When can a song featured in a viral video be considered a hit song? That’s a question that has popped up a lot over the last month since Baauer entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #1 with Harlem Shake where it’s been ever since. The song has received modest amounts of digital downloads and very minimal amount of radio airplay, two of the major components of the Hot 100. Where it has excelled has been the hundreds, if not thousands of videos that have popped up on YouTube featuring 30 seconds of the mainly instrumental song and its distinctive visual format. 15 seconds of one person dancing awkwardly and 15 seconds of a huge crowd of people dancing.
Songs from viral videos have become legitimate hits before but in those cases, the viral aspect of them came after promotion of the actual song began. Last three, three of the biggest hits of the year received a lot of help due to their becoming viral sensations. Somebody That I Used To Know by Gotye was originally released in mid-2011. It took months for the song’s music video to spread through the Facebook’s of North Americans and before long, parodies were popping up all over the place. Carly Rae Jepsen‘s Call Me Maybe was a hit in Canada for months before Justin Bieber got involved and before long, many celebrities and people in general were creating their own versions. Psy‘s Gangnam Style has the same back story. A hit in South Korea first and then it crossed over to North America with its distinct visuals and soon-to-follow parodies. Each had the classic start for any hit single but had the added help of social media and the concept of “viral sensations”.
But what we might not realize is that the concept of viral sensations and viral videos have been around for a lot longer than what we now know as the Gotye effect. Going back to the late 90s, one of the first major digital viral instances came in the form of an animated 3D gif known as the Dancing Baby. Thanks to the digital baby’s recurring role on the then-popular FOX series Ally McBeal, it became associated with the song Hooked On A Feeling, and the dancing baby became the Ooga Choca baby.
A few years after that, a video that we had to stream on our dial up modems using Real Player started to make its rounds, using the phrase All Your Base Are Belong To Us. Even today, it’s recognized as one of the most memorable features of the internet’s early days. The song didn’t make any song charts, obviously, but it did become pretty well known among those who used ICQ and chat rooms, long before the days of Facebook and YouTube.
The interesting thing about the Hot 100 chart is that it has always tried to measure what was most popular by using measurable methods such as radio airplay and physical song sales. When CD singles began to decline in sales and availability during the early part of the last decade, radio became the primary method of determining popularity. But radio has gotten more out of touch with what people actually like and listen to over the years. In 2005, iTunes became a component of the chart and sales were in again.
YouTube has been the primary source of music for many people for several years now due to its ease and the fact that it’s free. Since YouTube’s domination, there have been several videos that have gotten a LOT of attention due to their creativity or originality. In 2006, pop/rock band OK Go released an amazingly choreographed music video involving treadmills for their song Here It Goes Again. It got millions of views and a lot of attention because of it. A little while later, it hit #38 on the Hot 100. Not due to the video but due to digital sales and minimal airplay.
Other videos to get a ton of views, a lot of attention and comparable popularity to the hits have included Shoes by Kelly (a.k.a. Liam Kyle Sullivan), Everyday Normal Guy by John LaJoie and several videos by Matt & Kim, including Lessons Learned, which shows them stripping nude in the middle of busy Times Square and getting chased by the cops, and their #95 hit Daylight. Viral video masters and SNL alumn the Lonely Island have had 6 Hot 100 hits, though arguably their most popular song Dick In A Box isn’t one of them.
More recently, two seemingly amateur, possibly for-comedy videos, Bed Intruder Song (“hide yo kids, hide yo wife”) by the Gregory Brothers and news interviewee Antoine Dodson, made it to #89 on the Hot 100 thanks solely to its availability as a digital downtown. A year later, Rebecca Black‘s Friday, which hit #58 in 2011.
Since Billboard has incorporated YouTube into its calculations, there has been speculation that had it done so sooner, Friday would have actually has enough points with the current system to have hit #1 because of the sheer amount of views and subsequent attention it received during its initial release. As terrible as the song is, it was legitimately REALLY popular. Popular enough to rival those that were at the top of the charts at that time. That brings us to today. Harlem Shake is hugely popular and it’s the #1 song on the Hot 100, which is now closer to measuring true popularity than ever before thanks to YouTube, which is what many people use to gauge what they consider to be worthy of their attention, in addition to music purchases and streaming. It’s going to be interesting to see how the major labels and big named artists respond to this new definition of popularity now that they’re competing with consumers and users who have more control over the content they view than ever before.