It’s official. As of this Monday, July 10th, 2017, just short of five years after it hit the world by storm, Psy’s Gangnam Style has been dethroned at the top of the YouTube view count leaderboard. The most viewed video on YouTube is now “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth.
I’ve been waiting for this moment since February, when I tried to do a little bit of amateur forecasting:
And well, I was a bit off; the eclipse came a month earlier than I initially expected (and also a month before the one of a solar variety). In reality, I formed this estimate using just the little Statistics graphs that each YouTube video shows. I even used some free online software to turn screenshots of those graphs into actual numbers, but as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.
Come April, I realized that I could just get better data by writing down the number of views at regular intervals, and plot a simple secant line between the two most recent data points to get a slightly less amateurish forecast. The first date I got out of this method was July 2nd, and the rest were similar.
As a side note, I later discovered that I wasn’t alone in wanting to track YouTube views. I had known about Wikipedia’s list of most-viewed YouTube videos for a long time (and apparently check it often enough that typing “en” autocompletes to it in Chrome), but there’s a guy who goes by Kworb who keeps a much more detailed and historical account. If anyone is interested in trying to seek out patterns in view data, that’s where I’d start.
For now, I just look at this data for the narratives and surprises. Like when The Weeknd’s Starboy viewership completely collapsed from one of the top 10 videos to an order of magnitude less:
Seems like someone just, uhh, strangled himself?
And there’s no bigger narrative to me than the top prize of most viewed YouTube video. Take a look at some of the mainstream press this new champion has gotten in the past week:
Still, a lot of people (including my wife) have wondered: Why do you care about this piece of trivia so much? And I thought I’d take this special moment to explain why.
To be clear, this is a purely symbolic record, especially since we’re long past the nice round number of one billion views, which Gangnam Style was the first to reach back in 2012. But I still appreciate symbolism, especially given the substance of these songs.
To those who speak Korean or have translated the lyrics, Gangnam Style is about the characteristics that Psy desires, or at least pretends to desire, in a love interest. To everyone else, it represents ridiculousness, getting overly passionate about random things, and a dance that bears some resemblance to riding a horse.
See You Again, by contrast, sympathizes with the loss of a beloved actor, Paul Walker of the Fast and Furious franchise, who tragically died at age 40 in a high speed single-vehicle accident back in November 2013. To the viewer, though, it invites us to think on our own tragedies, the loved ones we’ve lost. Musically, it’s a beautiful blend of two different genres, the emotional piano ballad that Puth has gone to build a career out of, paired with the tough-guy rap that Khalifa had already done the same with.
And ultimately, it’s also a song about our hopes for some kind of afterlife. To be able to see our lost loved ones again, and “tell [them] all about” our lives. To be “with [them] for the last ride.” That our “bond will never be broken, the love will never get lost.” That they can “let the light guide [their] way”, and that “every road [they] take, will always lead [them] home.” All of this represents a fairly fundamental human urge for all of these lyrics to represent something more than just irony.
More than just being newer than Gangnam Style, this video has actually remained one of the top 30 most watched music videos on YouTube every week since it came out, i.e. for the last 118 weeks running (I checked). That longevity is what’s unprecedented about it, and it’s all because of what it’s meant to its viewers. But don’t just take my word for it; watch these teenagers tear up watching this music video:
Some selected quotes for those who just want to read or don’t want to listen to teenagers:
“I thought this was a love song this whole time — it’s not?!”
“I haven’t watched the movie — I know I’ll cry.”
“That touched my heart; I’m holding back the tears.” (from a guy!)
“It was like a tribute — oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful now!”
“I didn’t even watch the movie and it made me feel some feels.”
“I end up thinking about, like, death and what happens after death.”
“It definitely has a little bit more substance that could keep it going for awhile.”
Unfortunately, as most of those news articles above inevitably mention, See You Again‘s reign will be much shorter-lived than Gangnam Style’s. I think they actually don’t appreciate how short, though. Just for fun, let me walk you through how I discovered the impending tsunami known as Despacito.
Back in April, when I decided to keep track of view counts for Gangnam Style and See You Again, I also decided to extend this to the top 20 just to see what was up and coming. To my surprise, none of the other videos in the top 20 was getting as many daily views as See You Again. The most immediate challenger, Justin Bieber’s Sorry, was and still is picking up fewer views per day, despite having come out later in 2015. It’ll eventually pass the now-anemic Gangnam Style in time, but could very well never pass See You Again. Even the music videos for 2016’s greatest hits like Closer and This Is What You Came For were still on the outside looking in, and hardly moving faster than See You Again. (At this writing, those two videos are still #21 and #22.) And then there’s Adele’s Hello, which exploded onto the YouTube scene (on the same day the music video for Sorry was released) and was the fastest video to reach 1 billion views, but then faded so quickly that it’s actually fallen from 10th to 14th overall since I started keeping track.
So See You Again‘s lead would be safe, or so I thought. I did pick up on one song which had just come out a month before I started recording and which was playing on the radio seemingly every hour: Shape of You by Ed Sheeran. Sure enough, it was going on a near-record tear, getting upwards of 10 million views a day, one of the fastest early rates outside Hello. Still, it was early, and I suspected it would be a while before it could catch up.
It did bug me that I didn’t have a systematic way to search for videos that hadn’t yet entered Wikipedia’s top 80 yet. Poking around, I discovered Kworb’s weekly rankings, and found that Shape of You wasn’t even the most popular music video of its first month. Some Spanish song I hadn’t heard before was actually even more popular! As I watched the music video for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito, it naturally reminded me of Enrique Iglesias’s Bailando, released in 2012 and then in 7th place overall, so Grace and I dubbed it the “new Bailando.” It was catchier, though, as we could tell and the data was showing.
And well, the rest is common knowledge at this point. A few weeks later, Justin Bieber, having failed to take back the YouTube crown himself with Sorry, attached himself to the nearest YouTube rocket ship, releasing a Spanglish version of the song that opened it up further to the English-speaking audience. The music video for the original just kept gaining steam, posting its best day yet (and also the fifth-most views in a day by any video ever) less than a week ago, months after it came out. Needless to say, this is highly unusual. In fact, from Kworb data, I’ve charted the views per day for the first few months after publishing for some of the videos I’ve mentioned here:
Go ahead and scroll over some of those lines to match them up to the videos. I could talk all day about this chart, but I’ll try to be brief. First, you can see that See You Again actually didn’t have one of the more impressive peaks among these top songs — its advantage is in its continued popularity in its second and third years. You also can see Hello‘s ridiculous initial pace as well as its quick evaporation from the scene, as well as Gangnam Style‘s impressive 4-month peak in popularity, especially since that occurred way back in 2012.
But the most obvious feature is that both Despacito and Shape of You are shattering all of the records. Despacito hasn’t even peaked yet! Even if it plateaus quickly, it will soon become the new #1, passing See You Again in less than a month. Put another way, See You Again just barely beat Gangnam Style to 2.9 billion views, but Despacito will likely beat them both to 3 billion.
Which is why I’m savoring these few weeks with See You Again on top while it lasts. Think about the lyrics again: Both Despacito and Shape of You (which will still probably also pass See You Again near the end of the year or early next year), are both about lusty romance, pretty standard fare for pop music. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Justin Bieber’s Baby, the two previous #1’s, and arguably even Gangnam Style, also hit this common note.
In that company, See You Again sticks out. It isn’t a love song, as that teen exclaimed, and it probably wouldn’t belong in a club (not that I would know first-hand). Its mood is somber yet hopeful, mourning yet celebrating, tough yet tender. It touches both guys who know the series and girls who know the feelings.
And ultimately, it points us to a healthier reality. It teaches us guys that it’s okay to be sad over a loss, it’s okay to express these kinds of emotions through wordless “Oh-oh-oh-oh”‘s. It rounds out the set of emotions we can express through music videos, beyond the standard cycle of infatuation and breakup. Think about how many times you’ve heard Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah played in a movie at a sad scene and you’ll realize how vacant that part of the musical spectrum has tended to be. See You Again struck a chord. And that’s why I think it’s remained popular; it’s just plain a good video to cry to.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that The Fate of the Furious, the next movie in the franchise, just came out this April, coinciding with the peak of its recent months-long swell…