In the streaming era, major hits tend to be sluggish: Between 2012 and 2017, the average tempo of the 25 most-streamed tracks on Spotify fell by 23 beats per minute, to 90.5 b.p.m..
Why? There are plenty of theories: the utter and total dominance of southern hip-hop, which revels in slower speeds; a bleak national mood that leaves people uninterested in brisk, peppy tracks; and streaming platforms’ obsession with all things “chill,” which leaves little room for anything vigorous and potentially jarring.
Back in 2017, songwriters and producers also suggested that favored tempos — like everything in pop — are cyclical, and the current fixation would pass. That may be true, but for now, listeners remain enthralled by the leisurely and lackadaisical. A new report from the company Soundfly analyzed every song that cracked the Billboard Top 5 in 2018 and determined that the average tempo was 92.6 b.p.m. That’s basically exactly the same as the average tempo of Top 5 hits in 2017: 93.2 b.p.m.. The most popular tempo for a massive hit in 2017 was 79 to 80 b.p.m.; in 2018, it was 78 to 79.
Speed and popularity were not totally at odds. Soundfly clocked Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin’s “I Like It” at 136 b.p.m., and there were a pair of nearly identical fifth-gear hits produced by the Memphis beatmaker Tay Keith — Blocboy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive (140) and Drake’s “Nonstop” (154). “Tempos up this fast can be subjectively felt at half-speed,” cautions Dean Olivet, who authored the report. “But in music school, they teach you that the tie-breaker in this situation is how most people would conduct it. And in pop music, it’s also how people are moving to it — the tiebreaker was in the ‘Nonstop’ video, where the whole crowd is bouncing at 154, so I went with that.”
On the other end of 2018’s hit spectrum were tracks that moved at the pace of ice melting on a cold day: The Weeknd’s “Call out My Name” (just 45 b.p.m.), Eminem’s “Killshot” (53) and Lil Wayne’s “Don’t Cry” (57). The Weeknd’s pleading ballad is particularly notable: The slowest song in the 2017 sample, according to Olivet, moved at 57 b.p.m., meaning that “Call out My Name” is impressively snail-paced even when compared to other snail-paced tracks.
You can find hits at the extremes, but no one wants to stake out the middle: Among Top 5 singles, “there’s just this desert in between about 110 [b.p.m.] and 125 when the fast jams start,” Olivet says. “There’s just nothing anymore. But back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, that’s where a lot of hits were. Most of the songs on the Rolling Stone Top 500 [though this is a sample based on critical opinion rather than chart results], for example, are from about 106 b.p.m. to maybe 125 or 130.”
Olivet has his own theory about why contemporary pop writers enjoy dawdling. “I think it has to do with the difference between digital audio workstations and when songs used to be mostly written on piano or guitar,” he explains. “I used to be in the singer-songwriter world a lot: You get out your metronome at a club or you just ballpark it, and you notice, man, all these singer-songwriter songs are so similar in tempo.” When guitars ruled, so did one sense of pacing; there’s no reason that rate would stay the same in a world where many people compose differently.
That’s not to say there aren’t singles on the Hot 100 right now hoping to re-wire pop’s current low-tempo formula — and even plant a flag in the tempo desert. Loud Luxury’s breakout pop-house hit “Body” hums along at 122 b.p.m., though it has been unable to breach the top half of the chart. Pinkfong’s children’s song “Baby Shark,” which bubbles maddeningly at 115 b.p.m., is still in the Top 40: Infants like what they like, pop fads be damned.
The most conspicuous up-tempo hit right now may be Ava Max’s “Sweet but Psycho,” which has ridden a galloping 133 b.p.m. beat to Number 35 (and Number One over in the U.K.). In the current climate of plodding pop, that’s an impressive achievement, but maybe also a worrisome one for listeners who love the rush: “Sweet but Psycho” is a pointed callback to 2010, when a driving beat was seen as a crucial for success. This single speeds things up, but only by going backwards.