“Despacito” is the song of the summer. What’s next?

“Despacito” Is the Most Dominant Song of the Summer Ever. Could It Become the Biggest Hit, Period?

“Despacito” Is the Most Dominant Song of the Summer Ever. Could It Become the Biggest Hit, Period?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 24 2017 7:33 AM

“Despacito” Is the Most Dominant Song of the Summer Ever. Could It Become the Biggest Hit, Period?

Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi
Never before has a single act with a single song owned the Hot 100 for the entire summer.

Still from the video for “Despacito”

The last time Billboard’s Hot 100 had a new No. 1 song, the United States was still in the Paris climate accord. The Senate hadn’t even started Obamacare repeal, let alone botched it. North Korea hadn’t yet fired off a Hwasong-14 missile. And virtually no one outside of the investment banking community had heard of Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci.

It’s been a long summer—seriously, is it over yet?—but if there’s one thing that has remained blissfully consistent, it’s the chart dominance of the song “Despacito.” Now in its staggering 15th week at No. 1, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s hybrid of a Latin ballad and a reggaetón jam, propelled by a remix featuring both English and Spanish vocals by Justin Bieber, is steaming toward the record books. The insinuating song whose title translates as “Slowly” has settled in for a truly languid run. When it comes to chart-topping, no one thought “Despacito” would be quite this slow.

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That includes me. I made one good call back in May: A few days before Memorial Day, I predicted that “Despacito” would wind up as 2017’s Song of the Summer. I based this on the excellent pre-summer timing of the Bieber remix in April and the song’s trajectory one month after the remix had landed. It seemed reasonable to assume “Despacito” would keep gaining chart points and hang around at or near the top of the Hot 100 long enough to take the annual summer title. After all, in the 2010s—the decade in which predicting the Song of the Summer became a national pastime, complete with Billboard’s launch of a formal Summer Songs chart—such victorious Songs of the Summer as Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (2010), LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” (2011), and OMI’s “Cheerleader” (2015) took the title with less than two months at No. 1. Surely “Despacito” had the early momentum to do about that well.

The verdict? I was too conservative. “Despacito” has not only more than doubled the chart-topping runs of those past hits, it’s emerging as the United States’ most dominant Song of the Summer ever. By midsummer, the song even smashed a pair of global records: most-streamed song of all time (4.6 billion plays and counting) and most-viewed at YouTube (the first video, music or otherwise, to top 3 billion views). As for the Hot 100, the song’s run on top has now gone so long that chart historians are rumbling about it beating Hot 100 records that date back more than two decades. (That is, if a certain country-to-pop juggernaut doesn’t bum-rush the show. More on her in a bit.)

For now, let’s take a snapshot of where “Despacito” stands in the all-time pantheon. It’s got one chart record in the bag, one all but official, and one very, very big one still a possibility.

Biggest non-English-language hit of all time

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As I noted back in May, prior to this year, two primarily-Spanish or all-Spanish songs had topped the Hot 100 in its six-decade history: Los Lobos’ cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1987) and the Bayside Boys’ remix of Los del Rio’s “Macarena” (1996). Each had achieved an impressive chart feat. In 1987, Lobos’ “La Bamba” was not only a three-week Hot 100 No. 1. According to Billboard, in all three of those weeks it was the most-played song at U.S. radio—a big deal, given American Top 40 stations’ aversion to playing non-English tracks, and the fact that “La Bamba” contains no English lyrics at all. And in 1996, Los del Rio’s “Macarena” remix spent a flabbergasting 14 weeks at No. 1, far and away the most weeks on top for a song not primarily in English. (It should be noted the Bayside Boys’ remix added a slew of new English verses by unnamed female vocalists. While the song is still two-thirds in Spanish, that español consists entirely of repeats of the Spaniard duo’s four-line chorus, over and over again.)

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee have trounced both of these chart records. In July, when it was in its ninth week atop the Hot 100, “Despacito”—a song whose lyrics, by the way, even in Bieber-ized form are still about 80-percent Spanish—finally topped Radio Songs, the airplay component of the Hot 100. It held the top U.S. radio audience a total of five weeks, longer than “La Bamba.” (“Despacito” finally succumbed at radio just last week to the DJ Khaled–Rihanna–Bryson Tiller song “Wild Thoughts.”) As for Los del Rio’s record for Hot 100 dominance, this week, by spending its 15th frame on top, “Despacito” has officially outlasted “Macarena” to be the all-time king of non-English tracks. (One other footnote: By taking the record for most YouTube views, “Despacito” has also outlasted longtime record-holder “Gangnam Style” by Psy, a song almost entirely in Korean.)

Most dominant Song of Summer ever

In the history of hot-weather hits, there has been one act that, like trio of Fonsi, Yankee, and Bieber, held the top of the Hot 100 every single week of the summer season. That would be the Black Eyed Peas, who in 2009 controlled the big chart the entire summer and then some—from mid-April through mid-October, a staggering 26 weeks. But they did it with two songs, back-to-back: “Boom Boom Pow” (12 weeks at No. 1, April to July) and “I Gotta Feeling” (14 weeks, July to October).

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Never before has a single act with a single song owned the Hot 100 for the entire summer. Prior to the invention of SoundScan, it was essentially impossible—seasons last about 13 weeks, and before 1991, no song spent more than 10 weeks atop the Hot 100. When Billboard finally computerized its charts in ’91, accurate data revealed the tenacity of monster hits, and 11- to 16-week stays at No. 1 become more common.

Depending on how you define “summer,” what “Despacito” is doing right now is unprecedented. Going by the cultural definition of the season—Memorial Day through Labor Day—“Despacito” already has the full-summer title. With an asterisk: Billboard front-dates its charts, and even though it’s still mid-August, the current Hot 100, with “Despacito” on top for a 15th week, is dated Sept. 2, 2017—the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. A 16th week on top for “Despacito” would cover the chart dated Sept. 9, fully past Labor Day, and a 17th week would encompass data actually collected through the holiday weekend. That 17th week, should it come to pass, would also bring “Despacito” really close to covering the other definition of “summer,” from the June solstice through the autumnal equinox. But frankly, if the song makes it that far, we’ll be more interested in another, much greater chart record …

Biggest Hot 100 No. 1 song ever, period

When “Despacito” made it to its 14th week on top, it pulled even with seven other songs that were all tied in second place for the longest stay at No. 1 ever: Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (1992–93), Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” (1994), Los del Rio’s aforementioned “Macarena” (1996), Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute “Candle in the Wind” (1997), Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” (2005), the Peas’ aforementioned “I Gotta Feeling” (2009), and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” (2015).

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Those seven songs aren’t in second place anymore—they’re all tied for third. “Despacito” now has second place all to itself, with its 15-week run on top. That leaves only the grandmommy-and-daddy of No. 1 hits: the melisma-rific pairing of Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men with “One Sweet Day,” an overwrought ode to the dearly departed that spent 16 weeks on top from 1995 to 1996. That Hot 100 record has stood for nearly 21 years, as challengers from Elton to Bruno have taken swings and come up a fortnight short. Toppling the Carey–Boyz dream team—or even tying them—would be the most improbable achievement for Fonsi–Yankee–Bieber.

This leaves only two simple questions: How likely? And, just in general: How?!

Let’s take the last one first. All summer long, as “Despacito” has dug in on the charts, broken streaming records, and generally gobsmacked the media, I’ve been asked by friends and critics, basically, if this is for real—whether this record run reflects the song’s actual popularity or some kind of data anomaly. (I can’t even count the number of acquaintances who’ve told me versions of, “I haven’t even heard it,” or, “I’ve heard so many others this year more than this one.” Slate’s Culture Gabfesters were also somewhat skeptical.)

To be fair to the doubters, it’s true that the Hot 100—whose goalposts shift from week to week and year to year, as the music industry waxes, wanes, and shifts paradigms—is not the same chart Whitney topped in 1992 or Elton in 1997 or the Peas in 2009. Back then, streaming media (Spotify, Pandora, YouTube) either didn’t exist or didn’t count for the chart yet, and policies around singles sales (the availability of cassingles or CD-singles or iTunes downloads) were in flux. The Hot 100 of 2017 is even fairly different from that of just two-and-a-half years ago, when “Uptown Funk!” crowned the chart. Then, on-demand streaming was a much smaller factor than it is now, before Apple Music launched and Spotify swallowed the industry.

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Streaming is now the biggest component of the Hot 100, and it has been the top factor in the success of “Despacito.” There have been weeks since June where the song’s stream count has beaten its closest competitor by some 20 million to 25 million plays—gaps of up to 80 percent. So if you haven’t heard “Despacito” as much as you’d think you should for a 15-week No. 1, know that a lot of its most impassioned listeners are enjoying it in the privacy of their phones and laptops. Traditional radio airplay, which you’re likeliest to encounter passively out in the wild, has been an important but lesser chart factor for Fonsi & co. When “Despacito” was America’s most-played song, its audience count was enormous but not exceptional for a top radio record, with peak “audience impressions” of 145 million. Compare that to “Blurred Lines,” 2013’s Song of the Summer by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, which amassed a weekly radio audience of nearly 230 million. Sales, the third major factor on the Hot 100, have been consistently solid for “Despacito”—this week, it spends its 16th week atop Billboard’s Digital Songs chart, another record—but there, too, the bar is lower in general now that buck-a-song downloads have cratered across the industry. In its best week, “Despacito” sold 148,000 downloads, little more than a third of what “Uptown Funk!” was selling at its peak just two-and-a-half years ago.

On the other hand, if you haven’t encountered much “Despacito” this summer, it might just be you. The YouTube and on-demand streaming records it set this summer were global ones, reflecting plays both in America and around the world. The song has topped the charts in more than 40 other countries, most of them in its original, all-Spanish form—from Colombia to Croatia, Paraguay to Poland. Of course, none of those countries’ consumption factors into our chart, but even here, Spanish-language Latin pop stations count for the Hot 100, and they have been power-rotating “Despacito” since January. The song was still the most-played record at Latin radio as late as mid-July. And of course, in America, Justin was a factor: Since the remix with his English verse dropped, between 70 and 80 percent of the song’s weekly downloads have been for the Bieber version. However, Justin hasn’t been a factor in the song’s video stats—Universal Music never produced a second version of the clip with Bieber alongside Fonsi and DY, so all 3 billion of those YouTube views were for the original, all-Spanish, Puerto Rico–centric clip. (Imagine—the song’s stats could have been even larger.)

So how likely is “Despacito” to take the record from “One Sweet Day”? Short answer: a decent chance to tie, probably no chance to take the title outright.

For a moment midmonth, it looked like Bieber himself might be the spoiler. His new electro-dance single with producer BloodPop, “Friends,” landed on a wave of hype late last week that had chart-watchers speculating he might eject himself at No. 1. It would have been the second time Bieber’s done this in 2017, as back in May “Despacito” evicted the DJ Khaled smash “I’m the One,” featuring Bieber, from the penthouse. But BloodPop and Bieber’s “Friends” has so far turned out to be only a moderate seller, and its odds of debuting at No. 1 this coming week now look slim. A more likely candidate is the single that’s been parked at No. 2 behind Fonsi & co. for the last six weeks: another DJ Khaled track, the Santana-biting “Wild Thoughts” with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller. It’s already the most-played song at radio, and according to Billboard, the overall data gap between “Despacito” and “Thoughts” is now the smallest it’s been to date. Unfortunately for Khaled and Rih, “Thoughts’” streams have been much more modest than those of “Despacito,” and even after a fire sale at iTunes last week, its sales have consistently stayed under 100,000.

So that 16th week looks good for Luis Fonsi and his ragtag gang. But they’re about to run headlong into a tsunami. On Thursday evening, Taylor Swift will drop the first single from her sixth album Reputation—the follow-up to her blockbuster album 1989, which came out three long years ago, the longest album gap of her career. Swift is the ultimate presold artist: Anticipation for the track and the album are, pardon the expression, off the charts. And given how low sales for “Despacito” have been the last few weeks (falling below 100K), Swift wouldn’t even have to sell at the blockbuster levels of her 2014–15 hits like “Blank Space” or “Bad Blood” to put distance between her new track and Fonsi’s aging summer smash. By issuing the single late Thursday, all or virtually all of Swift’s chart points will land not on the next Hot 100 but the chart after that—the week “Despacito” would have been gunning for its record-breaking 17th week at No. 1.

Whether Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and their friend Justin succumb next week to DJ Khaled, or the week after to Taylor Swift, they should feel satisfied by their improbable run. They already own several world records, are probably freaking out the chart-centric Mariah Carey right now, made Ernie and Bert bounce, and have reopened American pop radio to Latin music for the first time since the heyday of Ricky Martin and Shakira. All in all, 2017 has been depressingly dude-centric on the charts—should she reach No. 1 in September, Swift will be the first woman with a chart-topper all year. But let’s take our small pleasures where we find them: The summer of “Despacito” has been the closest thing to a subversive pop phenomenon in the age of Trump.