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Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' Is No. 1, But Is It A Real Hit?

Katy Perry (left) and Miley Cyrus at the Pre-Grammy Gala in February.
Lester Cohen
Katy Perry (left) and Miley Cyrus at the Pre-Grammy Gala in February.

The most talked-about pop star of the moment, Miley Cyrus, has the No. 1 song on Billboard's authoritative Hot 100 chart. Except that hit isn't "We Can't Stop," the song that got tongues wagging — including hers — a month ago at the MTV Video Music Awards. If I asked you to describe this chart-topper, I'll bet you'd have an easier time recounting the visuals than singing the chorus.

Cyrus' new smash is "Wrecking Ball." It's the first Hot 100 No. 1 of her career; "We Can't Stop" peaked at No. 2 back in August. Last week "Wrecking Ball" vaulted to the top, from No. 22 to No. 1 in a single week, largely because of its video. Since February, Billboard has included in the Hot 100 formula all streams of music videos on YouTube and Vevo, the music video site that also serves clips to YouTube. This proved pivotal to "Wrecking Ball," whose nudity-and-sledgehammers clip has racked up record viewings.

Vevo reported that on Sept. 9, its first day online, the "Ball" video drew 19.3 million views worldwide — beating the previous one-day record-holder, a One Direction clip, by a massive 7 million views. Billboard counts only U.S. views for the Hot 100, but even with that limitation, the weekly numbers for "Wrecking Ball" were staggering: 36.5 million views in the U.S. during its first week, the magazine says. That video-viewing total was more than enough to send "Wrecking Ball" to the top of the Hot 100 in mid-September, over two-week champ "Roar," by Katy Perry. "Wrecking Ball" is still there one week later.

"Wrecking Ball" is thus the most obvious beneficiary of Billboard's new YouTube rule since "Harlem Shake," the viral hit by trap-music producer Baauer that topped the Hot 100 in February — a song whose popularity was so ephemeral it led The New York Times Magazine to question whether the song was actually popular at all.

It's worth asking the same question about Cyrus' new chart-topper. If it reached the penthouse largely due to a racy video, can we actually call it the biggest song in the USA? Doesn't her move to the top of the chart reflect more about our collective prurience than our love of the song? And isn't Cyrus using a chart technicality to give herself a No. 1 hit?

The short answer to that last question — actually, all these questions — is yes. But on a chart with a history of one-off, faddish but surprisingly enduring No. 1 hits, "Wrecking Ball" is part of a long tradition.

As I explained last month, the Hot 100 formula essentially comprises three major ingredients: radio airplay, song sales and song streams. By design, Billboard counts streams less than sales or airplay; watching a video once on YouTube or playing it on Spotify is not the equivalent of paying $1.29 for that same song on iTunes — and Billboard's formula reflects that. In a normal week, a top-selling song generally sells somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 copies, while a smash music video might be watched a few million times. However, if tens of millionsof people watch one video in the same week — even if Billboardcounts each view less than sales or radio airplay — the YouTube-fueled song is going to dominate the Hot 100 formula, no matter what. (Billboard's own Gary Trust shows how the data breaks down on the Hot 100, using "Wrecking Ball" as an example, in this helpful "Ask Billboard" post.)

The ability of one megapopular video to command the Hot 100 is a concern to longtime chart-watchers. When Billboard made its Hot 100 formula change to include YouTube in February, I — in a joint commentary with Jody Rosen, then Slate's music critic — expressed cautious optimism; "YouTube is how pop hits are made in the 2010s," I said. But Rosen and I also fretted about whether the rule change would usher in a string of dance crazes and short-lived memes atop the Hot 100.

Our worry was fueled by Billboard's instant chart coronation of "Harlem Shake," a song that wasn't much of a song. Its instant debut atop the Hot 100 was powered by the most fevered of quick-burst video memes (you remember: a person hip-thrusts to the song alone for 15 seconds, surrounded by his non-dancing, apparently unaware buddies; smash-cut to all participants joining in, flailing about in a deracinated approximation of the Harlem Shake dance).

I'm happy to report, more than half a year later, that YouTube has not single-handedly rewired the chart to make Keyboard Cat No. 1 every week. We've seen video-fueled debuts and lurches up the chart, but no major hits that can single-handedly be credited to a clip.

The aforementioned One Direction hit, "Best Song Ever," made a splashy No. 2 debut thanks in part to its massive video play, but opening-week sales to rabid Directioners were also a major factor. AWOLNATION's "Sail," the exceptionally slow-moving Top 40 hit, has been helped by a number of video memes, many not by the band itself; but its recent break into the Top 20 has been fueled mostly by a gradual rise in airplay and sales. Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis debuted within the Top 30 a few weeks ago with their EDM parody "The Fox," an absurdist video that actually got them signed to a U.S. label — but the song is now also a Top 20 seller on iTunes. Even "Blurred Lines" — Robin Thicke's summer megasmash, which broke late last spring thanks to a video with even more unclad flesh and ultimately spent a dozen weeks at No. 1 — owes most of its success to record radio play and huge digital sales. People didn't just stream Thicke's panting video; nearly 6 million of them have purchased the song.

Basically, since February, no song, up to and including "Wrecking Ball," has gotten to the top of the charts exactly the way "Harlem Shake" did. The week Baauer's song hit the top, it did so with a brain-melting 103 million U.S. streams. But the overwhelming majority of those were not views of Baauer's official video; Billboard's formula counts any publicly available YouTube clip that uses at least half a minute of a song, and "Shake" became a hit thanks largely to numerous unofficial, homemade videos. Moreover, the song's Hot 100 run was powered almost exclusively by video — sales for Baauer's hit were modest, and its radio airplay nearly nonexistent.

Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" is selling, and it's getting played on the radio plenty. And in a sense, the numbers for her video are more jaw-dropping than Baauer's: Those 36.5 million views she racked up were almost entirely for the official video itself. (There are now fan homage videos and parodies, but few were around the week the video debuted.)

It's hard to say, however, whether Miley's single-video dominance enhances or diminishes "Wrecking Ball" as a cultural object. Whatever you think about the "Harlem Shake" meme, Baauer's song was widely shared and well known — enough that thousands wanted to videotape themselves jerking around to it. The "Ball" video's megapopularity is less about participation and more about the gaze.

It's debatable whether "Wrecking Ball," the song, is as omnipresent as a No. 1 hit should be. If you pay even a bit of attention to pop music, you've probably heard the song it replaced at No. 1, Perry's "Roar."

Like "Wrecking Ball," Perry's latest has a smash music video that has racked up millions in views, albeit not as rapidly as Miley's clip. More significantly, "Roar" is currently the most-played song on U.S. radio — cajoled by Perry's label, certainly, but a pop song doesn't get played 15,000 times a week nationwide if radio programmers haven't concluded their listeners like it. To date, Miley's new song has had a fairly modest radio presence: It currently ranks 31st on the Radio Songs chart, Billboard's list of the songs with the largest radio audience in America. The audience for "Wrecking Ball" is 38 million, as measured by Billboard. But Perry's, at 159 million, is roughly four times as large.

As for the third and most influential component of the Hot 100, digital sales, both "Roar" and "Wrecking Ball" have a legitimate claim to hit status. Each has been a huge seller at iTunes and other buck-a-song music e-tailers — this past week, "Roar" and "Wrecking Ball" shifted about 300,000 downloads apiece — so on that score, the two songs are a wash. Still, it's Cyrus who reins at No. 1 over Perry — albeit by a smaller margin this week, now that the Vevo view count on "Wrecking Ball" has settled from ludicrous down to merely outrageous.

Based on the data and its all-around inescapability, "Roar" feels like a culture-dominating No. 1 hit, while "Wrecking Ball" feels a bit like a trollgaze meme. But these are our impressions of "Wrecking Ball" now, less than a month into its chart life; how will we feel in a month or two, when it ceases being just a provocative video and starts to leave its mark as, y'know, a song?

At moments like this, it's useful to look to chart history for guidance. The fact is, any complaint you can raise about "Wrecking Ball" being a hit has some precedent on the Hot 100.

Complaint 1: A Hot 100 No. 1 Hit Should Be About The Song, Not The Video

This year's YouTube/Vevo rule change is, believe it or not, the first time video play of any kind has factored into the Hot 100. In the heyday of MTV, video play was not part of the big chart's formula. So, prior to this year, an acclaimed or viral video would only affect the chart indirectly, by inspiring fans to buy the song or radio programmers to play it. Even so, anyone who's been alive for the MTV era on the charts, which dates back to 1981, knows that music videos tend to make hits bigger.

Take an obvious example, Peter Gabriel — his three 1986 singles offer a perfect A-B-C comparison: "Sledgehammer" is certainly a great and catchy pop tune. But the reason it's his only U.S. No. 1 hit (one week, '86) has a lot to do with its classic, award-winning video. If you turn on the radio right now, the Gabriel song you're most likely to hear isn't "Sledgehammer" but rather its followup, "In Your Eyes," which even before its use in the 1989 movie Say Anything... was beloved by fans. However, thanks to Gabriel choosing not to make a video for the song, "In Your Eyes" peaked at a meager No. 26 on the Hot 100. Then, his next single, "Big Time," had another eye-popping video. How'd it do on the Hot 100? A Top 10 hit — but tell me the last time you heard "Big Time" on the radio instead of "In Your Eyes."

So, sure, Cyrus's song is a higher-charting hit thanks to its video. That doesn't mean it wouldn't have been a hit at all.

Complaint 2: A Sexy Video, In Particular, Is A Cheap, Unfair Way To Top The Charts

Remember "I Want Your Sex"? The first George Michael solo single after the breakup of Wham!, 1987's "Sex" was accompanied by a racy (and, in retrospect, heteronormative) video that Michael had to edit multiple times to get on MTV. On the Hot 100, "Sex" ultimately peaked at No. 2 in the summer of '87, and its chart pattern in those pre-digital days was broadly similar to Cyrus' hit now: radio was cautious about playing the song, but the controversy fueled singles sales by the hundreds of thousands. If not for the hot-and-bothered public, "Sex" would have peaked lower on the chart.

An even better example came less than four years later from Madonna. Her "Justify My Love" video — with tawdry visuals that, even now, are more transgressive than those of "Wrecking Ball" — was banned outright by MTV. Like every controversy in Madonna's career, this ban was good for business: Madge made the clip available to the public as a "video single" that sold millions of VHS tapes. Over on the Hot 100, the video clearly helped "Justify." The song was an odd fit for radio, and nowhere near as catchy as Madonna No. 2–peaking hits like "Express Yourself" and "Cherish"; but "Justify" wound up hitting No. 1 in early 1991.

What the Michael and Madonna songs have in common with Cyrus' is, in each case, a titillated public got ahead of radio, and the song's legacy. None of these three hits is the respective artist's best-selling or most acclaimed. (Michael's is probably the best of the three, but it's certainly not as beloved as "Faith," "Father Figure" or "One More Try.") In any case, the upside for Cyrus is both of the older hits are well remembered; eventually, "Wrecking Ball" might be, too. And even if it isn't, ultimately, she'll be in good company.

Complaint 3: It's Lame That The Artist's Least Memorable Song Went To No. 1 — She'll Always Be Remembered For Her Earlier Ones

Pop quiz: What's Def Leppard's biggest Hot 100 hit? Nope, not "Pour Some Sugar on Me," though you'd be right to guess it — that's the one you're most likely to sing at karaoke. "Sugar" peaked at No. 2, but its immediate followup, the late-1988 power ballad "Love Bites," is the band's only chart-topper. This is a common chart pattern, a kind of AC/DC Rule for singles: followups often do better than their predecessors, trading on the glory of a better-remembered hit.

Sometimes, as with Cyrus' current smash, the success of the followup record even has something to do with a Billboard chart technicality. Say the name Sisqó and — before you remember what the freaky platinum-tressed R&B singer looked like — you probably recall his 2000 crossover megasmash "Thong Song," which was also fueled by a skin-baring video. Despite massive airplay, "Thong Song" stalled at No. 3 on the Hot 100, held back from the top slot by the label's decision not to release it as a single (a successful ploy to spur truckloads of Sisqó album sales). That lack of single sales points limited the song's Hot 100 potential. For the followup, however, the slow jam "Incomplete," Sisqó's label chose to issue a single. Fueled by sales and enjoying the glow of "Thong's" success, the ballad shot to No. 1 — but even Sisqó himself probably knew he'd be remembered as Mr. "Thong Song," not for "Incomplete."

Years from now, Miley Cyrus is going to be remembered for "Party in the U.S.A." and especially for "We Can't Stop," ill-conceived VMAs performance and all. "Wrecking Ball" may well be a footnote, a curio in her career. But we can't know that now — we've been wrong about songs' legacies before.

Complaint 4: This Song Is A Flash In The Pan, A Novelty, A Fad — We Won't Remember It In A Year

"The Chipmunk Song." "Kung Fu Fighting." "Rock Me Amadeus." "Macarena." "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." No. 1 hits, all — just saying their names out loud provokes groans. But you can't claim they're not well-remembered.

Legacy is a funny thing in popular music. In 1992, the most acclaimed hip-hop song of the year was Arrested Development's "Tennessee" — it reached the Hot 100's Top Five and topped the R&B chart; both single and album topped the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll; and AD took home the Best New Artist Grammy. It seemed like rare agreement among the public, the industry and critics, that the year in pop would be defined years hence by Speech's cathartic, conscious lyrics and Dionne Farris' soaring high note. But 21 years later, there's no question what hip-hop song defines 1992: Sir Mix-a-Lot's unkillable, hilarious "Baby Got Back." It spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 that summer — and was viewed, even then, as a flash in the pan. But no pop song from 1992 has cast a longer shadow.

What, exactly, does Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" have in common with "Baby Got Back"? For now, only a not-safe-for-work, body-parts-fixated video — and No. 1 chart ink from Billboard. Whether "Wrecking Ball" is remembered as fondly as Sir Mix's moment of glory will take at least a few months to sort out. For now, like it or not, Miley's YouTube flesh fantasia must be regarded as an actual, honest-to-goodness hit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Molanphy