Fred Bronson discusses the "rock era," chart methodologies, ranking songs, Missy Elliott, chart bullets, and Russian act t.A.T.u. in response to readers' letters.
WHEN WILL IT END?
Gary Reid hit on a point [in last week's "Chart Beat Chat"] that I have also noticed and maybe deserves some discussion. Does the rock era go on forever? Will it ever end?
It seems to me that we have moved on and we are now into something else, which I will call the rap era. You were correct to point out that many different kinds of music hit during the rock era, but we call it the rock era because rock'n'roll dominated popular music. Now rap dominates popular music. Yes, rock and soul and country and AC are still part of the mix. But, as was pointed out elsewhere in last week's "Chat," rap dominates the top-10 (I would say the entire Hot 100) and the two top-selling albums last year were rap albums.
Because we identified the rock era by its dominant form of popular music, maybe we should do the same for rap. After all, it has proven it is not a fad. It is still here after two decades, a decade of building and a decade of dominance. We also speak of the swing era and the big-band era and even the vocal-quartet era from the 1900s and 19-teens. Maybe we should admit that the situation has changed again, we are into a new era, and have been for several years.
As you have pointed out, we did not know immediately when the rock era began; we realized it only by looking back at the preceding few years. Same thing again. At some point in the late '80s and early-'90s, rap took over from rock'n'roll as the dominant genre in what we consider pop music. As with July 9, 1955, we probably should pin down some date when we made the switch. A specific date would be impossible to determine on the basis of any one song hitting No. 1. So I am going to propose we use Nov. 30, 1991. That was when Billboard made the switch (for the Hot 100) to BDS/SoundScan.
Then you and Joel Whitburn and everyone else who ranks the biggest hits of the rock era can put a cap on it and move on to the next era. And you won't have to mix different chart methodologies in the same book.
The vocal-quartet era lasted two decades. The big-band era lasted three-and-a-half decades, with the swing era overlapping by a decade-and-a-half. The rock era has now gone on for almost a half-century. Isn't that enough?
I don't really expect anything to change soon because of my E-mail. But maybe you and a few thousand of the other professionals in the industry could kick this idea around for a few months and see if you reach a consensus.
Forest Grove, Ore.
Dear Mr. Bronson,
I'm a 26 year old lecturer of contemporary music in South Africa. I have been following the Billboard charts, religiously, for 10 years and I really enjoy your column. This is my first letter to Billboard.
We have had the jazz era, [and] the beginning of the rock era in 1955. In about 1975-1981 we had the disco era (with prominent disco acts like the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, & KC and the Sunshine Band dominating the Hot 100 and many more acts dabbling in disco, such as Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart, and Diana Ross).
For the remainder of the '80s we had the emergence of the new wave movement with acts like Duran Duran, a-ha, Depeche Mode, and Culture Club dominating the charts and many other acts imitating the trend -- people like Prince, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper.
From about 1990-1999 we had what I think was the R&B era with the charts being dominated by R&B acts. They accounted for approximately 46% of all the No. 1 hits that appeared on the Hot 100 in that decade.
That brings me to our current era, which I really think probably began in 1997 with four of the 10 No. 1 hits of that year being owned by the Bad Boy family. The next few years saw the charts dominated by acts like Missy Elliot, Ja Rule, Nelly, P. Diddy, Eminem, Eve, Jay-Z, Lil' Kim, Mary J. Blige, and many more acts being influenced by hip-hop, people like Santana ("Maria Maria"), Whitney Houston ("My Love Is Your Love"), Jennifer Lopez (with her two No. 1 hits with Ja Rule), Mariah Carey (with her various hip-hop collaborations), 'N Sync ("Girfriend"), Christina Aguilera ("Dirrty"), and even Michael Jackson got in on the act with his last Hot 100 chart appearance, "Butterflies," which included a remix featuring Eve.
Five years after Bad Boy owned four of the 10 No. 1 hits, hip-hop acts owned all but one of the No. 1 hits of 2002 and made it difficult for any other act to even appear in the top-10 of the Hot 100. The Hot 100 in 2002 looked like a who's who of the top hip-hop acts.
My question is, do you think that maybe we are in the midst of the dawning of the hip-hop era, and what do you think of my classification of the previous eras, (do you think I'm accurate in my description of these eras)? Because I think people don't give enough credit to the artists that dominated the charts in the '80s and '90s.
Sheldon R Leal
Dear Larry and Sheldon,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the topic of whether the rock era has come to an end or not. The issue reminds me of a book written near the closing of the last century called "The End of History." The author suggested that the conflict between different ideologies was over, that capitalism and democracy had won, and that was that. The events of the last two years suggest that he was a bit premature in declaring the end of history, and I think it's also premature to suggest the rock era is over.
Yes, there have been periods of time during the rock era when certain types of music have prevailed, but imagine what would have happened in 1975 or 1976 if we had proclaimed the rock era over and the disco era begun. We would have been forced to retract that assumption a few years later. The same thing would have happened in 1964 if we had declared the beginning of the "Liverpool era." Or in 1983 of the new wave era. Because with the passage of time, we would have realized that disco, new wave, and yes, even rap, constitute smaller subsets of the rock era.
While my saying it's over or it's not will have no effect or whether it is or isn't, I suggest it's going to take a sea change in music before we can really declare closure to the rock era. Something so different will come along and will be so dominant that it will be obvious to all what has happened.
I should also point out that moving on to the next era would place an undue burden on "Chart Beat." When people who aren't as familiar with the charts as some of us are ask what my column is about, I explain that I discuss current chart events in the context of the entire rock era. It would be unwieldy to suddenly have to discuss Madonna's greatest hits from the 1980s separately from the 1990s or from the new millennium -- and needlessly silly, too.
One more point. We shouldn't forget that rock'n'roll music was born out of R&B. The fact that rap music is popular right now doesn't mean that we can call an end to the rock era, just because it's almost 50 years old, or because Billboard started using different technologies to compile the charts. The rock era is bigger than all of that. And I'm grateful for that!
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Like the reader's letter posted last week, I viewed the preliminary list of the top 40 songs of the rock era as weighted much too heavily on songs from the 1990s. We know that the main reason was the change in chart methodology early in that decade. My intent is not to discern the merits [or lack of] of songs from a particular era over another, but to provide a solution as to which is the best way to present this data that stays true to the intent of compiling a popularity list.
Those interested in such a list [like myself] based on "objective criteria" would like to see who wins under the same set of circumstances. Could you honestly compare the results of a marathon with those on foot against others on bicycles? Why not break up the book in several parts to reflect the change in methodology?
Just as the arbitrary start of the rock era was considered to be when Bill Haley and His Comets topped the chart with "Rock Around the Clock," popular music was changed forever. It wasn't long before artists who dominated prior to that date lost their appeal and ability to top the charts. Well, popular music changed, just the same, upon the introduction of actual airplay and sales data in charting the hits in late 1991. Artists like Paula Abdul, Michael Bolton, Amy Grant, and Roxette faced chart challenges in the '90s as the Ink Spots, Perry Como, and many other pre-rock artists did in the mid to late '50s.
With the advent of the methodology change, the list of artists whose careers continued with success pre- and post-SoundScan/Broadcast Data Systems is few. This reason should justify breaking the list into two distinct periods in music history when compiling these lists. Even better, why not rank those post-'91 on their actual cumulative points since the data is available.
Also, we know that pre-BDS, playlists were used in reporting to Billboard. It has been said that the charts moved faster then because of the adds/deletes done weekly. In all actuality, I find it hard to believe that sucha rapid turnover actually existed. How come it's much easier for me to recall a song spending "only" 12 weeks on the charts 15-20 years ago then it is for me to recall one that spent eight months on the charts barely three years ago when I am just as attentive to popular music as always? Just wondering.
P.S. I still plan on buying your book nonetheless to add to my collection.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book. When you see it, I think you'll see why it wouldn't make sense to break it up into different sections because of differing methodologies. The truth is, chart policies have changed constantly through the years. If I were to let methodology determine dividing lines, I'd have to chop the book into several different sections, not just two.
For one thing, I'd have to separate all of the pre-Hot 100 hits into their own, small section. It would have been handy had the Hot 100 been introduced at the beginning of the rock era, but the chart didn't appear until Aug. 4, 1958. "Billboard's Hottest Hot 100 Hits" tracks the charts from 1955 to 2002.
I also don't think a change in methodology is enough reason to declare a new era in music. An era is defined by the music, not by how one charts popularity. While I'm grateful there are so many people as interested in charts as I am, we have to remember there are many more people who make and listen to music who are not bothered by the charts at all. I think we'd have a difficult time explaining to them that we're calling an end to the rock era because the methods of compiling the Hot 100 changed.
By the way, "Hottest Hot 100 Hits" is divided into separate parts in many ways. I list the top songs year-by-year and decade-by-decade. There are also sections for artists, songwriters, producers, and labels. The top 5,000 list that has generated about 20 E-mails so far appears as a supplement in the back of the book.
WAS DAVID A MATH MAJOR?
I understand your ranking of the top 5000 songs of all time is just that. However, having seen a large number of letters concerning this ranking, I would like to put in my two cents for the next time.
I think the reason so many think the chart is lopsided with many more recent records nearer the top reflects the belief that what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun (from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, the same book that gave inspiration to "Turn, Turn, Turn" (3:1-8) and the group Bread (11:1)). To avoid this weariness, I propose next time the rankings be normalized, as the statisticians would say. Normalization would account for the competition aspect in local time without distorting the true (chart) impact over all time any record really has.
Many normalizations abound. One choice is as follows:
1) Compute every record's point total under the inverse point system, as before
2) Locate the given record's peak strength date
3) Divide the record's point total by the point total of the strongest record for that date; this step is the normalization step
4) Rank the normalized records from bottom to top
5) Break ties by either (a) the number of weeks at No. 1, then by number of weeks at No. 2, etc., or (b) unnormalized point totals, or (c) some other acceptable statistical method.
This computation would give priority to normalized strength but break ties by unnormalized strength and so should please both sides of the issue.
Garden Grove, Calif.
I knew I should have taken that statistics class in my junior year. But seriously -- while your suggestions sound fine, someone else will have to implement them, perhaps when they write their book about the charts of the rock era. The third edition of "Billboard's Hottest Hot 100 Hits" took four years to complete, and at least one year of that time was spent retabulating points. Add that to the original year-and-a-half spent computing the points in the first place, and I have spent all the time I'm ever going to spend at a calculator when it comes to "Hottest Hot." (OK, if there is a fourth edition, I'll be glad to add in the points of post-2002 songs).
More than that, I stand by my rankings. It paints an accurate picture of chart performance. To do anything else would introduce artificial criteria. I know it would be nicer to have "Hey Jude," "Where Did Our Love Go," and other songs from the 1960s rank higher, for example, but that wouldn't represent history as it happened.
As I mentioned above, I've received no less than 20 E-mails on this topic. I'm sure I'll continue to receive letters about the issue, but I suggest we wait until the book is actually in stores and people can read it for themselves before we continue this thread. That should be any moment now.
WE CAN 'WORK IT' OUT
This week Missy Elliott hits 10 consecutive weeks at No. 2 with "Work It." I cannot recall another No. 2 run this long since Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" in 1981-82. Is this a record or if not, what's the longest consecutive No. 2 run (without hitting No. 1) in Hot 100 history?
Secondly, I've been reading the comments about your chart history compilation. I fully understand and support your methodology for ranking the hits based on chart performance. There's really no other objective way of doing it. What must be taken into account to a certain extent are the changes that took place in the methodology for compiling the Hot 100 -- particularly the 1991 change from radio playlists/retail sales reports to Broadcast Data Systems (BDS)/SoundScan data. Immediately, the chart life of records was greatly prolonged simply because under the old system, radio stations would move songs down and off their "playlists" though they were still playing them heavily.
In the 1980s it was very unusual for a song to spend more than 20 weeks on the Hot 100 much less the 30 or 40 weeks that can happen today. As a result pre-BDS/SoundScan music is at a considerable disadvantage in an all-time compilation. It is quite possible that had the current methodology been in place in the '70s and '80s, your chart would look very different!
So we have to accept your compilation for what it is: an honest, objective representation of Hot 100 history based on chart rankings. There is no way to get past the influence of the incompatible Hot 100 methodologies in an accurate and objective way! So kudos to you and those who assisted you for all that hard work! Please keep it up.
You are correct. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott has tied the record for the longest-running No. 2 hit in the rock era. "Work It" is in its 10th consecutive week in second place, which matches the number of weeks that Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" spent in the runner-up spot.
Details appear in the "Chart Beat" column in the Jan. 18 print issue of Billboard (accessible online to magazine subscribers and premium Billboard.com members), including the fact that "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" by Whitney Houston spent 11 weeks at No. 2, but only after spending its first week on the Hot 100 at No. 1.
If "Work It" is No. 2 next week, Elliott will surpass Foreigner's record and have the longest-running No. 2 song of all time, all by herself.
Thanks for your comments on "Hottest Hot." This really is the last letter on the topic I'm going to run until the book is out and people can react to the entire book, not just one fragment of one chart. But this is a good time to point out one more fact -- there is something consistent about the Hot 100 over the years. Every week, one song comes out on top. Every week, one song is in second place. Every week, one song is No. 100. No matter what methodology is in place, the chart measures the 100 most popular songs in the country. That will be so in the future when the chart might only be based on downloads or some form of delivery to the consumer that we can't even imagine. And that's why, if I'm still able and willing, I'll still be compiling a list of the top 5,000 songs of the rock era.
I just checked out the new Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart dated Jan. 18. Every one of the top-20 songs has a gold number indicating improvement over the previous week. Is this possible?
Over the on the Hot 100 chart dated Jan. 18, Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light" fell to 26 from 23 yet also got a gold number because it was the greatest gainer in sales. Did the system again mistakenly give a gold number to a song that fell from the previous week?
Thanks for your answers,
Michael James Miller
What appears "gold" online is represented in Billboard magazine as "bullets" on charts, indicating improvement over the previous week. The criteria for bullets is different from chart-to-chart, and backward bullets are possible and are awarded from time-to-time. Sean Paul's "Gimme the Light" had the biggest percentage increase in sales over the previous week, and so was awarded a bullet. At the same time, airplay declined and this song was pushed down the chart.
This is an unusual time of the year, when radio stations remove holiday songs from their playlists and return to playing the hits that were popular before Christmas. That causes an increase in spins for all current titles, even those that might have been declining. On Hot Country Singles & Tracks, which is an airplay-only chart, any gain automatically receives a bullet. So it isn't just the entire top-20 that is bulleted this week -- it's the entire top-60, every position.
With t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said" at No. 78 with a bullet on this week's Hot 100, is this the most successful song from a Russian artist to hit the American chart? In fact, has any Russian act ever made the Hot 100 before? The only Russian act I can think of to chart internationally was PPK with a dance track called "Resurrection" in the U.K.
Still trying to find your latest book in Canada.
Like you, I'm not aware of any other Russian act having a hit in the U.S. before t.A.T.u. If anyone can think of a Hot 100 chart entry for a Russian artist before now, please let me know.
The third edition of "Billboard's Hottest Hot 100 Hits" has shipped from the warehouse, so it should be showing up in Canadian bookstores as well as American ones any day now.