In the last week of June, we're seeing a divide among the Top 10 songs on Billboard's flagship Hot 100 chart. Not pop versus rock, or hip-hop versus dance, or fast versus slow. I'm talking about new versus old.
The major Song of Summer contenders still feel new — they've been wafting through the air only a couple of months. For example, current chart-topper "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke has spent a total of nine weeks on the Hot 100. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," currently No. 2, is also nine weeks old. A bit lower in the Top 10, a pair of starlets have hits of roughly the same vintage — Selena Gomez's "Come and Get It" (No. 8) is nine weeks old, and Ariana Grande's "The Way" (No. 9) is at week 11.
By contrast, in the middle of the Top 10, you'll find a pair of hits that are now positively ancient. At No. 6 is Florida Georgia Line's 36-week-old country-crossover smash "Cruise." A couple of weeks ago this song, fueled by a remix featuring rapper Nelly, sneaked into the Top 5 in its 34th chart week, setting a record for the slowest climb into the Top 5 in Hot 100 history. Just two weeks after that, the record was broken: Imagine Dragons' turgid rock hit "Radioactive," in its 42nd chart week, just leaped to No. 4, becoming the new all-time-slowest Top 5 hit.
You wouldn't know it, but Florida Georgia Line and Imagine Dragons aren't alone — a couple of other songs in the Top 10 are way, way older than they look.
Take Icona Pop's stomping electro jam "I Love It," which as of late June was at No. 10. According to the Hot 100, it's 20 weeks old — but those are just "chart weeks," the length of time the song was popular enough to be tracked on Billboard's list. "I Love It" sounds like it was made for summer — as in summer 2012; that's when the song actually dropped. It's taken the Swedish synthpop duo a full year to make their hitbound track an actual hit.
The same goes for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Can't Hold Us," now at No. 3. It has spent a total of 19 weeks on the Hot 100 — five of those weeks at No. 1, benefiting from the coattails of the rap duo's wintertime smash "Thrift Shop." Most of America has gotten hip to Macklemore only in the last six months, but "Can't Hold Us" was originally released a long, long time ago — in the fall of 2011.
What makes a song catch on months, or even a year or two, after its initial release? Obviously there is no formula for giving an aging single the boost it needs to become a smash — if record labels knew what it was, they'd try to bottle it.
Nonetheless, broadly speaking, there are three categories of slow-breaking hits—three catalysts that turn a dormant song into a smash. And the late bloomers currently riding the Top 10 provide examples of each.
1. The Tube: Nothing transforms an underappreciated song into a hit like television. Sure, movies are more powerful when it comes to generating hits—a rock-and-roll link dating back to The Blackboard Jungle and Jailhouse Rock—but films generally come with soundtracks full of new songs, or they push oldies that were already hits. When it comes to bringing a song to life that isn't already a hit, the tube is the king of the slow burn.
Famously, the Beatles were booked by Ed Sullivan before they'd had a hit in America. But by the time they appeared on his show, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was already No. 1 here and didn't need the help.
A better example is Herb Alpert's 1979 No. 1 hit "Rise" (known to younger generations for its prominent sample on the Notorious B.I.G.'s 1997 No. 1 "Hypnotize"). "Rise" was flagging on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1979 before the producers of ABC's mega-soap General Hospital decided to use Alpert's midtempo-disco instrumental to montage a rape plot involving beloved characters Luke and Laura. The exposure boosted the song to No. 1 by the fall. Amazingly, General Hospital and Luke did it again four years later, for Patti Austin and James Ingram's sultry duet "Baby, Come to Me." The slow jam was nearly a year old and even deader than Alpert's—it had dropped off the Hot 100 entirely—when the soap tapped "Baby" for another Luke-related plot, sending the song to No. 1 in February 1983 after a poky 23-week chart run.
Resuscitating a year-old song is impressive, but how about a five-year-old song? Family Ties did it in 1986 with "At This Moment," a 1981 flop single by blue-eyed soul band Billy Vera and the Beaters that reached No. 79 in its first chart run. The sax-drenched, prom-worthy torch ballad became the romantic theme song for Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) on the NBC smash and, improbably, topped the Hot 100 in January 1987.
These pre-2000 examples were all flukes, with luck a major factor. More recently, the music industry has gotten wise to TV's power and now employs "synch" experts who place songs in movies and, especially, TV shows, where repetition and in-home familiarity can spark a song up the charts. Shonda Rhimes, creator of the decade-long ABC smash Grey's Anatomy, has done so much for the careers of Snow Patrol ("Chasing Cars," No. 5, 2006), the Fray ("How to Save a Life," No. 3, 2006) and Ingrid Michaelson ("The Way I Am," No. 37, 2007) that she now routinely gets pitched songs by hit-hungry labels and managers.
And don't forget American Idol: In addition to all the oldies it's pushed, it has also occasionally broken a flagging or lesser-known song. When Idol decided in its fifth season to use a consistent song every week to play off the departing singer, their choice of a year-old Canadian single, Daniel Powter's perky "Bad Day," sent the song to No. 1 in America and made it Billboard's top single of 2006. Two years later, one Idol contestant's performance of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," styled after Jeff Buckley's 1994 cover, briefly made the late Buckley's version the best-selling download in America.
(TV advertising is a synch category unto itself. During the '00s, Apple's iPod ads were so iconic that whole careers were made by them: Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc." and Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4" became the previously hit-starved acts' first chart successes thanks largely to iPod commercials.)
In our current Top 10, the big TV beneficiary is the aforementioned Icona Pop hit. "I Love It" has actually gotten two blasts of tube fuel. In the summer of 2012, immediately after its release, "I Love It" was tapped by MTV as the opening theme for the Jersey Shore spinoff Snooki & JWoww; but that wasn't enough to get radio's or iTunes buyers' attention. Six months later, Lena Dunham gave the song an even better showcase in the second season of Girls, devoting nearly a full minute of slow-mo, coke-fueled club dancing to the song. That did the trick, and "I Love It" finally debuted on the Hot 100.
2. The Crossover: Many of the all-time longevity champs in Hot 100 history began their lives as hits at other radio formats. Because Billboard factors airplay from any station that plays current music (i.e., any format that isn't oldies or classic-rock radio) into the Hot 100 formula, songs that do well at multiple formats can ride the chart for months or even a year.
Of the 10 longest-lasting Hot 100 hits of all time, three crossed over from country radio: LeAnn Rimes's "How Do I Live" (1998, No. 2, 69 weeks), Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" (2007, No. 8, 64 weeks) and Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" (2010, No. 2, 60 weeks). After these songs' country-to-pop crossover, just as they were peaking at Top 40 radio, all three became massive hits at adult-contemporary radio; the slower-moving A/C format kept the songs alive for months. So, in effect, each song's Hot 100 run contained three lives rolled into one: initial acceptance at country, a peak at Top 40 and a slow-degrading afterlife at A/C.
Country is the most obvious place for a slow-breaking hit to begin its life, but it's not the only format. Another of Billboard's 10 all-time longevity champs, Los Del Rio's fluke megasmash "Macarena" (1996, No. 1, 60 weeks), spent a few months on the Latin Songs chart before making its improbable crossover to the Hot 100. The rock charts have also generated several slow crossovers to the Hot 100, including Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" (2012, No. 1, 59 weeks), Creed's "Higher" (2000, No. 7, 57 weeks) and Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" (2010, No. 4, 57 weeks). About the only format that tends not to generate long-lasting crossover hits is R&B/Hip-Hop, thanks to the faster turnover of hits on urban radio and the fact that big rap and R&B hits tend to ride pop radio and urban radio virtually simultaneously.
The more formats a song crosses, generally, the longer it lasts, and vice-versa. Take the Hot 100's all-time longevity champ, Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" (2008, No. 6, 76 weeks—yes, 76 weeks, seriously). Mraz's hippie ditty began its life at the mellow, groovy "Triple-A" (Adult Album Alternative) format before crossing to the big chart. By the time the epic year-and-a-half chart run of "I'm Yours" was over in 2009, it had topped Billboard's Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40 and A/C charts and had even made appearances on the Rhythmic, Latin and Smooth Jazz formats.
In our current Top 10, the two songs setting chart records for slowness are classic crossover stories. Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" first broke on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart last August, and it topped that list in the very un-summery month of December. The remix featuring Nelly dropped in April—a shameless attempt at multi-genre crossover—and it's working like gangbusters. As for Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," it debuted on both the Hot 100 and rock charts late last summer, but it scaled the Alternative chart faster, reaching No. 1 there in early March. By then, the song had only just breached the pop Top 40, but after its success on rock radio "Radioactive" began its march into the upper reaches of the Hot 100.
3. The Viral: Sometimes a song just sits around for months or even years before a fad, word of mouth or—most common these days—a meme lights a fire. "Viral" might be a 21st-century buzzphrase, but there was such a thing as a contagious pop hit in the years before the Internet.
Arguably, the first viral chart-topper of the Rock Era was "The Twist." Before Chubby Checker got around to recording it, the original Hank Ballard song had been languishing for some two years, relegated to the B-side of a 1958 single. Dick Clark's American Bandstand finally, in 1960, set off the Twist dance craze among teenagers, helping to inspire Checker's recording and spurring it up the Hot 100. "The Twist," both dance and song, turned out to be such a sturdy fad that Checker's version hit No. 1 twice, in 1960 and again in 1962—the only song to top the Hot 100 in two separate chart runs. What brought about the 1962 comeback? Adults finally caught on to the dance, including celebrities found twisting in nightclubs by newspaper gossip columnists. It was the very definition of pre-millennial virality.
A few times a decade, the music business will give a chart-challenged song a reboot, long after its initial release, resulting in a smash. The Moody Blues got their biggest hit that way, when their six-minute 1967 recording "Nights in White Satin" (a moderate U.K. hit on initial release, a flop here) was reissued a half-decade later, after years of positive fan word-of-mouth. By 1972, deejays were more accustomed to playing long hits, and on its second run the melodramatic ballad hit No. 2.
This second-chance idea reached its apex in the late '80s, when U.S. radio programmers colluded with their listeners in a "Would've Been, Should've Been" fad. For about two years, radio stations revived flop early-'80s singles and made them belated hits, against the wishes of the record-label promotional machine. A Phoenix program director kicked off the fad in 1988, turning UB40's four-year-old reggae cover of Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine" into a No. 1 hit. Early in 1989, the feat was repeated when a six-year-old power ballad by defunct Canadian quintet Sheriff, "When I'm With You," also hit the top. By the middle of '89, with fans phoning in radio stations to request old songs they thought deserved another shot, the Hot 100 was suddenly awash in three-, five- and even nine-year old singles, including Jimmy Harnen and Synch's 1986 release "Where Are You Now?" (No. 10 in its '89 run); Real Life's 1983 single "Send Me an Angel" (No. 26 in '89); and Benny Mardones's 1980 hit "Into the Night" (No. 20 in '89). In almost every case, the 1988–89 rerelease surpassed the chart peak of the first run.
In the digital era, we've seen a number of songs lie dormant for months before going viral. Ellie Goulding's "Lights" was first recorded and released in 2010, but a ton of 2011 U.S. promotion, including a Goulding Saturday Night Live appearance, couldn't make the song a hit (so much for the power of the tube). Then, quietly, in 2012, the song's YouTube views kept climbing, and "Lights" began crawling up the Hot 100, finally peaking at No. 2 in August 2012 after 33 chart weeks. More recently, Baauer's "Harlem Shake" became a 2013 No. 1 hit—nearly a year after it first dropped—thanks entirely to the well-known comic video meme that bears its name (plus an assist from Billboard, which began factoring YouTube views into the Hot 100 just as the fad was cresting).
Within this week's Top 10, the chart career of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis can basically be credited to web memes. It's impossible to imagine current smash "Can't Hold Us" catching on, a year and a half after its initial release, without the catchphrase-spewing, effing awesommmmmmme explosion of the pair's prior No. 1 "Thrift Shop." Their currently rising single, "Same Love," was first released last summer during Washington State's gay-marriage campaign and is catching fire again thanks to the Supreme Court's DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions; if it makes the Top 10, it'll be Macklemore's second straight smash, after "Can't Hold Us," to be revived after falling off the Hot 100 entirely.
Just how old can a Hot 100 hit be before it catches on, anyway? Stay tuned, we may be about to find out: "Sail," a strange and lurching ditty from the alt-rock band AWOLNATION, is currently in its 42nd week on the chart. You thought "Radioactive" was old? "Sail" made its first appearance on the big chart back in September 2011. It finally cracked the Top 40 a little over a month ago, after riding the chart off and on for two years. It's still on the rise, even though it's never gone higher than No. 30.
If AWOLNATION scores a Top 20 or even Top 10 hit later this year, "Sail" will qualify as perhaps the most glacial Hot 100 hit of all time. You've gotta love pop radio—just when you think it can't get any slower, it finds a lower gear.