Imagine Dragons, Jason Mraz, and the Changing Face of the Billboard Hot 100
You wouldn’t think that a band as watered-down and turgid as Imagine Dragons would change the history of popular music in America. But they did, and now we all have to deal with it.
This week the Imagine Dragons single “Radioactive” logged its 77th week on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, surpassing Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” as the longest-charting single in the chart’s 55-year history. Spending 539 days and counting as one of the 100 most popular songs in America is incredible, but what’s even more fascinating is the complete list of the top 10 longest-charting entries on the Hot 100, per Billboard.com:
Weeks, Title, Artist, Peak, Pos., Year
77, “Radioactive,” Imagine Dragons, No. 3, 2013*
76, “Sail,” AWOLNATION, No. 17, 2013*
76, “I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz, No. 6, 2008
69, “How Do I Live,” LeAnn Rimes, No. 2, 1997
68, “Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett & GoonRock, No. 1, 2011
65, “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele, No. 1, 2011
65, “You Were Meant for Me”/”Foolish Games,” Jewel, No. 2, 1997
64, “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood, No. 8, 2007
62, “Ho Hey,” the Lumineers, No. 3, 2012
62, “You and Me,” Lifehouse, No. 5, 2005
And in Spotify form, for those who love the rush of the ever-spinning wheel of history ushering us into the golden age of technology without the hang-ups of equitable artist royalties:
These are not important songs. They aren’t particularly meaningful or even representative of a generational zeitgest. Only two of the ten even it made it to number one on the charts. But what these tremendously commercially-successful hits that appeal across multiple radio formats do tell us, however, is a great deal about the current state of American pop music. Here’s what I have gleaned from the list of longest-charting Billboard singles:
Welcome to the new age
One of the most striking characteristic of the top ten longest-charting pop singles in America is their age. The longest charting songs in the nation weren’t by mega-stars like the Beatles or Michael Jackson or other artists who hold estimable places in our collective memory and musical lineage. Rather, by the Hot 100’s metric, five of the ten most popular songs dropped between 2011 to 2013, with three more arriving in the last decade. The two oldest songs on the chart only date back to 1997, and at the rate that contemporary pop hits are lasting on the charts, Jewel’s days on this list are numbered.
While a variety of factors are at play in the longevity of these songs, I think the most influential is the changing way we are consuming music.1 It’s no surprise, for example, that the major peak in long-charting singles from 2005 to 2008 coincided with iTunes’ mass-popularization of the cheap digital single. By making it easier than ever to purchase a song, iTunes created a new avenue for the most popular songs to retain their relevance. Getting consumers to buy a song popularized on radio or TV has long been key to the record industry’s model–Apple just made the process more efficient, adding months if not years to the longevity of songs like “You and Me” or “I’m Yours” by providing the path of least resistance for millions of listeners to buy the singles.
And then there’s Spotify, launched in 2008 but widely popularized in 2011 as it became one of the most influential commercial streaming services in the world. By shifting the emphasis in the music business from downloads to listens, Spotify and other services like it threw a lifeline to popular songs that allowed them to survive even longer on the Hot 100.2 As songs like “Rolling in the Deep,” “Party Rock Anthem,” or “Sail” played ad nauseam on our party playlists and jock jamz, they racked up the millions of views necessary to stay afloat in the world of popular entertainment. Radio may still be the bedrock of the record industry, but as the longest-charting songs on the Hot 100 show, streaming services are changing the way songs rise to popularity and retain their position.
Trying to group these ten songs into their own discrete genres is an infuriating, if not impossible, task. Imagine Dragons is about as “rock n roll” as Paul Ryan is an “intellectual,” and besides, their fusion of rock instrumentation with dubstep wuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwhooosh is the secret ingredient to the song’s success. It crosses formats in such a way as to appeal to both alternative rock and EDM listeners while banal enough to serve in Chicago Fire promos or MLB player introductions.
The same holds true for every other song on the list. With the possible exceptions of “Sail” and “You and Me,” both of which fall within the boundaries of their respective genres,3 the longest charting songs on the Hot 100 seem to pick and choose the most appealing aspects of multiple genres and blend them together. “How Do I Live,” for example, sounds like a song I imagine Celine Dion would make if she had a southern accent, while “Party Rock Anthem” mars hip hop beats with EDM excess and the only thing truly folksy about “Ho Hey” is their suspenders and earnestness.
And you know what? It works.
These songs have percolated in our national consciousness as they played in the background in department stores, video games, sports events, car commercials, TV shows, etc. — all places where the song isn’t the focal point of whatever you’re doing, but rather lurks in the background and is reasonably catchy and easy enough to consume to garner airplay on Adult Contemporary radio, whatever the hell that means. If your song has a little bit of everything, and can get stuck in the mind of both a teenage daughter and her middle-aged dad, then it’s in business. Which is good for the artist, and even better for the artist’s label. Which brings us to…