For over 20 years, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 16-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with collab “One Sweet Day” stood like Roger Maris’ 61-home-run season, as the ultimate in unbreakable benchmark numbers on the Billboard charts.
That 16-week stay, across the end of 1995 and beginning of ’96, was the culmination of a new era in Hot 100 history, when the introduction of more accurate Nielsen SoundScan tracking in 1991 had led to the revelation that hit songs — huge crossover ballads in particular — essentially stay massively popular for longer than earlier believed. While previously, no song of the Hot 100 era had reigned for more than 10 weeks, Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” set a new all-time mark in 1992 with its 13-week rule, a run subsequently bettered over 1992-93 by Whitney Houston’s 14-week “I Will Always Love You” stay, a number tied the following year by the Boyz’ “I’ll Make Love to You.”
After Boyz II Men’s titanic team-up with Carey (herself already responsible for nine Hot 100 No. 1s of her own) owned the chart for 16 weeks, as it was practically pre-destined to do, it might’ve looked like the record was just going to keep getting bested every year or two. But though other songs approached it in the years to follow — Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (Remix) reigned for 14 weeks in ’96, as did Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” / “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” double A-side in 1997 — none were able to reach it, or even to get to the 15-week warning track. That pattern continued for the next two decades: Though three new songs all climbed to a second-place tie with their respective 14-week runs, no song got any closer to Mariah and the Boyz’ 16-week gold standard.
Yet, much like Maris’ single-season home run record — which stood largely unthreatened for 37 years, only to be broken twice in the same season in 1998 — the 16-week “One Sweet Day” mark has now been matched twice in a span of under two years. In the spring and summer of 2017, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” remix with Justin Bieber lasted 16 weeks atop the Hot 100, a run matched this week (chart dated July 27) by Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (also rocket-boosted by a remix, this one featuring Billy Ray Cyrus). Is this the new normal for the Hot 100? What accounts for the steroid era-like effect on the stats in this period of the chart’s history?
There’s a handful of reasons for the difference in eras, the biggest of which is the largest complicating factor in nearly all chart discussions of the past half-decade: streaming. The addition of streaming to Hot 100 calculations has largely taken control in determining the size and longevity of hits out of the hands of radio programmers and into the hands of the fans. And while song sales — first in the form of vinyl and CD singles back in the 20th century, then in the form of mp3 downloads in the new millennium — also gave the power to the people, song sales rarely maintained for as long as radio play, since none but the most diehard of fans will ever buy a song more than once. But stream counts can stay enormous as long as listeners are still engaged with a song, and for all 16 weeks of their respective runs at No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Despacito” and “Old Town Road” were also No. 1 on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs tally.
And now, artists have more avenues to keep fans engaged with a hit song than ever before: Music videos and lyric videos, social media memes and challenges, and of course, remixes. It’s no coincidence that the two songs to tie the “One Sweet Day” record have both prominently involved remixes: Not only do remixes jump-start a new level of excitement for (and consumption of) a song when they’re done right, but they also just allow for multiple versions of a song to feed into the same Hot 100 listing, giving the overall entry a natural advantage over songs with just one prominent version to their credit. (Even when the remix of “Despacito” took over as the most popular version of the song, the original still regularly pulled in between 400k-500k U.S. streams a day on Spotify during its No.1 run; both versions currently have over a billion plays on the worldwide platform.)
What’s more, musical distribution and technology has sped up to the point of remixes being both recordable and releasable in a matter of days, if not hours — no need to wait for the next scheduled CD single, just throw ’em together and put ’em out there. Lil Nas X has proven particularly masterful at this, spacing out the release of new remixes of “Old Town Road” — courtesy of star artists like Diplo, Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, and now RM of BTS — to help lend the song new momentum every few weeks, seemingly whenever the song was starting to lag. The new bumps in streaming counts, sales and overall exposure ensured that the song was never given the chance to naturally recede from the top of the charts, or from public attention in general.
Similarly, the introduction of social media also plays an invaluable role in allowing hit songs to stay part of the cultural conversation. Of course, artists and labels themselves can do more to continually promote their own hits to their millions of followers — sometimes as explicitly as Lil Nas X openly campaigning this week for fans to stream his song to help break the Hot 100 record, while winkingly detailing his own machinations in the effort. But also, fan groups are more organized and devoted to the cause than ever: Just search the hashtag “OldTownRoad17” to see the widespread Twitter support for the movement to get the young rapper to unprecedented history on the Hot 100. Twenty years ago, a pop fan might express allegiance to an artist or song by requesting them on the radio (or on TRL), but now, they can directly impact the song’s chart performance just by streaming them repeatedly — and rally and instruct all of their fellow fans to do the same.
So now that we’re in this territory of longer reigns atop the Hot 100, does that mean that even if Lil Nas X breaks the 16-week record next week, it might only last another year or two before being matched or bettered itself? Maybe, but not definitely: Again, the mid-’90s made it seem like the record was forever vulnerable, before “One Sweet Day” ultimately proved unmovable for another 21 years. You never know how or when the industry will shift next, and how the charts will adjust to reflect that. Once “Old Town Road” is done stretching its No. 1 run into brand new territory, there’s no telling when the next visitors will show up.