2013 was the first year since Billboard began its pop singles chart in 1958 in which no black artists hit the No. 1 position. It’s particularly notable since this situation is the exact opposite of the same chart a decade ago, when every No. 1 single in 2004 came from a black artist. It’s easy to look at this and interpret it as an alarming sign that mainstream music fans have turned against black artists, or that the charts are being whitewashed. But the reality of this is a lot more complicated and ambiguous.
The intent of the Billboard charts is more about reflecting a record’s success than its popularity and cultural impact, which can be sort of nebulous things. Billboard is a trade magazine, and the editors’ decision last year to factor digital sales and streaming audio and video into determining the Hot 100 was driven mainly by those things becoming key to the industry’s revenue streams as consumer behavior has changed in the recent past. It’s where the money is now, plain and simple. But since only 11 songs hit No. 1 in 2013, it isn’t enough of a sample size to indicate a trend just yet.
1. There’s not that much information to analyze just yet.
Eleven songs hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2013: Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and “When I Was Your Man,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake,” Pink and Nate Ruess’ “Just Give Me A Reason,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” Lorde’s “Royals,” and Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster.” It’s actually untrue to characterize this as an entirely white collection of songs – Bruno Mars is Latino and Filipino, and “Blurred Lines,” “The Monster,” and the two Macklemore songs prominently feature black vocalists. So there was a notable presence of black artists at the top of the chart, even if those artists were not technically headlining performers.
This set of 11 hits is not big enough of a sample size to determine an actual shift away from black artists having No. 1 hits. If this persisted for another few years, it’d be more troubling, but right now, it’s more of an aberration. For one thing, given Rihanna’s track record of reliably putting out No. 1 hits with each new record, it’s extremely likely that she would have hit the top of the chart had she released a new album at the end of the year. (2013 was the first year without a new Rihanna album since 2008.) It’s hard to imagine that Rihanna won’t have more No. 1 singles in the future, especially given that the final No. 1 of 2013 owes its success largely to her presence.
3. Black artists are putting out No. 1 albums.
The top of the singles chart isn’t necessarily the best way to get a sense of mainstream pop music. That chart leans heavily in favor of novelty and one-off hits, and many genres are focused on albums, not singles. Part of the reason black musicians haven’t had as much impact on the singles chart is because the biggest acts in black pop over the past year – Jay Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Drake, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Wale – have successfully pushed the majority of their fans toward embracing them as album artists making full-length artistic statements. All of those artists had No. 1 albums in 2013, as did country stars Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, The Civil Wars, and Lady Antebellum, none of whom came even close to scoring a Hot 100 No. 1 hit. The list of No. 1 albums in 2013 is very diverse – in addition to rap, R&B, and country, you get metal (Avenged Sevenfold, Queens of the Stone Age, Black Sabbath), pop-punk (Fall Out Boy, Paramore), indie rock (Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend), straight-up pop (Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, One Direction, Justin Bieber), Christian worship music (Gary Allan), and stuff that can loosely categorized as “stuff your mom probably likes” (Josh Groban, Michael Bublé).
5. The change in Billboard’s chart formula hasn’t been that drastic.
The impact of the new formula hasn’t been as drastic as you may think – Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake” rocketed from total obscurity to the top of the charts immediately after the change in the charts because it was part of a huge meme at the time, but it’s been a more subtle effect. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” are both fairly traditional major label pop hits, but were boosted significantly by hugely popular music videos. Macklemore and Lorde owe their mainstream success to going viral in the early phases of their success, but by the time “Thrift Shop” and “Royals” made it to the top of the charts, those songs had already transitioned from word-of-mouth virality to legit radio smashes. But otherwise, the No. 1 hits by Pink, Bruno Mars, and Katy Perry are not particularly notable in their path to success.
Billboard’s current methods of determining the Hot 100 are signficantly more democratic than the status quo the charts settled into from the mid-’90s on through most of the ’00s, which was mainly based on airplay. In this system, the actual audience had very little impact on the charts, as radio airplay was dominated by major labels who could afford to pay for the extremely expensive promotion campaigns necessary to get a song on the radio in the first place, much less to keep it on the air beyond a week or so. It was a pretty corrupt system, and it still basically exists though the whims of the internet can push outlier songs to the center if they become mega-viral. There is at least some sense now that the audience has a direct impact on the charts, rather than it being entirely about which labels have the most money to spend on pushing a song.
7. The backlash to bling is finally upon us.
It’s notable that Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and Lorde’s “Royals” both owe their success to early virality, and both are overt critiques of the past decade’s worth of hedonistic, materialistic hits. Right or wrong, these two songs represent a populist backlash against a hip-hop and R&B aesthetic that was, up until recently, the dominant mode of pop music, and embrace a sense of working class pride that’s been largely absent from the mainstream for a very long time. You can dismiss them both as reactionary, but their enormous success on a grass roots level is a clear sign that a lot of people have been feeling alienated by corporate pop music for some time now. This sort of backlash is nothing new. It’s no different from disco phasing out of the mainstream after the early ’80s, gangsta rap supplanting bubblegum hip-hop like MC Hammer and Will Smith, or rock fans turning against excessive and flamboyant hair metal in favor of grunge and alternative stars who could pass as high school English teachers in the early ’90s.
9. Extrapolating America’s take on race from a year of Billboard charts is folly.
Pop music doesn’t really have a center anymore, and as the way people consume music has diversified in a way that makes it more difficult to produce hits that have the same kind of impact that songs did when there was an unavoidable “monoculture.” There are more niches than ever, but at the same time, listeners are more omnivorous in their interests and a person’s love for any particular artist or genre doesn’t define their overall taste as much as it might have a few generations ago.