Why Drake Isn't as Popular as Michael Jackson - Rolling Stone
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Why Drake Isn’t as Popular as Michael Jackson

Don’t be fooled by supposed pop-chart equivalence – a lot changed between ‘Thriller’ and ‘Views’

Drake, Michael Jackson, ThrillerDrake, Michael Jackson, Thriller

Here's why comparisons between Drake's chart dominance and that of Michael Jackson in the 'Thriller' era are off-base.

C Flanigan/Getty; George De Sota/Getty

This week might have kicked off with a celebration of American independence, but fiercely Canadian pop force Drake is in the top spot of the country’s charts. “One Dance,” his simmering dancehall banger, leads the Hot 100 singles chart; Views, his fourth studio album, sits atop the Billboard 200. Drake’s dual dominance has been in effect for seven straight weeks, matching a chart milestone that was set three-plus decades ago by none other than Michael Jackson.

That Drake has matched a record set by not only the biggest name in American pop, but its most massive album to date – Thriller and “Billie Jean” ruled their respective roosts back in 1983 – has sparked comparisons between the two that seem, on their face, a bit hyperbolic. “Drake Is Now Officially as Popular as Michael Jackson Was During Thriller,” a breathless Vulture headline announced, while Digital Music News broke out a comparison to Elvis.

Is Drake, undeniably a huge global star, someone who can make careers and who can turn his lint-rolling habits into an elaborate meme, really “officially as popular as” the King, or the King of Pop? The answer is probably no, in part because it largely depends on who you ask – and, more importantly, how they consume music.

Charting music’s popularity has always been a flawed process. Before SoundScan, which still tracks physical sales by barcode scans at an array of retailers, was introduced in 1991, Billboard relied on surveys of retailers to deduce its biggest hits. As chart watcher Chris Molanphy points out, the fungibility of humans probably resulted in albums like Van Halen’s 1984, The Cars’ Heartbeat City and the Ghostbusters soundtrack being undercounted while mega-selling albums like Thriller sat atop the 1984 albums chart for weeks at a time. Similarly, radio statistics were tracked with playlists and not actual spins until 1992, when the Hot 100 incorporated Broadcast Data Systems’ airplay tracking. (And even those moves toward hard data have aced out smaller players in the game.)

Since those first two switch-ups, America’s albums and singles charts have been tweaked to more fully represent the ways in which people were consuming music en masse; songs not released as singles became eligible for the Hot 100 in 1998, and digital track sales were added to the chart’s mix in 2005. But the big change – and the one that has solidified Drake’s seeming dominance – came when streaming music got added into the mix. The Hot 100 added streaming from services like Spotify and Apple in 2012, and video outlets like YouTube entered the mix in early 2013; in November 2014, the Billboard 200 became a “multi-metric consumption” chart where album sales were counted alongside streams (1,500 streams equaled a “streaming equivalent album”) and individual track sales (10 track sales equaled a “track equivalent album”).    

Streaming has had seismic effects on the charts in 2016: Rihanna’s Anti, Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade have all had their statuses boosted by on-demand listening. But the 20-track Views might be the album most aided by Billboard‘s new policies. This week alone, “traditional” album sales made up 25,000 units of its 110,000-album consumption total, putting it behind the Avett Brothers’ True Sadness and Beyoncé’s Lemonade on the Top Album Sales chart; streaming equivalent units boosted Views‘ consumption total by 67,000 units. Views, which was initially an Apple Music exclusive, actually went platinum in its first week solely based on cumulative streams of “Hotline Bling,” the late-hours plea for solace that had been released commercially some nine months prior and was tacked on as the album’s last track.

But the rest of its offerings were no slouch. In Views‘ first week on the chart, songs from the album were streamed 245.1 million times, enough for its individual tracks to take up a good fifth of the Hot 100. According to the music-analytics firm BuzzAngle, using the new metrics of streaming and track consumption, Views has been consumed a total of 2.5 million times since its late-April release – enough to earn Drake a double-platinum plaque.

Which brings us to “One Dance,” pop music’s current chart-topper, which first hit the top spot the week of Views‘ debut. The dancehall-tinged track might have more overall points and be the front-runner for Billboard‘s Hot 100-derived Songs of the Summer chart, but it’s being beaten on both the radio and digital sales fronts by another one of Jackson’s disciples – Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the Max Martin- and Shellback-penned funk-pop cruiser missile that came out three weeks after Views hit. Meanwhile, on the Streaming Songs chart, Drake has a substantial presence, but Desiigner’s jittery “Panda” leads the way.

The world of pop music right now isn’t probably all that much more fragmented than it was three-plus decades ago, although thanks to chart changes and the increased ability for customizing one’s own playlists, it certainly seems that way. The “national radio station” that MTV represented during the Thriller era, while imperfect for a host of reasons, has disintegrated into a network of outlets owned by a handful of companies who specialize in ever-tighter playlisting. Sales of new albums, even with massive streaming totals baked into their number-crunching, are down; meanwhile, individual listening, whether through streaming services, satellite radio or even fans just hunkering down with their own collections of MP3s and physical media, has allowed people to create their own solar systems of pop stardom, whether they orbit around Adele, Chris Stapleton or Twenty One Pilots.

Which is why any one-to-one comparison between Drake and Michael Jackson – based on the two sharing milestones on charts that, while similar in name, are very different in context and content – is more than a bit off. While there’s no denying that Drake is a huge celebrity who is currently basking in a period of pop-cultural kingmaking, going up to people on the street and asking them to hum a bit of “One Dance” would provide an extremely different perspective on the song that is supposedly ruling music’s roost this summer.

Sure, it’s unlikely that any of the other songs currently in the Hot 100’s Top Ten would do much better – Timberlake’s made-for-beaches “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and Fifth Harmony’s aggressively sparse “Work From Home,” not to mention Adele’s swirling “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)” or the gossip-page-beloved “Sorry” from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, are lacking the “hum a bit and I’ll join you” wall-to-wall dominance that “Billie Jean” once had.

But that’s OK; the lack of a Michael Jackson-like king of indelible hooks is appropriate given this year’s story of pop, which has been dominated by celebrity and hits that seem massive at the time, yet shrink into the rearview mirror almost as soon as another surprise release hits.  

In This Article: Drake, Michael Jackson


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