Project X: A-Sides Win Again

May 15th, 2007 // 10 Comments

We here at Idolator are obsessed with charts: Sales charts, best-of charts, even charts that chart other charts. In an attempt to keep track of all the rankings and reports that are compiled on a daily basis, we’ve asked Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos to break down charts from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, his take on the latest Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

Everyone agrees: the single has won. On his blog, where he tracks the Billboard Top 10 every week, my friend Robert Myers points out that Carrie Underwood’s cover of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” can only be purchased from the iTunes store; that it’s “getting virtually no radio play”; and that right now it’s No. 52 on the country chart. Then there’s this:

Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, May 19, 2007
1. Maroon 5, “Makes Me Wonder” (A&M/Octone)
2. Ne-Yo, “Because of You” (Def Jam)
3. T-Pain ft. Yung Joc, “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” (Konvict/Nappy Boy/Jive)
4. Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend” (RCA)
5. Timbaland ft. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake, “Give It to Me” (Mosley/Blackground)
6. Carrie Underwood, “I’ll Stand By You” (Fremantle)
7. Fergie ft. Ludacris, “Glamorous” (will.i.am/A&M)
8. Akon, “Don’t Matter” (Konvict/Upfront/SRC)
9. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony ft. Akon, “I Tried” (Full Surface)
10. Gwen Stefani ft. Akon, “The Sweet Escape” (Interscope)

As Myers surmises, Underwood’s placement at No. 6 (where it’s been for two weeks now) is entirely the doing of downloadable singles. You might think this development would have democratized things more than they have. But increasingly, the Hot 100 resembles the class system: if you make the Top 10, it’s more likely than not that you debuted there. If the major-label system survives, it seems logical that it will deal mostly (if not entirely) in singles and leave albums to the indies. In critical terms, this will make things easier–the indie-vs.-major argument can actually mean something again. But if this week’s Top 10 is anything to go by–if most weeks’ Top 10s are anything to go by–things will keep right on slogging along as usual. Hooray, democracy.

The last time I looked at the current Top 10 was two months ago, and this week there are four repeats. Of those and in that time, only “Girlfriend” has shifted much: it alternately hits my ear as a work of genius and as a set of expertly crafted parts (cheerleader chorus, power-ballad bridge) that never entirely gel. I think I’ve figured out what I find off about it: Avril’s enunciation. Hearing her bite down at the fricative ends of words that most users of post-Valley-girl upspeak would close with a “d” sound, or just leave hanging, makes Lavigne sound like an adult impersonating a teenager instead of empathizing with or standing in for one. Then again, that prissiness makes her sound more like the motherfucking princess she’s singing as; and so the song keeps turning. If I think about it any more than I already have it’ll probably end up my single of the year.

This week’s No. 1 is by a band that nestled into position immediately upon release, two weeks ago. As white R&B vocalists go, I’ll take Adam Levine over Jay Kay from Jamiroquai, which “Makes Me Wonder” resembles even more than it does the actual disco it’s patterned after. But I’d also advise Levine to purchase better material: what’s good for Jamiroquai isn’t necessarily good for you. Anyway, Ne-Yo would be No. 1 if he weren’t fucking up the scheme of things by selling tons of albums. “Because of You” is a damn good arrangement of a damn good song, which Ne-Yo sings with a agreeably kinetic delivery that, and this is important, doesn’t ooze the condition of being completely full of shit. Smart, sane R&B that actually sells is always an up; in this company, it makes Ne-Yo look like a near-genius.

There’s probably something genius about reclaiming “I’ll Stand By You” for country, but I have to admit: the first time I heard Underwood’s version, I felt aggrieved. This is funny because I never felt particularly assaulted whenever the original came on; it gave its requisite stirring-ballad lift and then disappeared till next time. (The Pretenders’ version peaked at No. 16 in December 1994.) In a sense, it shouldn’t have taken this long for someone to hit in America with a cover–Girls Aloud went to No. 1 in the U.K. in November 2004–though I semi-consciously figured the remake would be R&B, not country. Maybe my dashed expectations are why I recoiled. It sounded better after I relaxed, not to mention inevitable if not horribly obvious. But it still ain’t gonna be my wedding song.

That honor will surely belong to some iteration of the legend, “ft. Akon.” It’s certain that at the rate of productivity at which The Man They Couldn’t Age is currently propelling, Akon appearances will soon flood out of every satellite channel, like ravens hurtling out of windows in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Three of anything in the Top 10 at the same time is a rare occurrence, good records included. Granted, Nos. 8-9-10 isn’t as snappy a headline as Nos. 1-2-3. But it’s impressive, especially if you’re looking for something resembling a bright spot for corporate hegemony as an artistic practice. And without his supporting-player turn on “I Tried,” that Bone Thugs-n-Harmony comeback would have been even more improbable.

So here’s to Akon penetrating every cranny of modern existence. He can warble in the background of officially sanctioned Beatles catalogue-tweakings for Cirque Du Soleil; he can guest-freestyle on a Greensleeves Rhythm Album; he can star on his own pirate radio show in London; he can duet on an Aerosmith cover with Carrie Underwood; he can join the String Cheese Incident during its Bonnaroo encore. I’m sorry–did I say the single has won? Silly me. Akon has won–today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our godforsaken lives.

  1. Chris Molanphy

    Nice post, as always.

    You’re 98% right about the dominance of singles sales, but airplay still plays a role: it keeps singles aloft after sales have peaked. That’s why the Gwen/Akon single is still in the Top 10 and dropping slowly — radio caught on to the song about 4-6 weeks after iTunes buyers did, and they still haven’t played it out yet. (Well, to me it’s played out. You too, probably. But by CHR standards they can probably burn it out for one more month.)

    The problem is, airplay is now too weak a factor in the Hot 100. What’s making the charts so schizo (as both your post above and my post last week imply) is that sales now so dominates the charts that the tiniest movements on iTunes have outsize effects, and radio airplay can’t tamp down the wild swings. That used to be radio’s job on the Hot 100 — and it’s what makes the Billboard chart unique, compared with, say, the British charts, which are all sales. But no matter how Billboard jiggers its Hot 100 formula, there’s no way for them to put a lid on outsize track sales, whereas radio play has natural limits. Hence, the Carrie Underwood phenomenon.

    Conversely, in the late ’90s-early ’00s, when there was no iTunes and singles had been virtually eliminated, the Hot 100 became a de facto airplay chart and became crashingly dull: singles sitting at #1 for months, only superstar acts breaking through, etc. Basically, the chart feels wonky if either factor, sales or airplay, is dominant.

  2. Chris N.

    I’m officially annoyed by Akon. Took a while, though.

  3. Bob Loblaw

    I’m as pro-bubble gum as the next guy, but “Girlfriend” as single of the year? She’s not even having fun! They dressed her up like she’s still 17, pushed her out on stage and told her to smile for the tweeners.

    Maybe I’m imagining it, but in that video she seems to be crawling out of her skin. The whole thing is awkward and nakedly disingenuous.

  4. The Illiterate

    I think Michaelangelo is right in saying that the major labels will soon dominate the singles market, or will at least try, if they don’t already. Fortunately, they’re still hung up on physical product, which may give the indies more time. But if the indies are ever going to do anything on the singles chart, I think they need to go back to the old sixties model (as retro kind of people they should love that): a mixture of carefully conceived LPs, EPs and non-LP singles, with as little overlap as possible between releases.

    Also, pay close attention to Rihanna, who is returning to the old Motown tactic of no more than two singles per LP, and getting the records out quick (three albums in less than two years). If that becomes a model for the majors, and I think it will need to be, things are going to get even more harried on the charts. The test, I think, will be the next 50 Cent LP. If it tanks (and I suspect it will), the majors may finally be convinced that they need to keep their artists in the public eye as consistently as possible.

    @dennisobell: I agree that Billboard should give a little more weight to radio, but I also think the main beneficiary will be country, and especially Underwood.

  5. RepentTokyo

    if that becomes the model for the majors, be prepared to drown in a sea of mediocre tracks.

  6. Chris Molanphy

    @The Illiterate: Great point about Rihanna. Not to give him too much credit, but I wonder if this model will go down as Jay-Z’s one great contribution as an executive – a return to the fast-turnover ’60s model. (Then again, it could have been L.A. Reid’s idea for all I know.)

  7. The Illiterate

    @RepentTokyo: Not sure that it would be all that different than the way things are now, and it might be better. Over 75,000 LPs came out last year (10,000 more than the year before), and over 55,000 of them sold less than a hundred copies. I would bet that 90% of those didn’t even rise to the level of mediocrity. If that’s not a sea, or at least a good sized lake, I hate to imagine what would be. Focusing on singles might cut out the deadwood (just to quickly shift metaphors) much faster, and result in a lot less waste.

  8. nonce

    If I’ve only heard one of these songs, and that’s only because I found it on the internet, is that a good or bad thing?

    Is it worse that I can probably accurately describe all of the other nine songs without having heard them?

  9. cerulgalactus

    @nonce: Not at all, because I can probably do the same – and from having only heard one of the songs in question myself (and the original of another being one of my favourites).

  10. The Mozfather

    Well, it’s good thing you guys can dismiss songs before you’ve even heard them, because I think that’s a really useful talent.

    That being said, that Maroon 5 single is a huge fart on disco. “Girlfriend”, on the other hand, I love more and more.

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