100 & Single: fun., Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, And The Era Of The Snowball Smash

Nelly, "Hot In Herrre"

Since the Hot 100's founding, there have been 19 calendar years when at least three songs have each spent a half-dozen weeks or more on top. All 19 of those years were after 1980. Only as Billboard's data-gathering technology improved—particularly after the adoption of Soundscan in the '90s—have we learned just how slow America's pop-song metabolism is: When we like a song, we tend to hold onto it for a month or two. The pop charts are not the same as the movie box-office; in the U.S., a new movie debuts on top most weeks and is lucky to hold onto the top slot for more than three weeks. In music, chart-toppers don't turn over nearly as much.

But usually we alternate between dominant chart-toppers and short-lived chart-toppers; a seven-week No. 1 will be followed by a one- or two-weeker, and so forth. It's rare to see so many months-long dominators in a row. Out of those 19 slower-moving years atop the Hot 100, only two—2002 and 2012—have lined up three consecutive half-dozen-week toppers in a row. Let's examine both of those years to figure out what was, and is, going on.

In the late winter of 2002, Jennifer Lopez rose to No. 1 with "Ain't It Funny," her second straight chart-topper remixed to feature pop-rapper Ja Rule (after 2001's "I'm Real"). The Craig Mack-sampling remix of "Ain't" sat at No. 1 for six weeks, uninterrupted. J. Lo then handed off the penthouse key to Ashanti, 2002's R&B/hip-hop it girl, with her DeBarge-sampling smash "Foolish." That held the top slot for 10 weeks, again with no interruption. Finally, in late June, Nelly took over the top slot with his Chuck Brown-interpolating summer jam "Hot in Herre," which ruled for seven uninterrupted weeks.

These three songs exemplify everything that made 2002 the most dreadfully dull year on the pop charts. Only eight songs, total, topped the Hot 100 all year, the lowest rate of turnover in the chart's history. There were some good hits that year—Nelly's "Herre," the radio masterwork by then-dominant production team the Neptunes, has held up well. But the fact that more than half of the year's chart-toppers involved some combination of Nelly ("Herre," "Dilemma"), Ja Rule ("Always on Time," "Ain't It Funny") or Ashanti ("Always on Time," "Foolish") showed Top 40 radio was in a serious rut.

What all these songs had in common was that you couldn't buy any of them, individually, in a store. None was released as a single.

In effect, the charts of 2002 represented the last throes of the Great War Against the Single, a decade-long music-business epoch I've discussed frequently over the years. To sum up: For all of the 1990s, the major labels colluded en masse to kill off the single as a retail medium. Then in the late '90s, consumers fought back by discovering file-sharing and downloading their favorite songs. Finally, by the early 2000s, the industry fought back, successfully shutting down the original Napster in the courts in 2001 but failing to either provide a viable alternative or slow the cratering of music sales.

The charts of 2002, therefore, reflected the culmination of a trend away from a la carte sales and toward the radio hit (which might partially explain why Jeep-booming hip-hop did so well during this period). The labels, desperate to prop up album sales, had ceased releasing virtually any radio hits as retail singles. The iTunes Store, which would revive the concept of the easily purchasable song, wouldn't launch until 2003. And Billboard was left with a pop chart dominated entirely by radio, since the consumer—unable to buy her favorite songs—no longer had any measurable input into what made songs hits.

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