Chartwalker: Why Billboard Geeks Remain Fond of Michael Jackson
I’ll probably always remember where I was when I heard the news of Michael Jackson’s death, if only for the specificity of the circumstances: I was on a plane back from Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon when the news broke on my seatback TV. I’d boarded the plane planning to spend the bulk of my time writing this chart column, and I was all set to focus on the usual Billboard happenings. But that quickly went out the window.
Within minutes of turning on the news on my seatback monitor, an MSNBC newscaster began rattling off a list of Jackson’s many awards and achievements, some (“Best-Selling Album Worldwide”) more impressive than others (“Grammy for Shortform Video of the Year, 1988”).
This is a natural and understandable biographical thread for Jackson encomia to pursue: after the sordid details of his personal life are burned off, Jackson’s music-business achievements are enormous. That said, as you head into this weekend, you’re going to hear and read a lot of superlatives about Jackson’s body of work, and the sheer length of the list might obscure which sales statistics and career kudos really matter.
But let me be clear: I come to praise Jacko, not bury him. The fact is, even a quarter-century after Thriller’s last hit fell off the Hot 100, the Gloved One’s industry achievements are stunning. More important, Jackson is one of very few acts for whom chart achievements serve as a fairly accurate barometer for artistic and cultural impact. This is one case where the commentators’ assessments are correct: We won’t see his like again.
To hear some of the breathless analysis over the last 24 hours, you’d think that Jackson had set every pop-music record, ever. The fact is, some of Michael’s stats aren’t all that staggering. His 13 Grammys are less than half of those of his mentor/producer Quincy Jones, and they don’t even place him among the awards’ Top 10 recipients. His total U.S. album certifications of 61.5 million — nearly half for Thriller alone — place him below everyone from Garth Brooks to AC/DC to Billy Joel and are just barely above one-third of the Beatles’ lifetime total. His 13 U.S. No. 1 singles land him fourth on the all-time list, below the Beatles-Mariah-Elvis trifecta. None of his singles has ever been the No. 1 hit of the year, and bizarrely, none of his videos ever won MTV’s Video of the Year award. (Oh, and by the way, “King of Pop”? That was a marketing term coined by Jackson’s own people in 1991 in an attempt to hype the overblown album Dangerous.)
Despite all this, many of the records Jackson still holds remain jaw-dropping. There’s been much talk since last night about how Jackson’s passing drives the last nail in the coffin of what Robert Christgau and other critics call the monoculture, and what makes chart geeks like me wistful for Jackson is how his achievements affirmed and strengthened that idea — that millions of people across regions, classes and generations could share the same cultural artifacts. To review Jackson’s lifetime stats is to remind yourself that, even if there have been and will be assorted pop-music Barry Bondses, there’ll never be another Babe.
Let’s take Jackson’s biggest accomplishments one by one and discuss how well they’ve stood up over time.
Youngest act to top the Hot 100. When the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” reached the penthouse in January 1970, lead singer Michael was just shy of 11 and a half. Amazingly, this record still stands; only Hanson drummer Zac Hanson, a month past 11 and a half when “MMMBop” topped the chart in May 1997, has come close to beating Michael’s record. (Among solo acts, “Little” Stevie Wonder still holds the record, a chart-topper with “Fingertips” at age 12.)
This age-related data point says less about Jackson as a chart-busting machine than as a unique performer. If there’s one record-business truism that holds to this day, it’s that radio programmers are deeply resistant to acts they perceive as appealing largely to tweens — regardless of how many concert tickets, say, the Jonas Brothers sell. Somehow, Jackson’s ability to deliver such a mature, convincing lovelorn vocal, even at that tender age, overcame any programmer prejudices in 1969‒70. (Of course, the fact that “I Want You Back,” written and produced by Berry Gordy’s studio crew The Corporation, is the most perfect pop recording of all time didn’t hurt.)
First act to reach No. 1 with all four of his/their first singles. A benchmark Jackson shares with his brothers — before 1970 was over, “I Want You Back” was followed in the top slot by the Jacksons’ “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” Four decades later, this remains a mind-blowing level of Hot 100 consistency and dominance in a single year, comparable only to the Beatles in 1964 (and maybe Usher in 2004). However, the record for debutante No. 1–song series has been beaten: in 1990-91, Mariah Carey reached the top with all of her first five singles.
Carey was the beneficiary of the most coordinated radio-and-retail publicity assault for a new artist in music history; and the fact that she continued to pile up No. 1’s for the next decade, while the Jackson 5 never returned to the top after 1970, oddly diminishes her achievement with those five singles more than theirs with four. To be fair, the Jacksons’ introduction was well-crafted, too. Berry Gordy’s Motown, at the height of its post-Supremes powers, launched the J5 with a fabricated story of their “discovery” by Diana Ross and promoted the group with the kind of lunchbox-and-Saturday TV bombardment not seen since the Beatles’ mid-’60s blitz. Still, a four-for-four debut No. 1 series is a rare achievement; just this year, I remarked on Lady GaGa going two-for-two with her debut singles, the first act to do so since Christina Aguilera nine years earlier. And GaGa won’t even be going three-for-three.
Most Top 10 hits pulled from a single album. Having gone solo, Jackson achieved this twice, with two consecutive albums. In 1979-80, he tied the record set in 1977 by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (and set it for solo acts) when Off the Wall produced four bell-ringers: the No. 1’s “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You,” and the Top 10s “Off the Wall” and “She’s Out of My Life.” He then obliterated that benchmark in 1982‒84 when Thriller produced seven Top 10s, starting with “The Girl Is Mine” and ending with “Thriller.”
For all the talk of that album’s big sales (more on that in a moment), this particular record is perhaps most meaningful for those of us who lived through the early ’80s. Jackson’s voice was positively ubiquitous during this period, wafting from passing cars and bedroom windows for months on end. Moreover, the fact that a black performer set the benchmark, on the all-genre pop chart, is a deserved point of pride for African-Americans.
It’s also a benchmark that, even a quarter-century later, has proved matchable but not beatable. Only Bruce Springsteen in 1984-85, with tracks from Born in the U.S.A., and Jackson’s sister Janet in 1989-91, with tracks from Rhythm Nation, were able to equal the feat in a single album-promotional cycle. (Jackson himself would have done it a second time by 1989, if Bad’s sixth single, “Another Part of Me,” hadn’t stalled at No. 11.) In large part, Jackson’s single-album Top 10s record has benefited from the industry’s evolving business model since the 1990s, in which singles are promoted to radio longer and the digital-era album has been disaggregated. Recently, Fergie and Justin Timberlake have come the closest of anybody to matching Jackson’s benchmark, pulling five Top 10s and six Top 20s, respectively, from a single album — which only goes to show how tough a feat Jackson’s was. As such, he looks likely to hold this record (with Bruce and Janet) for a long while.
First R&B-to-rock chart crossover. Many commentators in the past 24 hours have noted Jackson’s breakthrough as the first black face on MTV, which for its initial two years on-air was programmed as a “rock” video channel before “Billie Jean” changed everything. But it’s easy to overstate this achievement. Had Jackson not broken through, Prince was poised to do so with “Little Red Corvette” mere weeks later in the spring of 1983. And in retrospect, MTV’s capitulation to nonwhite pop seems inevitable.
What’s much, much harder than getting a single video channel to rethink its policy toward black artists is getting scores of rock radio stations to do the same, in numbers large enough to affect a Billboard chart. In April 1983, the Rock Tracks chart was just two years old when Jackson’s Eddie Van Halen-supported “Beat It” made its debut there. (Prince’s “Corvette” materialized on the Rock chart the same week.) In the same month “Beat It” topped the Hot 100 and R&B lists, it peaked at No. 14 on the Rock chart, making Jackson the first African-American to score an honest-to-goodness AOR hit until guitarist Robert Cray broke into the Top 10 with “Smoking Gun” four years later. Sure, if this chart had existed in the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix would’ve topped it easily; and yeah, Eddie’s face-melting presence on “Beat It” was the obvious fuel for Jackson’s crossover. But it’s one thing to praise Jackson for his cross-genre appeal, and quite another to produce data proving that middle-American white people, and the cautious programmers who served them, were willing to embrace him.
Thriller, the…top? album of all time. The granddaddy statistic of them all, mentioned within the first few paragraphs of practically all Jackson coverage, the record-breaking sales total of Thriller is actually pretty slippery. Yes, it’s widely agreed to be the world’s top-seller at a supposed 100 million copies. But like the jumbo figures we hear quoted every year for global-TV viewership of the Super Bowl and the Oscars, there’s likely to be a good deal of padding in that total (which is probably not even Sony’s fault, given the shiftiness of global distribution arrangements). I find it suspicious that the album was quoted at just over 40 million in global sales in the mid-’80s and suddenly shifted to the 100-mil figure less than two decades later — in the absence of additional hits, where’d those 50 million in new sales come from? On the flip side, consider all the likely undercounting — in China and elsewhere, countless copies of Thriller have been sold on the gray and black markets.
Better to focus on the more carefully tallied American market, where Thriller is certified a staggering 28-times platinum. (As I’ve reported here before, the U.S. album-certification system is itself corrupt, but at least it measures something real.) Sadly, as most U.S. pop fans know, this total of 28 million hasn’t been enough to make Thriller America’s all-time top album for nearly a decade now; back in 2000, Jackson’s album was dethroned by the now 29-times-platinum Eagles album Their Greatest Hits 1971–75. You don’t have to be a virulent Don Henley-hater to find this standing offensive — a bloody hits compilation, topping one of the greatest original pop recordings of all time?
Ah, but here’s where Jackson’s death will produce justice: In the wake of Thursday’s gruesome news, even the most conservative predictions have Thriller moving at least a half-million copies in the weeks to come, probably more. (The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 quickly added a million in sales to then-current Nirvana album In Utero, and a similar number to the evergreen Nevermind.) What’s more, Thriller is already on an 18-month upswing, thanks to the 25th-anniversary reissue Sony dropped in February ’08; prior to Jackson’s demise yesterday, it had already shifted about a million copies, and that was with a relatively modest (for Jackson/Sony) promotional campaign. The Recording Industry Association of America counts sales of any version of Thriller — 1982 original, or the 2001 or 2008 reissues — toward its cumulative certification total. I’d love it if, by Labor Day, Jackson’s masterwork had not only tied but blown past the Eagles and become the first U.S. album to top 30 million in certified sales. Fingers crossed.
First album to spawn five No. 1 hits. That would be not Thriller, which only produced two chart-toppers (the immortal “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”), but rather Bad. In a compressed period from the fall of 1987 to the summer of 1988, Jackson’s über-hyped followup disc spun off “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Dirty Diana.” To date, no one has matched this feat — an elite handful of acts, from George Michael to Paula Abdul to Usher, have pulled four No. 1’s from a single album, but that fifth one has proved a bridge too far.
The cynic might regard this particular milestone as emblematic of the half-hearted achievement that was Bad. The fact that that album couldn’t even break 10 million in total U.S. sales despite all those chart-toppers (plus the late-breaking Top 10 hit “Smooth Criminal”) suggests that Jackson was already devolving from genuine phenomenon to manufactured phenomenon. But besides the fact that I actually near-love Bad — between those hits and “Leave Me Alone,” it’s a fairly underrated ’80s pop gem — I also regard it as poignantly symbolic of our dysfunctional relationship to Jackson. We gradually came to reward his hits more than his albums, as we came to regard him less as artist than as freak-show diversion. But at a time when other acts, from Whitney Houston to Guns N’ Roses, were bigger pop-culture presences than Jackson, the kid showed he still had chart mojo.
First song to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Jackson’s last chart milestone came in 1995, when “You Are Not Alone” burst onto the list in the top slot, a feat that had eluded even the Beatles in their heyday. The HIStory ballad was Jackson’s final penthouse-dweller, and it ushered in a brief period from 1995 through 1998 when the biggest hits of the day, from Mariah Carey to Lauryn Hill, routinely debuted in the Hot 100’s top slot.
But why this song, which, whatever its merits, is hardly Michael’s greatest hit? (Its video, costarring then-wife Lisa Marie Presley, hasn’t aged well.) The truth is, Jackson’s final chart achievement was a product of timing and industry cycle. Billboard’s Hot 100 rules at the time required a single release for chart inclusion, and after the 1991 launch of SoundScan, a quick burst of singles sales could be tallied more accurately. All Sony had to do was pump up airplay for “Alone” for weeks before dropping the single; with a high enough first-week sales total, the song would materialize in the top slot, seemingly out of nowhere despite weeks of heavy radio play. After Billboard revised its rules in 1998 to allow radio-only cuts to chart on the Hot 100, this peculiar combination of circumstances would never exist in quite the same way again (save for the occasional American Idol victory song).
As with the five chart-toppers from Bad, what’s most impressive about the “You Are Not Alone” gambit was that it came at a time when Jackson wasn’t really the king of pop. By beating his Sony mate Mariah Carey (the second act to debut at No. 1) and a dozen other, younger acts to this benchmark, Jackson proved he was endlessly capable of explosive chart feats and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Below, I include the current Top 10 lists, as always. It features acts like the Black Eyed Peas, Ne-Yo, and Beyoncé — all of whom openly attest to the debt they owe Michael Jackson. Next week, we’ll have some idea of how well Jackson’s body of work sold in the wake of this week’s tragedy; but because of Billboard rules excluding old albums and singles from its flagship charts, we won’t see these songs and albums competing directly with the current hits of our day.
That’s understandable but, really, kind of a shame. Because if there’s one way Michael Jackson continued to awe his fans in the years after the Moonwalk stopped their hearts, it was by staying in the game and continuing to rewrite its rules.
In a way, the paucity of new music from Michael in the final decade of his life will come to be seen as appropriate rather than sad. Indeed, why would Jackson want to live in a world where a pop star couldn’t command our fractured attention? Jackson was a competitor, and if he didn’t quite go out on top, he left a book of achievements that puts distance between him and the rest of his cultural peers. For fans of charts, of the monoculture, or simply of the binding force of pop, we’re happy to remember the time.
Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):
1. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 1, 15 weeks)
2. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 2, 2 weeks)
3. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 27, 7 weeks)
4. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks)
5. Pitbull, “I Know You Want Me” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks)
6. Lady GaGa, “LoveGame” (LW No. 5, 10 weeks)
7. Sean Kingston, “Fire Burning” (LW No. 8, 7 weeks)
8. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks)
9. Shinedown, “Second Chance” (LW No. 9, 30 weeks)
10. Young Money, “Every Girl” (LW No. 34, 7 weeks)
Hot Digital Songs
1. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 1, 232,000 downloads)
2. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 2, 177,000 downloads)
3. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (CHART RE-ENTRY, 153,000 downloads)
4. Sean Kingston, “Fire Burning” (LW No. 3, 129,000 downloads)
5. Lady GaGa, “LoveGame” (LW No. 4, 117,000 downloads)
6. Pitbull, “I Know You Want Me” (LW No. 5, 104,000 downloads)
7. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down” (LW No. 6, 102,000 downloads)
8. Katy Perry, “Waking Up in Vegas” (LW No. 7, 92,000 downloads)
9. Shinedown, “Second Chance” (LW No. 8, 91,000 downloads)
10. Young Money, “Every Girl” (CHART RE-ENTRY, 90,000 downloads)
Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 1, 10 weeks)
2. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks)
3. Young Money, “Every Girl” (LW No. 3, 11 weeks)
4. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks)
5. Beyoncé, “Ego” (LW No. 6, 6 weeks)
6. Trey Songz, “I Need a Girl” (LW No. 11, 15 weeks)
7. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 9, 8 weeks)
8. Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain, “Blame It” (LW No. 5, 28 weeks)
9. Twista, “Wetter (Calling You Daddy)” (LW No. 13, 12 weeks)
10. Ginuwine, “Last Chance” (LW No. 15, 17 weeks)
Hot Country Songs
1. Kenny Chesney, “Out Last Night” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks)
2. Zac Brown Band, “Whatever It Is” (LW No. 5, 24 weeks)
3. Dierks Bentley, “Sideways” (LW No. 3, 17 weeks)
4. Brad Paisley, “Then” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks)
5. Keith Urban, “Kiss a Girl” (LW No. 4, 15 weeks)
6. Lady Antebellum, “I Run to You” (LW No. 6, 23 weeks)
7. Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy” (LW No. 7, 16 weeks)
8. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 8, 10 weeks)
9. Darius Rucker, “Alright” (LW No. 9, 11 weeks)
10. Toby Keith, “Lost You Anyway” (LW No. 10, 16 weeks)
Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Linkin Park, “New Divide” (LW No. 2, 5 weeks)
2. Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” (LW No. 1, 15 weeks)
3. Cage the Elephant, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” (LW No. 3, 14 weeks)
4. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 4, 23 weeks)
5. Green Day, “Know Your Enemy” (LW No. 5, 10 weeks)
6. Anberlin, “Feel Good Drag” (LW No. 6, 38 weeks)
7. Green Day, “21 Guns” (LW No. 14, 5 weeks)
8. Incubus, “Black Heart Inertia” (LW No. 7, 12 weeks)
9. Franz Ferdinand, “No You Girls” (LW No. 11, 16 weeks)
10. Seether, “Careless Whisper” (LW No. 9, 17 weeks)