’ compilation album, “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975),” is tied with “Thriller” for sales certifications by the RIAA (which audits US sales only), as they both are currently certified at 29 million units shipped. Of course, it’s like apples and oranges, but this topic has sparked debate among music circles.
Or take the Rolling Stones and Beatles – arguably the two greatest rock bands of all time. The Beatles are often cited as the best and most influential band in history, largely due to their music’s evolution and the huge number of hits they had in such a short period of time (just over six years). While the Stones are cited as the greatest rock band mostly because of their legendary concert touring history and their unprecedented longevity and resilience. One could make an argument for either one of those bands being Number One.
To further illustrate the dichotomy that is Number One, I’m going to examine a set of current Number One stories in music, describe their relevance and importance, while simultaneously poking holes in them to show that the concept of being Number One is often in the eye of the beholder, much like beauty. It’s never as absolute or clear as we would like it to be. And its fragility, like that of beauty, is such that one small blemish – or asterisk in this case – can pretty much f**k up the whole thing.
When Number One is Really Number Two
For example, take this past week’s Number One album, “The ‘Empire’ Soundtrack.” Like the TV show that spawned it (see picture caption above), its #1 status comes with an asterisk. The soundtrack topped the Billboard album chart, known as The Billboard 200, by selling 130,000 “album-equivalent units.” That’s a term that Billboard invented just this year when it decided to address the declining sales of CDs and paid full-album downloads by adding two other factors to its calculation of album sales: on-line music streaming and single track downloads. For example, every time 10 single tracks from an album are downloaded from iTunes, Billboard counts it as one album sold. So, in this case, every ten downloaded copies of Jussie Smollett’s “You’re So Beautiful” equaled one sold copy of “The ‘Empire’ Soundtrack” for Billboard’s chart purposes. A similar conversion factor is used for streaming of songs from sites like YouTube, Vevo, Spotify, and Pandora.
But here’s the asterisk: if you remove the single downloads and the streams from the equation, “Empire” only sold 110,000 copies. The album at Number Two on the Billboard 200 this week, Madonna’s “Rebel Heart,” sold 117,000 pure albums (CDs and full album downloads), enough that it would’ve been Number One had Billboard not changed the equation a few months ago.
So what does this all mean? It means Columbia Records and the creators of the “Empire” soundtrack will have yet another marketing tool to further push the “Empire” juggernaut, and they now have a place in chart history as having the first TV soundtrack to reach Number One since 2010. It’s also the first ever for a show that features a predominantly African-American cast. And you can bet that none of the parties involved in “Empire” will be placing any asterisks on either of those claims when they begin promoting the show’s second season.
“Uptown Funk” – One of the Biggest Number Ones Ever?
Here’s another Number One situation to ponder. On next week’s Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the #1 song is the same as it’s been for the previous ten weeks (or longer than the entire existence of djrobblog.com): “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. By spending eleven weeks (and counting) at the top, it ranks among only 19 songs that have spent that long (or longer) at Number One. That’s pretty significant if you’re a chart follower or if you’re any of the artists, labels or distributor involved in “Uptown Funk.” For a historical perspective, there’ve been 1,041 Number One songs in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, which dates back to August 1958. That means less than two percent have been as “successful” at #1 as “Uptown Funk.” Using the highly coveted Number One peak (and the time spent at that rank) as the metric, being able to lay claim to having one of the 19 biggest single records of all time is a feat any artist or label would be proud of.
But – and here’s the asterisk – take one look at that list of 19 songs, which I’ll provide here:
1. “One Sweet Day” – Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men (16 wks; 1996)
2. “I Gotta Feeling” – Black-Eyed Peas (14 wks; 2009)
3. “We Belong Together” – Mariah Carey (14 wks; ’05)
4. “Candle In The Wind”/ “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” – Elton John (14 wks; ’97)
5. “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” – Los Del Rio (14 wks; ’96)
6. “I’ll Make Love To You” – Boyz II Men (14 wks; ’94)
7. “I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston (14 wks; ’93)
8. “The Boy Is Mine” – Brandy & Monica (13 wks; ’98)
9. “End Of The Road” – Boyz II Men (13 wks; ’92)
10. “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke ft. T.I. & Pharrell (12 wks; ’13)
11. “Boom Boom Pow” – Black-Eyed Peas (12 wks; ’09)
12. “Yeah!” – Usher (12 wks; ’04)
13. “Lose Yourself” – Eminem (12 wks; ’03)
14. “Smooth” – Santana ft. Rob Thomas (12 wks; ’00)
15. “Uptown Funk” – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars (11 weeks and counting; ’15)
16. “Independent Women Pt. 2” – Destiny’s Child (11 wks; ’01)
17. “I’ll Be Missing You” – Puff Daddy ft. 112 & Faith Evans (11 wks; ’97)
18. “Unbreak My Heart” – Toni Braxton (11 wks; ’97)
19. “I Swear” – All 4 One (11 wks; ’94)
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to seeing this list of the “biggest hits of all time” is: ***************!
There are so many asterisks one could throw at that list, you’d think you were in a caveat avalanche. First of all, you might be able to make a logical case for these being the biggest hits of all time…that is, if time began in 1992 – the first year that any of these songs was released. That also happens to be the first full year that Billboard used actual sales and radio airplay data as measured by point-of-sale barcode scanning and radio monitoring technology to compile its charts (instead of lists of rankings provided by a panel of record stores and radio station programmers). While the current technology has certainly made the charts more accurate the past 24 years, it highlighted a bias that the older generations of hits could not benefit from. For the first 33 years of the Hot 100 singles chart, Billboard relied on those now-archaic man-made lists from store managers and radio programmers, which it used to compile the charts each week. The songs’ chart fates were thus in the hands of people who tended to move records up and down (and off) those lists with much more speed than the tunes’ actual popularity would’ve suggested.
Hit records were also on shorter marketing cycles back then. Labels would release and promote singles for only a few months – at most – and then move on to the next one, often halting the commercial availability of songs while they were still popular. Stores would, in turn, pull them off their lists provided to Billboard, and the downward chart movement would be exacerbated. For instance, back in the day you wouldn’t be able to find a copy of the “Billie Jean” single in record store racks a year after it was a hit. Record stores simply didn’t have room on their shelves for old hits. But today, a year after “Happy,” you could still download that Pharrell song from iTunes if you wanted to, as music download availability is usually both infinite and indefinite.
All of this means that the songs released before 1992 were at a huge disadvantage when compared to today’s hits, which get to enjoy longer chart lives and lengthier runs at the top. Who knows how many of the pre-1992 tunes would be on this list had the industry milked songs’ popularity as long as they do now, or if the technology available to music consumers and chart-compilers now had existed back then. So while “Uptown Funk” has enjoyed a near-record run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, its rank as one of the biggest Number One hits of all time comes with a great big asterisk.
Next week: Part 2 of my ongoing series on hip-hop’s evolution. I’ll be covering another Number One story – this one involving rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” which dropped Monday night (March 16) and is projected to become the next Number One album – and the fourth hip-hop album to top the chart in the past five weeks.