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We're going to take you back to August 1958 when the top song in America was Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool," the first number one song ever on the Billboard Hot 100.


RICKY NELSON: (Singing) I knew that I would fall. Poor little fool, oh, yeah.

CORNISH: The week Billboard launched what would become the premier singles chart in America, the list was led by the smooth-as-silk Nelson, acting the part of a player who'd met his match, bewitched by a woman who, it turns out, is even faster than he is.


NELSON: (Singing) She'd play around and teased me with her carefree devil eyes. She'd hold me close and kiss me, but her heart was full of lies.

CORNISH: Fifty-five years later, we find the Hot 100 topped by "Blurred Lines," a ditty from the smooth-as-milk Robin Thicke.


ROBIN THICKE: (Singing) I know you want it.

CORNISH: And all these years later, it's about a player who's bewitched by a woman who's faster than he is.


THICKE: (Singing) Can't let it get past me.

CORNISH: How is it that more than half a century later, we still follow a chart called the Hot 100 to measure which songs are dominating our earbuds, our dance floors, our lives? Chris Molanphy asked that question over at NPR Music. He's a contributor to our blog The Record, and he joins us from the New York bureau. Hey there, Chris.


CORNISH: So how does it work? How do songs make it onto the list?

MOLANPHY: Well, the Hot 100 is basically what I would call three-legged stool. The two legs that have been in the charts since it was founded in 1958 have remained the same - airplay and sales. So airplay is basically a measure of how much songs are getting played on the radio and the size of their audience, and that includes any radio station that's playing current space music. So it's not just Top 40 radio. That would include current R&B radio. It would include rock radio if they're playing current music. It would include country radio. It would include adult contemporary.

Then there's sales. Now, of course, sales means iTunes, or it means Amazon MP3. Any website that is selling you digital songs, that gets factored into the Hot 100. And the third leg of the stool is streaming music, so music that you access online but don't own. That would included YouTube. That would include Spotify.

CORNISH: So give us some examples, some songs where this plays out.

MOLANPHY: Sure. So if you think of the chart as sort of an average - and I'll just touch on sales and airplay because those are the two biggest components, and they're the easiest ones to described. There are songs that are bigger on the radio than they are at iTunes, and then there are songs that are bigger at iTunes than they are at the radio. So, for example, there's a current single by Jay-Z from his new album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail." It's the first single. It's called "Holy Grail," and it features Justin Timberlake.


JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) And, baby, it's amazing I'm in this maze with you. I just can't crack the code. One day you screaming you love me loud. The next day you're so cold.

MOLANPHY: And it's currently ranked number five overall on the Hot 100. What that actually averages together is the fact that "Holy Grail" is ranked third in sales this week. And it only ranks 20th in airplay currently, not because the radio doesn't like it, but because it's moving up, and radio is still catching up with the song. By contrast, the current single by Maroon 5, a record called "Love Somebody," ranks number 10 on the Hot 100.


MAROON 5: (Singing) I know your insides are feeling so hollow.

MOLANPHY: But again, there's a discrepancy between how well it's selling and how much radio is playing it. It's a little bit slower selling, but it's doing extremely well on the radio. Radio programmers love Maroon 5.


5: (Singing) I really want to love somebody. I really want to dance the night away.

CORNISH: Considering there are so many sources out there, online and elsewhere, that are telling us about new music and what's hot and there's like such a cacophony of voices, do you think that makes people kind of cling to charts even more?

MOLANPHY: I would say so. I mean, what's fun about it is that it sort of is an authority. It's an authoritative voice on what the top songs in America are at any given time. It is not perfect. Obviously, there are artists whose legacies are greater than their performance on the Hot 100 would indicate. And then there are artists who are huge on the Hot 100 momentarily who don't have much of a legacy. But what's great about the Hot 100 is that it kind of marks cultural shifts.

You know that we've been in an era of a certain type of dance pop for the last four or five years, but lately, we've started to hear more songs than are acoustic in nature. There have been moments when hip-hop has been on the rise and on the wane. And this chart kind of pulls everything together so that you have one cogent resource for measuring where the culture is moving at any given time.

CORNISH: Chris Molanphy, he's an NPR Music contributor. Chris, thanks so much for talking with us.

MOLANPHY: Thank you, Audie.


TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) You get the air out my lungs whenever you need it. And you take the blade right out my heart, just so you can watch me bleed. And I still don't know why...


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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