HomeInterviewsAuthor Talk – Tom Breihan on ‘The Number Ones’

Author Talk – Tom Breihan on ‘The Number Ones’

In 2018, Stereogum senior editor Tom Breihan began the herculean task of writing about every Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit, beginning with the chart’s debut in August 1958. That’s over a thousand chart-toppers in chronological order. Breihan’s ongoing “The Number Ones” column is currently in January 2005.

The first single to hit No. 1 was Ricky Nelson’s ballad “Poor Little Fool.” As of this writing, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” tops the Hot 100 for the fourth consecutive holiday season. Carey is second to only The Beatles with the most No. 1’s at 19. The Fab Four have 20.

A few years ago, Breihan went out for coffee with his agent, who told him, “I think this column you’re writing is a book.” Breihan had never considered that or written a book before, but that got the wheels turning. As he was driving home from getting coffee, he immediately thought of seven hits that he’d like to feature. He added 13 more to the list and the result is the new book, The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

author Tom Breihan

“Every hit song has a story,” Breihan wrote in the book’s introduction. “All those hits, taken together, tell a strange, twisty, self-contradictory epic tale about what America wants in a pop song. This book collects twenty important chapters in that story.”

In this exclusive Q&A, Breihan talks about what the pop charts tell us about the broader culture, how Billboard’s tabulation process has changed over the years, and more. The Number Ones is out now on Hachette. The 20 chart-toppers the book covers are as follows:

  1. Chubby Checker – “The Twist” (hit #1 Sept. 19, 1960; one-week reign; hit #1 again Jan. 13, 1962; two-week reign)
  2. The Shirelles – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (hit #1 Jan. 30, 1961; two-week reign)
  3. The Beatles – “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (hit #1 Feb. 1, 1964; seven-week reign)
  4. The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go” (hit #1 Aug. 22, 1964; two-week reign)
  5. The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man” (hit #1 June 26, 1965; one-week reign)
  6. The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations” (hit #1 Dec. 10, 1966; one-week reign)
  7. George McCrae – “Rock Your Baby” (hit #1 July 13, 1974; two-week reign)
  8. Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” (hit #1 June 11, 1977; one-week reign)
  9. The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me” (hit #1 July 3, 1982; three-week reign)
  10. Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean” (hit #1 March 5, 1983; seven-week reign)
  11. Prince – “When Doves Cry” (hit #1 July 7, 1984; five-week reign)
  12. Bon Jovi – “You Give Love a Bad Name” (hit #1 Nov. 29, 1986; one-week reign)
  13. Mariah Carey – “Vision of Love” (hit #1 Aug. 4, 1990; four-week reign)
  14. Vanilla Ice – “Ice Ice Baby” (hit #1 Nov. 3, 1990; one-week reign)
  15. Puff Daddy feat. Mase – “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” (hit #1 March 22, 1997; six-week reign)
  16. Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time” (hit #1 Jan. 30, 1999; two-week reign)
  17. T-Pain feat. Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” (hit #1 May 26, 2007; one-week reign)
  18. Soulja Boy Tell’em – “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” (hit #1 Sept. 15, 2007; seven-week reign)
  19. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane – “Black Beatles” (hit #1 Nov. 25, 2016; seven-week reign)
  20. BTS – “Dynamite” (hit #1 Sept. 5, 2020; three-week reign)

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

360°Sound: Tell us about your interest in the Billboard Hot 100. You write in the book that even at times when you were covering underground hip-hop and punk rock, you still kept an eye on the pop charts. What is it about the charts that’s always fascinated you?

Tom Breihan: I like the idea of keeping track of what’s captivating the most people at any given moment. Even on the smallest level, even if you’re going to a hardcore show in a basement, that’s music bringing people together. The pop charts are like the largest possible expansion of that.

What music is bringing the most people together? Or at least attracting the most people’s passive or active interest at any given moment. I just think it’s always an interesting question, and even when I don’t care about a particular song, I care about how or why it got to No. 1. The arcs of careers and the ideas of rising stars and fallen titans, I’ve just always found it interesting.

When I was a kid, The Baltimore Sun, my hometown newspaper, would print the top 10 songs of the week every week. I read that the same way I read the top 10 movies at the box office. It wasn’t that different from sports and still isn’t that different.

Broadly speaking, what do you think the pop charts can tell us about our culture and society?  

The charts always reflect the way people receive music, and that always changes. When I was writing the book, I was trying to find where the pivot points were. You can see them in moments that actually shifted culture in profound ways. The first chapter is about “The Twist” by Chubby Checker. That song, and to some extent the first ever No. 1, “Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, was shaped and disseminated by television, which was a pretty new invention and not something everybody had in their house then.

There was American Bandstand, which was on every afternoon after school. That show and the kids watching it had this huge effect on the pop charts, the same way that TV changed everything else in American life when it was new. I have a chapter on the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” which I chart as the moment MTV and cable television arrives, another big cultural shift in America. When the Internet arrives, the tipping point moment is “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” which changes pop music, but it changes everything else, too. It’s really interesting to see the way these songs and their times speak to each other.

How does Billboard do its tabulations and how has it changed over the years? Wasn’t there a rule during the ‘90s that a song had to be released as a CD single to qualify?

Yeah, as a retail single that somebody can go out and buy. The idea at Billboard was always to balance out radio play and sales of singles. For a while there, the [retail] single basically became irrelevant. Record labels stopped making them for a lot of their biggest hits. So, the charts got super distorted, and a lot of defining ‘90s songs just never charted. It’s like this weird historical aberration.

Billboard continues to tinker with its formula to try to make it as accurate as possible. At a certain point, Billboard started using YouTube as part of their equation. They did it after “Gangnam Style” by PSY, which was then the biggest YouTube hit in the world. “Gangnam Style” only got to No. 2 even though you could easily argue it was the biggest song not just in America but in the world for a couple months there.

It’s interesting to see the commonalities in these hits over the years. For example, “The Twist” and “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” both got huge because they were dance crazes. The Supremes and BTS both went through a charm school system and had songwriting and production teams behind them. What are some other common threads you found interesting?

“Dynamite” isn’t a dance craze song, but I do like that the first and last songs in the book are both about dancing. I didn’t plan that out, but there’s a nice symmetry to it. A lot of BTS’s hit was about wanting to do something you couldn’t do during the pandemic. When the world changes, music changes. Technology and culture change, but kids still want to go out and dance with each other. And that’s still a huge, animating force for pop music.

George McCrae doesn’t have the name recognition of many of the other artists in the book. Why did you choose to include his 1974 hit “Rock Your Baby”?

I wanted to devote time and attention to disco as a phenomenon because I think it was hugely important. It definitely completely took over the pop music sphere for years at a time. And then continued to shape it through the ‘80s, both through the backlash against it and the way that the sounds disseminated into ‘80s pop.

Disco is a weird phenomenon to try to trace its arc because it was a cultural movement before it was a genre of music. It was gay clubs and Black clubs in a few major cities. The DJs assumed the role that performers would have previously played, taking these songs and mining them for whatever euphoria they could draw out. [Club DJs] were using songs that were already out that weren’t made for the clubs. They would take an uptempo R&B song and it would become a disco anthem because they’re playing it.

“Rock Your Baby” was the first time that the musicians involved were all locked in with the idea that we should make this one for the clubs. This should be specifically a club record. It’s clear that it was done with this in mind, and it succeeded. The writers and producers were the two guys behind KC and the Sunshine Band. It was a genre of music that was light on stars; the song itself was the attraction rather than the person singing it. But they actually did become stars. The whole idea of the night club itself, people going out and dancing with each other rather than concert venues, is the focus now. That is what matters in pop music.

They got themselves a huge hit out of it, and the culture really did shift after it. Disco was already happening before “Rock Your Baby.” It would have continued to happen. But at the same time, it was the first one. They identified a shift in the tides and everything else followed pretty soon afterward.

Were there a few songs you were considering that nearly made the cut?

The one that I would definitely put in if I wrote the book now is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. When I first wrote the book proposal, it was the #1 song then, and so I was like, Well, it’s obviously an important song and was gearing up for this long, long run at No. 1. [Editor’s Note: “Old Town Road” holds the record for longest reign at 19 weeks]. But it’s kind of an aberration. There are not going to be a lot of country-rap songs after this one. I write about this one now just because it’s popular. It’s not going to be No. 1 anymore when the book comes out.

I think I didn’t fully anticipate how important TikTok was going to become. I mentioned “Old Town Road” in the chapter on Soulja Boy because I think they kind of follow the same playbook. It’s not like I ignored the song. But the idea of TikTok as a discrete force completely reshaping the charts, I didn’t really see that coming, and “Old Town Road” would have been the start of that.

Check out Tom Breihan’s Stereogum column “The Number Ones”

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