Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” was always the #1 song of all time, according to Billboard. It first hit #1 on the Hot 100 in September 1960, thanks to a teen-led Twist craze, then reached #1 again in early 1962 when twisting belatedly caught on with celebrities and well-heeled fashionable adults who typically never touched teenybopper dance records. “The Twist” was not just a hit song; it was a cultural sensation, spawning dozens of Twist-themed spinoffs from the Isley Brothers and later the Beatles’ “Twist And Shout” to 1988’s Twist remake by The Fat Boys.
Around Thanksgiving of 2021, however, Billboard quietly announced that Checker had ceded the Hot 100 G.O.A.T. to the Canadian R&B singer The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.”
Released late in 2019, “Blinding Lights” was Spotify’s most-streamed song of 2020 and is now the 2nd most streamed song of all time on the platform behind only Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You”. On U.S. radio, “Blinding Lights” was the 2nd most-played song in 2020 and was still the 4th most played song in 2021.
“Blinding Lights” is undoubtedly a catchy tune with widespread and enduring appeal, but how did it surpass a multigenerational cultural phenomenon to become the Greatest Of All Time?
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No shade intended, but The Weeknd’s accomplishment tells us more about music streaming’s impact on music consumption than it does the cultural relevance of “Blinding Lights.”
To understand how streaming data is changing our understanding of what constitutes a hit—and why it matters for how you use streaming data to pick the right new music—we first need to take a trip back to the Disco era.
How callout research slowed the hit music cycle
In its first two decades, Top 40 radio used local sales figures for 45 singles to determine airplay. Whenever people stopped buying a record, radio stopped playing it. Throughout the 1960s, the typical top 10 hit only remained in current rotation for about 12 weeks because that’s how long most 45s remained best-sellers.
(50 years later, at the height of the digital download era, the typical big hit on iTunes stayed among the Top 10 bestsellers for 12 weeks. The more things change…)
But in the early 1970s, people were buying albums, not 45s. That was a problem for hit- oriented Top 40: They knew which albums were selling, but how could they tell which track on the album was the real hit?
The answer was callout research.
By the mid-70s, callout was the hottest new tool in radio research. In addition to identifying hit album tracks, this new “passive research” helped radio understand the tastes of the 80% of their listeners who rarely or never bought music in comparison to the 20% of “active” music listeners who did.
Unexpectedly, callout also taught radio two vital lessons:
1) People still love hearing songs on the radio long after new listeners have stopped buying those songs on vinyl;
2) Some songs have far more staying power than others.
“Sales, of course, are a great initial indication of when to start playing a record, but no way to tell when to stop playing it,” programming consultant Jeff Salgo explained in the November 20th, 1977 issue of Billboard. “You may need to keep playing it long after sales have stopped or tapered off.” Salgo noted that while listeners were sick of “Undercover Angel” after 20 weeks, Chicago’s “If You Need Me Now” was still his #1 best-testing track after 13 months.
This difference in song sales and song appeal makes sense: Unless you broke it, you only needed to buy a record once, no matter how often you played it. However, we had no way to track how often people played those 45s after they bought them, or how long they kept playing them before forgetting them.
With the new knowledge of how long listeners continued to crave current hits, callout research slowed the cycle of when CHR moved big hits out of current rotation. Since the Billboard Hot 100 chart tracked sales and airplay, slower airplay had the impact of keeping big hits on the charts longer. In the 1960s, it was rare for a big hit to stay in the Top 10 for more than 16 weeks, By the 1980s, songs routinely stayed in the Top 10 for over 20 weeks.
Streaming shows vast differences in staying power
Fast forward to the late 2010s. Streaming data finally gave us data on music consumption behavior that aligns with the attitudes listeners express about new music in callout:
1) People still play songs on Spotify long after new listeners would have stopped buying those songs on iTunes;
2) Some songs have far more staying power than others.
“Blinding Lights” is a perfect example of a song that has extraordinary staying power, as revealed by its streaming history.
Let’s examine the weekly U.S. plays on Spotify for “Blinding Lights” alongside another bona-fide hit, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings”. During its biggest week, “7 Rings” had almost twice as many plays as “Blinding Lights” had during its peak week. But while Grande’s hit remained among Spotify’s Top 30 most-played songs for a respectable 22 weeks, The Weeknd’s ode to excessive illumination stayed in Spotify’s Top 30 for an unprecedented 72 weeks.
Streaming data does not just allow us to see differences in how long listeners remain interested in hearing songs at the end of their time as current hits. Streaming also shows us differences in which songs will become big hits.
This week’s biggest streaming hit isn’t always the real hit
Consider “Blinding Lights” and “7 Rings” alongside three songs from Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Lil Uzi Vert that did not become mass-appeal hits.
All three songs debuted as the #1 most-streamed song on Spotify.
All three were played more often on Spotify during the week they debuted than “Blinding Lights” got played during its peak week.
However, “ME!”, “Godzilla” and “Baby Pluto” quickly fell out of Spotify’s Top 200 and ultimately garnered dramatically fewer total plays during their hit runs than did “Blinding Lights” and “7 Rings”.
Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Lil Uzi Vert are proven hitmakers with passionate fan bases that binge-stream anything these artists release as soon as it drops.
They’d have camped out at the Sam Goody for the midnight album release in 1992.
After fan bingeing ended, however, those fans didn’t keep playing these tracks as often as they kept streaming their biggest hits. Meanwhile, casual music listeners beyond each artist’s core fans never gained interest in these tracks, either.
Since the onset of streaming, we’ve consistently seen the pattern that the big hits on streaming that also become successful hits on the radio aren’t necessarily the songs with the most streams this week, but are instead the songs that listeners keep streaming week after week
Binge-listening always existed, but before streaming, we had no data to track it. We knew how many people bought an album, but not how often they played it, or which tracks they played most.
In contrast, streaming data tells us how many times a track plays, but not how many different listeners played the track.
Certain weeks, those top slots on Spotify’s charts belong to the tracks of a new release as fans binge-listen to new albums. Meanwhile, established songs with broad appeal beyond artists’ core fans might not get played as often today, but that broad audience keeps playing those established hits reliably day in and day out.
Although Billboard began including streaming data in the Hot 100 songs chart alongside sales and airplay in 2007, it wasn’t until the late 2010s that music streaming overtook digital downloads as the primary way people pay to hear their music. That change has impacted which songs are officially the biggest hits in the USA in several jarring ways—including the unprecedentedly long chart run for “Blinding Lights”.
With the new knowledge of how often people keep playing songs reflected in the official Billboard charts, The Weeknd stayed on the Hot 100 for an unprecedented 90 weeks.
“The Twist,” despite multigenerational appeal, far-reaching cultural impact, and the rarity of being a hit twice, only stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for a combined 39 weeks.
This change means you can expect the biggest hits to stay on the charts longer. However, this change is not because listeners’ interest in songs has gotten inherently longer, but instead because we finally have behavioral data to track it thanks to streaming.
You can also expect more short-lived chart-toppers when fans binge new music from their favorite artists. This change isn’t because people never listened to a new album over and over before (although Spotify does make accessing new releases instantaneous), but rather is because we finally have behavioral data to track it thanks to streaming.
Just as examining Weekly Cume in diary isn’t the same as examining listening occasions in PPM, you cannot evaluate today’s streaming-driven data the way you examined yesterday’s sales-driven data.
The fact that how we consume new music—and the metrics we use to measure music consumption—are undergoing a fundamental metamorphosis is why I’m dubious of studies that claim people aren’t as interested in new music as they were in years past.
What makes Blinding Lights enduring?
Perhaps it’s merely coincidence, but “Blinding Lights” reached its peak Spotify streams during the week of March 26th, 2020. It was the week The Weeknd released his After Hours album. It was also the beginning of our nation staying at home and time seemingly standing still.
Perhaps “Blinding Lights” greatest asset—and the reason listeners kept playing it—has been its comfort as one of the last big new songs from before the “new normal.”