One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Destiny’s Child or TLC? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer will try to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
We reached peak “Black Beatles” when demonstrably White Beatle Paul McCartney performed the Mannequin Challenge to the hit Rae Sremmurd song last month. It was a fitting cap to the Beatles’ long history of traded racial influence. McCartney was jamming to an homage made by a pair of black 20-something brothers who, in the words of younger member Swae Lee, “always loved John Lennon’s swag.” Rae Sremmurd is from Mississippi, a state whose Delta blues was a key formative influence on early Beatles music. To be honest, the Beatles borrowed so liberally from black American artists during their early years that at least one of their songs definitely should have been renamed “White Isley Brothers.” So good on Sir Paul for embracing the younger generation instead of calling up his lawyers.
And yet this Black/White Beatles solidarity begs the question — who’s more relevant in 2016? Spotify’s got the stats.
Despite much hand-wringing from old people, young folks do in fact know who the Beatles are. The band managed to cross 1 billion streams in less than a year on Spotify, as its music wasn’t available on any major streaming platform until Christmas Eve 2015. The group has been notoriously reticent to allow its tunes on digital platforms. When iTunes finally got the Beatles catalog in 2010, Apple and its legion of dad-rock-loving execs treated it as a monumental announcement.
So far the youths have gravitated toward Abbey Road, which is the band’s most-streamed album. That’s not a surprise since it’s also their best-selling LP in the United States and its album art is, at this very moment, wedged between the Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction movie poster and a picture of Biggie smoking a blunt in at least a thousand freshman dorm rooms across America. But there is a bit of tricky math going on here: The 16-minute medley that closes Abbey Road is divided into eight separate tracks on Spotify, each with at least 4 million streams. That’s good for the Beatles’ pocketbook, as Spotify pays out royalties based on total streams played, not time spent listening to each song.
“Here Comes the Sun” is the Beatles’ most-streamed song, which is further proof that George Harrison deserves way more respect than we ever give him. “Come Together” is the most popular Beatles song written by Lennon on Spotify, while “Yesterday” is the most-streamed McCartney tune (“Octopus’s Garden” is the most popular Ringo song, for some reason).
In general, Spotify listeners are heavily biased toward the Beatles’ later work. There are only three tracks from the group’s entire mop-top run — ”I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Twist & Shout,” and “Help!” — that have more than 20 million streams. Abbey Road alone has three songs that are that popular. This isn’t a surprise — young people today definitely think of the Beatles as late-’60s hippies first, album format innovators second, and the original cute boy band a distant third.
There is one grave error in the Spotify audience’s Beatles-listening habits. “Yellow Submarine” has more streams than all but one song on the band’s best LP, Rubber Soul. Get your shit together, teens.
There are several steps a music fan must take on the journey to becoming a Rae Sremmurd fan. First, fire off your last Kris Kross joke and Google their ages — Swae Lee is 21 and Slim Jxmmy is 22. Next, listen to SremmLife front to back and marvel at the fact these Tupelo boys crafted the perfect high school graduation soundtrack for carefree teenage delinquency (the album ends with a song featuring an exuberant “Chug! Chug! Chug!” refrain). Finally, watch this video of the two brothers effortlessly bouncing rhymes off each other in a 20-minute freestyle. Now we should be able to avoid any and all Rae Sremmurd slander from here on out.
While SremmLife literally depicts a day at the beach, the group’s 2016 followup SremmLife 2 has a moodier, nocturnal quality that didn’t immediately connect as well. The album sold less than Rae Sremmurd’s rookie effort in its first week despite the group’s increased fame. Most of its songs have fewer than 10 million streams on Spotify. For a while it seemed like the group had peaked before we even knew we weren’t annoyed by them. Then, the Mannequin Challenge happened.
It’s important to note that “Black Beatles,” currently the no. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, was not originally part of the Mannequin Challenge, a social media stunt in which a group of people freezes mid-pose as a camera pans around their bodies. It wasn’t set to any particular music. But before the meme had achieved Today show velocity, Rae Sremmurd posted an Instagram video of the Mannequin Challenge at one of their concerts set to “Black Beatles.” The association stuck and everyone from Hillary Clinton to Paul McCartney has done the challenge using the song. When those challenges appear on YouTube, they’re counted in the calculations Billboard uses to determine the country’s most popular songs. And even when they’re on social media, they’re still driving more people to seek out “Black Beatles” on streaming services. The song currently has 214 million streams on Spotify, which is nearly four times as many streams as the most popular Beatles song.
The Beatles have more streams in total, which isn’t a surprise for the most popular band of all time. But Rae Sremmurd has more monthly listeners and the bigger individual song. Both Beatles are great, and we patiently await the day when these two legends appear on stage together.