Numlock Sunday: Ernie Smith on the Swift end of a music record
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Ernie Smith who writes the Tedium and Midrange newsletters. A week ago he had a great story, ‘A Chart-Record Feast 🎶’ in Midrange. Here's what I wrote about it:
Last week saw two milestones on the music charts. The first is that “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift reached the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, and at 10 minutes and 13 seconds became the longest song to ever top the list. It displaces “American Pie,” the Don McLean hit that topped the charts 49 years ago, and beat it by over a minute. Both songs tell a story about a popular performer that was admired by the singer in their youth, and the disappointments endured by the singer following the ten years they’ve been on their own. The other milestone was The Weeknd’s “Blinding Light” becoming the most popular song in the history of the chart after staying in the Hot 100 for 90 weeks and the top 40 for 86 of those weeks, beating out Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”
I really love Ernie’s newsletters, Tedium at this point is iconic and is a brilliant weekly dive into the kind of topics nobody else is writing about, and Midrange is on the newer side and has been a great read into quicker but nonetheless fascinating topics. This story in particular is a great example of what I love about Smith’s work, an incisive, neat look into a piece of history that’s delightful and relevant right now.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ernie, you are the author of Midrange and Tedium, two of my favorite newsletters. It is great to have you on. Thanks for taking the time.
Yeah, absolutely. Great chatting with you.
You had a really great story in Midrange just this past week, about how two huge records fell in the music industry. Do you want to talk a little bit about the Billboard charts and maybe what got you interested in them to begin with, and then we can get to the records?
Yeah, absolutely. Basically, I've always been fascinated by the Billboard charts. I actually, way back in the day, this is aging me considerably, I ran into this guy who had basically invented his own chart on Usenet, back in the late nineties. I was already interested in the ebbs and flows of music. I focused on the alternative rock charts at the time, because I was a teenager, but I think that in general, what I've found really fascinating about charts is just how in many ways they can behave strangely.
They tell the zeitgeist, but they also have opportunities for manipulation a little bit, just in terms of how a song might see success. When Apple started selling music in 99-cent form, songs that wouldn't have become popular just based on radio play started showing up in the Hot 100, for example. It’s been really interesting to see the evolution of the charts, the Billboard charts in particular, through that mindset and given that how these two records were basically set.
Yeah. The charts are interesting, because they're both reflections of popularity of culture, but also the techniques by which one is able to manipulate what culture is, right? Let's start off with The Weeknd. The Weeknd has shattered a record that has lasted, actually a really incredibly long time. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and how he pulled it off?
The Weeknd came out with his song, “Blinding Lights,” and what happened with that song is it managed to have a decent chart rating at the very top of the charts, but it stayed in the charts for a really long time, in the Hot 100 for 90 weeks, and then the top 40 of that for 86 weeks. And as a result of that, it basically just became the greatest song in the Billboard Top 100 history, topping out Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which had the benefit in his day of having two separate chart runs.
It basically went all the way from the bottom of the charts to number one twice, which is why it was the most popular song of all time. The Weeknd managed to do that. There were obviously differences between how The Weeknd did it, which, first of all, is he had the advantage of people streaming, people watching the videos on YouTube, which if you combine all the videos of that song, it adds up to more than a billion views.
Obviously a lot to work with chart-wise, but it's fascinating from the perspective of, here's this record that feels like in the prior era, it would've been unbreakable, and The Weeknd's just breaking it.
Yeah. It also felt like it was getting boosts from different places at different times. Obviously it starts off with a very big streaming thing, then he's got the Super Bowl. But it just feels like, I don't drive, but whenever I'm listening to radio or adult contemporary, this song is on it. It really seems to have dominated the radio charts in a way that other songs might not necessarily accomplish.
Yeah, I think that's a really good point, I think that it's one of those things where the song had a lot of longevity. I think in some ways, it feels very retro, it feels like it has something that ties it, not to just the current moment, but something more historic, which I think gives it a broad appeal. But also, at the same time, I think that it benefited from the fact that The Weeknd got a ton of opportunities to promote it. The VMAs, the Super Bowl — it became a lasting chart success based on the fact that it wasn't just limited to one thing. And if you look at the rest of the Top 10 historically —
Yeah. This is a really fun list.
Yeah, it's all songs that you would think would be up there. Like, Santana and Rob Thomas doing “Smooth”; “The Macarena”; just basically this list of every song you feel like you've heard a hundred million times, just showing up in this Top 10 list.
It's like the first 20 minutes, or the last 20 minutes, of a wedding playlist.
That's exactly how I would describe it. It seems like the kind of thing that a DJ who's trying to get something that the 80-year-olds and the eight-year-olds would be familiar with, is kind of plenty.
It's so good. I want to talk about the record that feels genuinely unbeatable, that you wrote about. It's this popular musician, named Taylor Swift. And what did Taylor do this time?
So Taylor Swift, she obviously has been rerecording her albums. One of the things that she managed to rerecord and rerelease is “All Too Well,” which showed up in a shorter version on the original version of the album “Red.” But then she recorded a much longer version, which had been rumored for quite some time, but basically it was full Jim Steinman mode, where it keeps going. The resulting record is more than 10 minutes long. It's 10 minutes, 13 seconds, I believe. Don McLean had recorded “American Pie” back in the early ‘70s, and that was closer to eight and a half to nine minutes long. That had been number one as the longest song to ever top the charts for 49 years, until Taylor Swift topped it, and had her 10-minute song top the charts, just the other week.
It's really fascinating because that seems like — the one thing that I'll say is that “Blinding Lights,” it’s great that that song hit that record, but I just feel like there are distinctions between how songs are measured today, where if you look at the Top 10 list of most popular songs ever, roughly about half of them are from the past decade. You can imagine that, in five years, somebody will top The Weeknd, versus a record where Taylor Swift basically managed to record a 10-minute song and have it be popular enough that it could top the charts? It seems unbeatable to me.
The thing is, it's not the longest song to ever be on the Hot 100 period. It's actually the second-longest. There was a Tool song that appeared in the chart, at the very bottom. I think it hit number 93 in the Hot 100. You can't imagine Tool ever topping the charts, complex rock, but it was popular enough that it hit 10 minutes, 21 seconds, I believe. It's long, but it's not like it would appeal to a wide audience, like a Taylor Swift song that she could perform on SNL.
It's incredible because it also seems like it's a complete inversion of everything that we've come to understand about what the Billboard charts currently reward. We've seen artists shrink down the length of time on their song so that they can get more streams in a given album listening session. It just seems like in rejecting the direct way that people have seen success lately, they were actually able to get a different kind of success.
There's actually a really interesting example from a few years back, where Post Malone actually released a version of one of his songs on YouTube, where it was basically just the chorus repeated three times. It helped push forward the success of the song so that it topped the charts, and because all you had to do to listen to the chorus is just watch this video. It made for very good listening in a very light way, I guess you would say.
But basically, the thing that's really interesting about Taylor Swift is, she had the fan base. I don't think an artist who was new, just coming out, could record a 10-minute song and have it become popular enough to top the charts. But I do think that it reflects the shape of music during this era, which is that it's more directly inputted by strings, versus where Don McLean had to hope that the radio stations were willing to play his eight-and-a-half-minute song, enough that it could conceivably top the charts, as well as hope that enough people would buy copies of the single to have that happen. It's really fascinating to think about how much Taylor Swift had to get past for this to even have a shot to appear on the Hot 100 period, let alone top the charts.
I think that's a good place to wrap up on. But let's talk a little bit about Midrange and Tedium. Again, Tedium, if folks are unfamiliar, is really, really wonderful. It is one of my favorites. You've been at it for what? Seven years or so?
Yep. Seven years on January 1st. I have a tendency to start things on January 1st. It's very easy to remember the date.
Amazing. Yeah, so Tedium is phenomenal. That's a longer form where you investigate a cool piece of either culture, or history, or science. I've been a fan of that for a while. But just this past year, you launched a new, smaller, more condensed day-to-day called Midrange. Do you want to tell folks a little bit about that?
Midrange! The thing that's really fascinating about my writing over the years is that when I started blogging, I actually wrote this site called ShortFormBlog. It was big on Tumblr, which obviously is something that still happens in 2021, I guess. But I think that I had basically built up a reputation for a lot of really short things, and basically posting 15 or 20 times a day. And then I stopped doing that, and I came up with this concept of Tedium, which is basically the exact opposite of that in every way, in that I take one thing and just go long on it and write everything that you can think about writing about socks, or some random historic thing that nobody's thought about in 20 years. I've covered a lot of things over the years and I do it twice a week. It's been quite the process of learning, and I could probably tell you a lot of boring stories at parties and such as a result.
But as far as Midrange goes, I basically started it on a lark. I had realized that I put myself in this spot where I was writing such long things that basically had to be massive and overly thought out and heavily researched. And I think that, as a writer, it has a tendency of making you get a little flabby, as far as your word counts and just you're not as focused as you write. I started Midrange as an experiment to see, if I gave myself a tight deadline and just a prompt — I said, "Okay, you got to finish this in 20 minutes, half an hour, and just see where it leads you" — what it could do as far as improving the weaknesses I see in my own writing, and also just how I can approach things from a storytelling perspective, given that I literally have a timer going off and there's going to be a loud alarm once I'm done.
Amazing. Well, I'm so glad that it's been working out. It's been really great to read. I've enjoyed it a lot. Hey, thanks again for coming on. I guess just to get the plugs all in one place, where can folks find you?
I have two places where you can look: tedium.co is where you can find the Tedium newsletter; Midrange is at midrange.tedium.co. And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I am @shortformernie. I post a lot of really stupid stuff and hopefully you'll enjoy it.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.