The Billboard 100: how US Number One singles are getting shorter, fewer, and more explicit

A new study of the chart shows how popular music has changed over the years (and how it hasn't)

Earlier this month, an examination of the Billboard 100’s entire history was published by Mark Bannister. His research ran from August 1958 to April 2017, looking at almost 60 years of the American music chart, and reaching conclusions about what makes a Number One hit so successful. Here’s the upshot…

The best-performing US single ever is Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s ‘One Sweet Day’

It spent 16 weeks at the top in 1995 – the most consecutive weeks at number one ever.

In joint second place are all of the following, which spent fourteen weeks at the top: Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk,’ (2015) Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ (1992) Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena,’ (1996) The Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling,’ (2009) Mariah Carey’s ‘We Belong Together,’ (2005) and Boyz II Men’s ‘I’ll Make Love to You’ (1994.)

The number of unique Number One singles is decreasing.

In the ‘70s, the average number of Number Ones could be as high as 30 per year.In the past four years we haven’t had more than 13 unique Number Ones per year. As BBC Radio 1 boss Chris Price explained to NME last year, the stagnancy of the chart is probably down to streaming being counted in the charts:

“We’ve moved away from somebody walking into HMV and being a physical single, or downloading a 99p download from iTunes, and we’re moving much more towards measuring engagement over time. It’s less like somebody walking into a shop and making a purchase, and more like somebody sitting at home in their bedroom and listening to something several times over.”

Featured artists are on the up

Since 1998, the number of ‘unique artists’ per #1 single has steadily risen: Bannister’s data suggests a #1 single is much more likely to have a featured artist than it would have 20 years ago. A third of Katy Perry’s chart-toppers have been collaborations with other artists. Bannister writes: “The use of guest artists in pop music is evidently a relatively modern phenomenon, likely related to the rise in prominence of hip hop from the ’90s onwards. Features are a staple of the genre and are used as a means of appealing to two different fan bases.

Swearing is far more widespread than it used to be

Look at the graph below for an idea of how much swearing in lyrics has increased in Number One singles over the past 16 years. You wouldn’t find much explicit language in pre-2000 chart smashes, but since then the use of swearing has soared, with 75% of this year’s Billboard 100 Number Ones bearing the explicit label. This trend is probably due to basic changes in attitudes, alongside the rise of streaming. Radio used to make or break songs, and that medium comes with rules about language; streaming services hold a lot of sway too nowadays, but they don’t force artists to make toothless radio edits.

Pop songs are getting shorter

The average Number One hit in the US, across all eras, is 3.8 minutes long. Back in the ‘60s, they were closer to 2 minutes; in the late ‘80s, Number One lengths were nearing 5 minutes. Since 2009 length of #1 singles has been gradually reducing and it is now below average, at around 3.5 minutes.

Major keys do much better than minor

Out of 30 songs that have spent the more than 10 weeks at number one, only 9 have been written in a minor key – people seem to prefer cheerful melodies to minor keys’ melancholy vibe.

Classic tempos are holding steady

The average speed for a Number One is 118.5 beats per minute – so each beat falls about twice a second. About 75 percent of Number One songs fall within 30 BPM either side of this – and surprisingly, that spread hasn’t really changed across all 60 years of the Billboard 100.

Words: Lucy Yates