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Who’s Number One?

We sure like our lists, don’t we? We love it when someone else tells us what we’re supposed to like, and in what order we’re supposed to like them. When whatever is No. 1 on some list is also our personal No. 1, we’re vindicated, and if it’s not, well, that just means we’re so much smarter than all the stupid people out there. Right?

Right! Lists are lampooned every night by David Letterman and were absolutely lacerated 10 years ago by Richard Thompson, whose millennium-ending “1000 Years of Popular Music” list included everything from dead-language rounds to Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again.” We need the lists. They represent order.

And lists have nowhere been more important than in the music business. I remember listening feverishly to AM radio on Saturday mornings to find out if the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five would be No. 1. It was important! Music charts have always been vital to bands’ marketing: Look at the advertising for any oldies show—usually it’s little more than a list of chart statistics next to a highly Photoshopped picture of the artist.

The Billboard Magazine chart has always been the big kahuna, the gold standard. Books containing nothing more than decades of Billboard charts are always among the best selling music books out there. Billboard’s tabulation methods have changed over time, and the numbers of charts have exploded, but these days Billboard weekly charts are based largely on sales and radio play. And the industry and fans alike watch Billboard chart movement like a hawk, like it’s the only thing that matters.

This week Cee-Lo Green demonstrated that it actually may not matter much at all. Last Thursday, he posted a new song, titled “Fuck You,” exclusively on YouTube. It’s a brilliant, bouncy, perfect, hysterical bunch of soul-pop ear candy, with a video that faithfully supplies lyrics, including the relentless refrain “Fuck you and fuck her, too.” As I write this (Wednesday morning), there have been 2.3 million hits on the official YouTube version, and that’s not counting the hundreds of reposts, mash-ups, and reply vids on every other video-posting platform on the Internet.

There’s a very good argument to be made that “Fuck You” is the number one song in the world right now, and it’s not even a blip on Billboard’s radar. Why not? Because there hasn’t been a single sale, and it sure as hell hasn’t been played on any Clear Channel stations.

We’re in a world where sales of a paltry 60,000 units can put an artist on top of a chart, while at the same time tracks are flying around the Internet, kids are devouring music through their earbuds 24/7, or “watching” songs on YouTube. Sales-and-radio-based charts have nothing to do with how music is actually being acquired and consumed.

Enter the smart folks at BigChampagne, who have for 10 years monitored public online activity and have made lots of money selling “illegal download” data to the major labels, who use the data for marketing, not enforcement purposes. At the New Music Seminar in NYC last month, BigChampagne unveiled “The Ultimate List,” a singles music list that it claims is based on billions of data points from all over both the Internet and the physical world.

For all the hoopla, the BigChampagne chart doesn’t look a whole lot different than the Billboard chart, at least not today. And Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” is nowhere to be seen. Are the billion data points, metrics, weighting systems, and human massaging of data capable of tracking reality in this day and age? The Ultimate Chart, like the Billboard charts, is compiled weekly. A week these days is a lot longer than a week was even a year ago. Who cares what the No. 1 hit was six days ago? Or six hours ago, for that matter? What’s No. 1 right now, dammit?! Isn’t that what we want to know?

I’m guessing that’s coming, as BigChampagne claims that the Ultimate Chart is only the beginning, and that more stuff is coming down the pike. Meanwhile, I wonder if BigChampagne’s noble effort is just so much tail chasing, or maybe just a big smoke-and-mirrors play to come up with, well, fodder for our insatiable need to be told what we like. The great thing, and the scary thing, about the Internet and its decentralization of our culture is that we’re left to find what we like for ourselves from the cacophonous, primordial, and endless flow of music shooting through the ether. If you’re lucky, every once in a while some song miraculously rises to the top and presents itself and you’re never quite the same.

Like, you know, “Fuck You.”

—Paul Rapp


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