100 & Single: How Digital Changed The Charts, From Gwen To GoonRock

Gwen Stefani, "Hollaback Girl"

"Hollaback" was first issued in 2004, buried on Stefani's solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The album was shaping up as a bit of a dud, after its first two singles petered out: leadoff track "What You Waiting For?" missed the Top 40 entirely, and the Fiddler on the Roof-sampling followup "Rich Girl" peaked at a just-OK No. 7. The album, a high-profile priority for Stefani's label Interscope, was barely platinum and had been knocking around outside the Top 10 for months, before March 2005, when "Hollaback" was tapped as the third single.

Coincidentally, less than two months before Stefani's single dropped, Billboard made a pivotal change to its formula for the Hot 100: It added digital sales to its chart formula. The time was ripe. By the beginning of 2005, the iTunes Store had been up and running just over a year and a half. The record industry—after suing Napster out of existence, failing with their own DRM-laden services, and launching their ill-starred lawsuit campaign against ordinary users—was finally finding a path via iTunes to legit (if modest) profits on song downloads.

In the early months of the digital-powered Hot 100, no song benefited more from the new formula than Stefani's bananas anthem. "Hollaback" positively vaulted up the chart, debuting at No. 82 and reaching No. 1 a mere five weeks later. Its rapid chart moves were powered by singles sales rather than radio—a big shift from the patterns seen on the Hot 100 in prior years. In the early days of iTunes, a hit digital download would move perhaps 30,000 tracks a week; Stefani obliterated that mark, selling 58,500 buck-a-song downloads in late April. In early May, with Top 40 radio catching up, "Hollaback" took over the Hot 100, evicting 50 Cent's third career chart-topper, "Candy Shop"; Fitty hasn't been back to the penthouse since. "Hollaback" holds the distinction as being the first digital song in history to sell a million copies.

What made "Hollaback" the perfect bridge song was its blend of the two strains of dominant 21st-century pop: early-aughts hip-hop and late-aughts dance-pop. Produced by the Neptunes, which gave it a frisson of urban-radio cred, the song has one toe on a street corner and one in the club. With 20/20 hindsight, its army-of-girls singalong lyrics were a clarion call to fans of femme-pop: We're taking over, ladies!

After "Hollaback," the route to a Hot 100 No. 1 ran through iTunes, not urban radio. Hip-hop held sway for another year or two, but songs that would have had difficulty reaching the penthouse under the pre-digital, hip-hop-dominated Hot 100 began doing so regularly: Daniel Powter's girly, lite-pop trifle "Bad Day"; Shakira's polyglot powerhouse "Hips Don't Lie"; Nelly Furtado's shimmering "Say It Right"; Avril Lavigne's brattier-than-Gwen shoutalong "Girlfriend." Lady Gaga's entire run of pop dominance—beginning in 2009, and powered by blockbuster iTunes sales—is unthinkable without the digital revolution.

Six years after "Hollaback Girl," we are firmly ensconced in a girlypop era, powered by digital music. As noted in this space two weeks ago, in 2011 the Hot 100 has been onerwhelmingly commanded by female pop stars. And the few songs by men to occupy the penthouse this year haven't been big R&B/Hip-Hop crossover hits. (The one exception, Wiz Khalfia's Superbowl-powered chart-topper "Black and Yellow" in February, didn't even make the R&B chart's Top Five.)

The thing is, with the 2010s already 18 months old, we're about due for another half-decade trend shift. Billboard hasn't indicated when or if it will add Spotify streams to the data used to compile the Hot 100, which includes numbers from iTunes, AmazonMP3 and smaller streaming services. But if Spotify captures Americans' fancy as expected, I can't imagine they wouldn't.

The interesting question is what that would do to the chart. Pop fans' ability to stream even more music, even more cheaply, might give a renewed boost to hip-hop, where trends shift quickly and fans are more willing to sample new sounds for free.

Or perhaps Spotify will just track the same hits already on the charts. In its first 24 hours in the U.S., the top five songs on the service's Top Lists tab—"Party Rock Anthem," "Give Me Everything," Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night" and Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass"—match the Hot 100's Top Five exactly. You have to go well below the Spotify list's upper reaches to see much distinction, and it's minimal. Then again, it took the iTunes Store a couple of years after its 2003 debut to find its pop identity; we'll need months of Spotify observance to really judge where its listenership is headed.

For now, it's safe to place a marker on 2005 as the start of the Digital Era on the charts and leave it open-ended. Perhaps LMFAO's pal GoonRock is in a recording studio somewhere, recording his own brain-sticky anthem that no one will want to pay $1.29 for, but everyone will be psyched to stream over and over.

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