Bonkers For Buckley: America’s Dead Idol

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Ed. note: Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy, our resident chart guru, looks at the upward, downward, and lack of movement on this week’s Billboard charts:

When the producers of American Idol announced at the start of this season that, for the first time, they would be selling contestants’ performances on iTunes, but that iTunes had agreed not to report those sales publicly or to Billboard, we chart geeks grumbled. How would we know how big an impact the show had on consumers’ instant whims?

We needn’t have worried–we’ve still got plenty of old songs, the ones the contestants sing, to keep an eye on. Long story short–the show is still huge, and it affects music sales like nothing since Ed Sullivan. Idol contestant Jason Castro: the estates of Cohen and Buckley thank you.

The top Digital Song in the country, according to Billboard and SoundScan, is Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Taken from his album Grace, Buckley’s angelic cover blasted through 178,000 downloads last week.

Of course, as we’ve discussed in this space before, sales of old songs are not eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 unless they’re being “actively promoted” to radio. That excludes Buckley from the big chart, and that’s a real shame. He never appeared on the Hot 100, not even its lower rungs, during his tragically short career; on the Modern Rock chart, one lone song, “Last Goodbye,” also from Grace, crept up to No. 19 in 1995.

We’ll never know how high “Hallelujah”–which has never appeared on the Hot 100 by any artist, despite its many covers–might have charted had it not been for the Billboard age-based eligibility rule. It’s doubtful Buckley would have seriously threatened Usher for No. 1; the latter’s “Love in This Club” has not just sales but fast-growing airplay propelling it. But with sales like “Hallelujah’s,” it’s safe to guess the song would have pulled something like Yael Naïm’s TV-fueled, airplay-lacking “New Song” last month and at least made the Top 10.

Ever since the iTunes Music Store came online in 2003, one year after Idol debuted in the United States, we’ve seen dozens of old songs covered by the finalists make the upper reaches of Apple’s best-sellers list in the days immediately following their performances. What makes “Hallelujah” special is how long it’s hanging on–as recently as two days ago, iTunes was reporting Buckley’s tune as its top seller, and as of today it’s still in Apple’s top five.

It appears that the dreadlocked Castro has actually turned on a large portion of America–the portion not yet acquainted with Buckley–to “Hallelujah,” and it’s becoming a word-of-mouth hit. The day I hear Buckley’s angelic voice coming out of the adult-schlock radio station blaring at my local drugstore–that’s one less moment I have to hear Celine Dion!–I think I’m going to feel grateful to Jason Castro, too.

Less Love in Usher’s Old Club: You might notice that “Love in This Club,” already tops on the all-genre Hot 100, is only just reaching the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 this week. You can either view that as evidence of Usher cooling off with his base, or take it as a sign of what makes the R&B chart different from the pop chart: in a word, sales, or the lack thereof. (Even as Usher’s airplay continues to explode, his chart-topping performance on the Hot 100 is still due overwhelmingly to digital sales.)

The R&B/Hip-Hop chart is stuck in a pre-iTunes time warp, with no digital sales component and total dominance by airplay; physical singles sales are included, but you can imagine how miniscule a factor they are in 2008. Basically, the R&B chart looks and behaves the way the Hot 100 did from 1998 through 2004, when it was essentially an airplay chart, before the Big Bang moment in 2005 when iTunes sales were incorporated.

The sticky problem is, Billboard hasn’t yet figured out how to bring digital sales into the R&B/Hip-Hop chart without hurting its brand. The R&B charts are meant to reflect, in large part, what black-owned or -catering stores sell to their customer base. Adding digital sales would likely marginalize this fragile group of retailers. Plus, there’s the small matter of how to identify a “core” (read: probably black, preferably living someplace other than Iowa) R&B song buyer on the Internet–it’s not as simple as narrowing iTunes’ sales to only those songs that get played on R&B or hip-hop stations.

No one wants to hurt the core economy that makes this chart viable and vibrant. Still, it’s willful denial to believe that, at this late date, thousands of historically R&B-leaning consumers aren’t buying the bulk of their songs online.

Billboard is aware of the issue, obviously. Buried in the magazine a couple of times since last year, the editors have made reference to figuring out the black-digital-sales conundrum, and they have made noises about adding a digital-sales component. So stay tuned.

(Before you ask: So long as the country chart remains airplay-only, as it has for decades, this isn’t an issue with that chart or that demographic.)

Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• Entering the Top 10 this week, each for the first time, are Ray J and Lupe Fiasco. And each has an assist: Ray J from Yung Berg, whose rap on “Sexy Can I” follows up his own hit “Sexy Lady” (sense a theme?) from late last summer; and Lupe Fiasco from no-really-I’m-not-the-dude-from-Coldplay crooner Matthew Santos, who provides the chewy melodic hook on “Superstar.” Finally leaving the Top 10 after five months: Alicia Keys’s deathless No. 1 smash “No One.”

• Over the years, the Brits have managed to sell back to us their versions of pop-star forms we invented: rock combos, soul singers, even the occasional rapper. Add “Whitney/Mariah-style diva” to the list: the Simon Cowell-produced belter Leona Lewis is now officially a U.S. Top 40 act. Lewis leaps 20 notches to No. 21 with her diva ballad “Bleeding Love.” After winning the U.K.-based competition The X Factor last fall, Lewis has already set records in Old Blighty and across Europe, recently knocking off Arctic Monkeys’ two-year-old U.K. record for the biggest week of album sales by a debut act. Anyway, fellow melisma haters, brace yourselves: the debut single’s performance means her album will probably be a smash when they launch it here in a few weeks.

• He doesn’t look so scary anymore–Flo Rida’s “Elevator” is down six slots to No. 22 this week. As Nelson Muntz would say: HA-ha!

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses:

Hot 100 1. Usher Featuring Young Jeezy, “Love In This Club” (LW No. 1, 4 weeks) 2. Chris Brown, “With You” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 3. Flo Rida feat. T-Pain, “Low” (LW No. 2, 20 weeks) 4. Sara Bareilles, “Love Song” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 5. Rihanna, “Don’t Stop the Music” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks) 6. Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown, “No Air” (LW No. 6, 10 weeks) 7. Ray J & Yung Berg, “Sexy Can I” (LW No. 13, 6 weeks) 8. Timbaland feat. OneRepublic, “Apologize” (LW No. 7, 32 weeks) 9. Webbie, Lil’ Phat & Lil’ Boosie, “Independent” (LW No. 9, 16 weeks) 10. Lupe Fiasco feat. Matthew Santos, “Superstar” (LW No. 11, 13 weeks)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Keyshia Cole, “I Remember” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks) 2. Alicia Keys, “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” (LW No. 2, 20 weeks) 3. The-Dream, “Falsetto” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks) 4. J. Holiday, “Suffocate” (LW No. 3, 23 weeks) 5. Mary J. Blige, “Just Fine” (LW No. 5, 24 weeks) 6. Chris Brown, “With You” (LW No. 6, 15 weeks) 7. Mario, “Crying Out for Me” (LW No. 7, 28 weeks) 8. Shawty Lo, “Dey Know” (LW No. 8, 23 weeks) 9. Usher Featuring Young Jeezy, “Love In This Club” (LW No. 11, 5 weeks) 10. Webbie, Lil’ Phat & Lil’ Boosie, “Independent” (LW No. 9, 21 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Carrie Underwood, “All-American Girl” (LW No. 1, 15 weeks) 2. Alan Jackson, “Small Town Southern Man” (LW No. 3, 18 weeks) 3. Kenny Chesney with George Strait, “Shiftwork” (LW No. 4, 21 weeks) 4. Rodney Atkins, “Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy)” (LW No. 2, 25 weeks) 5. Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks) 6. Chuck Wicks, “Stealing Cinderella” (LW No. 5, 29 weeks) 7. Chris Cagle, “What Kinda Gone” (LW No. 9, 34 weeks) 8. George Strait, “I Saw God Today” (LW No. 8, 5 weeks) 9. Jason Aldean, “Laughed Until We Cried” (LW No. 10, 31 weeks) 10. James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” (LW No. 12, 21 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Foo Fighters, “Long Road to Ruin” (LW No. 1, 20 weeks) 2. Linkin Park, “Shadow of the Day” (LW No. 2, 23 weeks) 3. Puddle of Mudd, “Psycho” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 4. Seether, “Fake It” (LW No. 3, 28 weeks) 5. Paramore, “crushcrushcrush” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks) 6. Foo Fighters, “The Pretender” (LW No. 6, 32 weeks) 7. Jack Johnson, “If I Had Eyes” (LW No. 9, 14 weeks) 8. Rise Against, “The Good Left Undone” (LW No. 7, 37 weeks) 9. The Bravery, “Believe” (LW No. 11, 23 weeks) 10. Avenged Sevenfold, “Almost Easy” (LW No. 8, 23 weeks)