Project X Turns On The AC

Apr 28th, 2008 // 6 Comments

itstartsinmytoes.jpgAs part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Idolator Critics’ Poll editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. In this installment, he flips the dial to the nation’s Adult Contemporary stations and finds a lot of familiar faces.

Here’s a trick question–look at the following Top 10 chart and guess how long ago it was compiled:

1. Colbie Caillat, “Bubbly” (Universal Republic)
2. Sara Bareilles, “Love Song” (Epic)
3. Michael Bublé, “Lost” (143/Reprise)
4. Fergie, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (
5. Timbaland ft. OneRepublic, “Apologize” (Mosley/Blackground)
6. Daughtry, “Home” (RCA)
7. Taylor Swift, “Teardrops on My Guitar” (Big Machine)
8. Pink, “Who Knew” (LaFace)
9. Michael McDonald, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” (Universal Motown)
10. Alicia Keys, “No One” (MBK/J)

You’ve probably figured it out already: that list was compiled this past week and is therefore absolutely current. Well, sort of. To be strict, it’s Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary Tracks Top 10 for May 3, 2008, and the way some of these songs’ other numbers shake out is worth looking at closely. The average A.C. Top 10 entry for this week has spent over half a year on the chart–27.2 weeks. Half of them are also in the current Top 40–and those five have been in the Hot 100 for significantly longer than they’ve been in the A.C. Top 30. Here’s that list again, with the number of weeks each song has spent in the A.C. Top 30 in parentheses and, where applicable, the current position and number of weeks in the Hot 100 in brackets:

1. “Bubbly” (38 weeks) [No. 36; 43 weeks]
2. “Love Song” (15 weeks) [No. 8; 25 weeks]
3. “Lost” (15 weeks)
4. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (43 weeks)
5. “Apologize” (25 weeks) [No. 18; 38 weeks]
6. “Home” (50 weeks)
7. “Teardrops on My Guitar” (17 weeks) [No. 38; 46 weeks]
8. “Who Knew” (37 weeks)
9. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” (15 weeks)
10. “No One” (17 weeks) [No. 33; 33 weeks]

None of this is news, of course. The entire idea of the adult contemporary format is to act as a kind of strainer, filtering out the harsher, weirder elements of pop until what’s left is smooth and can go down easy. Chart-watchers, commentators, and other folks whose job it is to be up to the minute can laugh at this list, and at the A.C. charts generally, as being old and out of it. But being anti-cutting edge is precisely its point. (That’s why it’s a Top 30 and not a Top 100, for starters.) “Bubbly” only took five weeks to make it to A.C., as opposed to 16 weeks for “No One” and 29 for “Teardrops on My Guitar”–maybe beats take longer to settle for A.C. listeners than they do for pop fans. (Ditto twang.)

This fascinates me in part because it’s probably the closest of any of Billboard‘s charts to reflect the way a lot of people listen to music, and by “a lot” I mean “nearly everybody.” One of Chris Molanphy’s frequent points of discussion in “100 and Single” is how chart data is gathered and measured, and as interesting and frequently relevant that is to discussing the pop charts in general, it disintegrates in the face of the A.C. charts. However it’s compiled (I’m guessing iTunes sales mean absolute zero; this is almost certainly 100 percent airplay), the Adult Contemporary list is probably the most accurate chart around, in that everything on it is over a year behind the other Billboard charts, and that it contains only songs your mom knows.

I mean no insult by that. Still, I’ll understand if you think I did: music people tend toward the finicky like few other arts or entertainment followers. Partly that’s due to the isolation most of us, superfans or not, enjoy most recorded music in. (The radio may mystically connect us all, but I’d wager that most of us listen to it unaccompanied.) Obviously that one-on-one aspect is an important part of its appeal; even on a packed dance floor or a crowded stadium, the idea that a particular song is speaking directly to us individually is what galvanizes an audience. (The more people who feel they’re being directly spoken to, the bigger the galvanization, not to mention the bigger the audience.) But if people’s relationship with music has grown more peculiar, that’s largely because music has grown peculiar too–not because it’s weird, but because there’s simply too much of it to process easily.

Let me try it this way: For most people, music is akin to sports. Everyone knows the games, the rules, and the big teams; knowing anything beyond that is nitpicking. You can, week to week, pay zero attention to the minor leagues, but no one’s going to blink if you claim to love baseball. It’s perfectly OK to refer to a player who’s spent four years in AA and AAA ball before climbing into the majors as “new.” In this realm, the idea is to get to the majors and shine; it isn’t to make a life’s goal out of pitching middle relief for 12 seasons in Pawtucket.

This reckoning, of course, has nothing to do with how music actually works. In sports, a tiered system like baseball’s major and minor leagues presents an accurate reflection of talent and ability, for the most part. In music, those distinctions are arbitrary: the band you can see at a local dive can be as good as the one headlining an arena, and if you care at all you probably want to keep tabs on both camps and many points between. (Especially if you’re a genre specialist.) In music, all the leagues–major, minor, even foreign when we tune those in–exist on a level field, and there’s a lot more of them, too. In this scenario, the Pawtucket middle reliever’s life goal is both nobler and more commonplace–and given the vagaries of the marketplace, just as elusive as jumping to the bigs and snagging Rookie of the Year.

So right–my analogy went too far. Forgive me. Anything was better than actually listening to “Bubbly” and Bublé.

  1. Chris Molanphy

    You’re onto something here. There is something weirdly “pure” about the A/C charts, in that they mostly reflect the glacial pace of that format and the way the silent majority (to borrow Nixon’s term) appropriate new music. I’ll explain the “mostly” in a second.

    Some data points, just to clear things up:

    • Like several major charts (Modern/Mainstream Rock, Country), A/C is all-airplay. So you were right about the no-iTunes thing.

    • At various points in the last 20 years, A/C has been the No. 1 measured format in the country according to Arbitron (lately, I think News/Talk has been the leader; country has also gone through leadership phases). So you’re also right about the ubiquity.

    • The one “unpure” thing about the A/C chart: Billboard removes songs that are more than 20 weeks old and fall below the Top 10. That’s probably the most severe “recurrents” rule on any of their charts, but it’s necessary, as you can see by the age of the records still polluting the upper reaches. In the early ’90s, when Billboard switched to monitored airplay (which is to radio what SoundScan is to retail), they set the rule at retiring songs that fell below the Top 20; but that left songs on the chart forever.

    This last rule is what I meant by “mostly”–the average American’s perception of current music is actually even sleepier than this chart would indicate. But songs are retired as early as possible because otherwise half-decade-old Celine Dion hits would stick around forever. Even the rule doesn’t always do its job: As I think I mentioned in a post some months ago, there was once a Savage Garden song that remained in the A/C Top 10 for more than two years.

    In other words, to turn one of your contentions on its head: the chart is 30 positions not so much because that’s how few new songs make it onto A/C radio every year, but because that’s how big they have to make it to ensure that something new appears on the chart sometime (i.e., positions 11-30). If the chart reflected how really snoozy A/C radio is, it’d be 20 positions, max.

  2. Anonymous

    Why do I all of a sudden want a piece of dry white toast?

  3. Maura Johnston

    “The radio may mystically connect us all, but I’d wager that most of us listen to it unaccompanied.”

    i think, though, that ac stations are the ones that people listen to in collective settings more frequently (i.e. the ads about how ac stations are the ones that you can listen to at work).

  4. Michaelangelo Matos

    @Maura Johnston: yeah, you’re definitely right about that, but if anything I think it just strengthens my point: the music “everyone knows” is the stuff that’s been through a lot of filters–it arrives at knowability via a lot of intermediaries. that’s why it can be listened to in mixed company without much bother.

  5. Michaelangelo Matos

    @Chris Molanphy: I’m not so sure the 30 positions thing turns my contention on its head so much as bolsters it. Obviously it’s airtight and only admits that which is most broadly (and blandly) appealing. I might have made that more explicit, but it’s pretty much what I was going for. And thanks for all the chart info–again, it confirmed my suspicions.

  6. bcapirigi

    @Maura Johnston: True. And it’s lengthy days in workplaces like that that make One More Try by George Michael seem like the best damn song ever recorded.

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