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Despacito and One Sweet Day: How pop culture ‘reflects the fabric of our society’

Photo via Flickr user JosEnrique.
This month, Despacito came precipitously close to being the longest-running No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It didn’t end up clinching the title, but it did tie with Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit One Sweet Day for the most weeks at the top.

Andrew Mall, assistant professor of music industry and ethnomusicology, said that the increasingly heterogeneous listening patterns of an increasingly diverse U.S. population means it’s not surprising Carey held on to the title for so many years. He added that this new, splintered listener base means that more variety is showing up on big charts like the Billboard Hot 100.

“Pop music is a reflection of something more than a single mainstream; it’s a reflection of the entire messy fabric of our society,” he said.

How has digital music influenced music charts like the Billboard Hot 100?

Digital music streaming is a major player in how listeners access music, and the charts are showing that. But let’s back up.

The Billboard Hot 100 is a singles chart. For most of the life of the chart, it tracked singles based on radio airplay and sales, and until the 1990s, that was tabulated by hand. DJs would send to Billboard lists of songs their stations played the most, and retail outlets would send in lists of what sold the most that week.

Big changes came in early 2013 though, when Billboard recalibrated its major charts to include streaming services and digital sales. Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011, and the iTunes store in the early 2000s, and none of those data were being included.

So, after early 2013, the charts included lots of music that might not have appeared before, when it was based on physical sales and radio play. One of the most memorable beneficiaries of this was the song Gangnam Style, which fell off the charts pretty quickly in the first half of 2013, but because millions of people were still watching it on YouTube when Billboard recalibrated its charts, it shot back up.

Given all this change in the way music is consumed, how can we compare today’s hits to those in the mid-’90s?

One thing that’s certainly becoming clear now is that it’s more difficult for established artists with demographics that might now skew toward digital consumption to break through. Take Mariah Carey, for example: compared to some of the newer pop stars today, her audience is a bit older, and perhaps not as connected to music in a digital way. It’s harder for an artist like her to achieve success in the way she did 20 years ago.

There are established artists like Mariah whose digital strategy isn’t built toward creating viral hits. That makes it easier for a song like Despacito to rocket up the charts; it makes it easier for up-and-coming artists who don’t have access to some of the music gatekeepers to make a splash on the charts.

When it jumped to No. 1, Despacito became the first mostly Spanish-language song since Macarena to do so. What does its pop success say about the diversification of music?

The demographics of music listenership in the U.S. have changed dramatically since 1996, when Macarena was No. 1, and pop culture reflects the fabric of our society. If there’s one thing you realize when you see Despacito at the top of the charts for 16 weeks, it’s that there are a lot of people in our everyday lives listening to Latin music. So, it makes sense that there’s a greater diversity of genres represented on the charts.

Pop music is a reflection of something more than a single mainstream; it’s a reflection of the entire messy fabric of our society. More people are out there listening to a diverse variety of genres and we can see that in the charts now.

Pop music has a history of being influenced by Latin music, though. Artists such as Shakira, Enrique Iglasias, and Ricky Martin are some of the most successful crossover stars, but not the only ones, of course.

The other thing to consider is that before Justin Beiber got hold of Despacito, it was banging in Latin clubs all over the U.S. Beiber, who is a huge star, jumped on it, and now you’re hearing it everywhere. Frankly, Beiber could be considered an opportunist in this, because it was moving up the charts either way. The song’s original artists, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, are huge on the Latin charts, and if you look at YouTube, the original version of the song has 3.5 billion views, whereas the remix with Beiber has 520 million.