What’s stronger and more impregnable than the news judgment of network television, the fiscal wisdom of Los Angeles City Hall, or a celebrity’s last will and testament?
Answer: Billboard‘s chart rules.
Even as the early summer of 2009 has seen TV newscasters ignore global unrest in favor of Michael Jackson death coverage; L.A. spend millions amid a state budget crisis to police a Jackson memorial; and Jackson’s heirs treat his final documented wishes as mere suggestions, Billboard has not budged.
Since the early ’90s, the magazine has ruled that songs and albums more than a couple of years old will not appear on its flagship lists, the Hot 100 or the Billboard 200, respectively. That goes even if an old disc is outselling every current title, or if an old song is booming out of car radios from coast to coast.
I don’t blame Billboard for standing firm on its rules amid all the Jackson hoopla, but it has made the last couple of weeks surreal for chart-watchers like me. The two big lists have looked placid on the surface, but everybody knows the real action is elsewhere: Jackson has had the top-selling album(s) for two weeks now (and possibly a third soon), and his songs have earned Top 10-level sales and airplay — none of which is reflected on these flagship charts.
But nothing’s stopping us from imagining what these lists would look like if Jackson were allowed to appear on them. If he’d been allowed on last week’s Hot 100, for example, Jackson would have beaten a 45-year-old record by the Fab Four. Let’s explore what both of the big charts would have looked like in this parallel universe.
For albums, Billboard does it for you: their Comprehensive Album Chart ranks all albums side-by-side regardless of age, accurately reflecting Jackson’s postmortem prowess. For the past two weeks, his compilation Number Ones has been the country’s top-selling album — this week, with the staggering sum of 339,000 discs, up 215% from the prior week’s already-fat sales. Thriller is No. 2 with 187,000, up 86%.
(These latest numbers reflect the first full seven-day chart week after Jackson’s death; the previous week’s charts included just three and a half days of sales after his Thursday passing. Even in that limited time, Jackson managed to outsell any other act for the week both in albums and online.)
Now, let’s give Billboard their due. They’ve been really good about disclosing all these sales figures, and they’re not hiding anything. They’re kind of making this up as they go, because normally the sales of catalog discs aren’t this interesting; never in SoundScan’s 18-year history has a catalog album outsold the best-selling current album in the country. (If SoundScan had existed in August 1977, doubtless a couple of old Elvis Presley discs would have outsold Fleetwood Mac’s dominant Rumours for a week or two.) Last week’s top album on the flagship Billboard 200: the Black Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D., with 88,000 sold. This week, it’s the compilation NOW! 31, with 169,000. In both cases Jackson’s Number Ones handily outsold the top current disc, this week, by a margin of about two-to-one.
Billboard’s Comprehensive Albums list is normally a feature offered only to premium subscribers, but for the last two weeks the magazine has been posting the chart on its public Web site, allowing the general public to witness Jackson’s sales feats. As well, all of Billboard’s news coverage has prominently explained how the albums are selling and what charts they appear on.
However, as forthright as Billboard has been about Jackson’s album sales, they haven’t done much to clarify how his singles are faring against current hits. On the positive side, the sales-based Digital Songs chart has no recurrent rule, meaning old songs are allowed to compete there (see below — this week, Jackson owns half of the Top 10 downloads). But none of these chestnuts are allowed to appear on the Hot 100. And it’s no mean feat to try and guesstimate it yourself, because the Hot 100 uses a more intricate formula — including sales, airplay, and online streaming impressions — than the all-sales Billboard 200. In other words, Billboard might as well tell you how the old albums are doing; any SoundScan subscriber could figure it out, anyway. But creating a parallel Hot 100 is real work and not worth it to them.
So allow me. With data help from a nameless industry mole to whom I owe a drink, here’s what the Top 30 of last week’s Hot 100 would have looked like if Jackson had been allowed to chart. This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that Billboard might quibble with, but I’m confident that it’s more than 90% accurate. Jackson’s “hits” are highlighted in bold.
PARALLEL-UNIVERSE HOT 100
(Billboard issue date July 11, 2009, based on data collected June 22-28)
1. Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
2. Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow”
3. Drake, “Best I Ever Had”
4. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West & Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down”
5. Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”
6. Lady GaGa, “LoveGame”
7. Pitbull, “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)”
8. Sean Kingston, “Fire Burning”
9. Michael Jackson, “Thriller”
10. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex”
11. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”
12. Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel”
13. Linkin Park, “New Divide”
14. Katy Perry, “Waking Up in Vegas”
15. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
16. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”
17. 3OH!3, “Don’t Trust Me”
18. Shinedown, “Second Chance”
19. Beyonce, “Halo”
20. Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”
21. Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
22. Young Money, “Every Girl”
23. Michael Jackson, “Rock With You”
24. Michael Jackson, “Smooth Criminal”
25. Michael Jackson, “Black or White”
26. Michael Jackson, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
27. Pink, “Please Don’t Leave Me”
28. Nickelback, “If Today Was Your Last Day”
29. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody”
30. Kid Cudi, “Day ‘N’ Nite”
Shocking? Toward the top, not really—Jackson’s biggest “hit,” “Man in the Mirror,” would have been no threat to the Black Eyed Peas for the No. 1 slot. Also, none of these songs would have improved its chart history: each peaked higher in its original 1980s-era chart run than it does here (all were Top 10 hits, most of them No. 1’s).
On the other hand, look at the sheer number of “hits”: 10 in the Top 30, all but one of them in the Top 25! That would have set a record to put to shame everyone from the Beatles to Lil Wayne to Taylor Swift. Also, I don’t have full data for the entire parallel-universe Hot 100, but doubtless Jackson would have scored enough hits in the chart’s lower rungs to beat the Beatles’ all-time one-week Hot 100 record of 14 songs, set in April 1964. So that’s an opportunity lost for Jackson. (Not that he needs to set any more records.)
In case you’re curious, the X-factor that prevents Jackson from being as all-out dominant on this imaginary Hot 100 as he is on the Digital Songs list is radio airplay. Using the top-selling “Man in the Mirror” as an example, in the days following Jackson’s death, the song received 2,827 spins on radio stations across the country; but in that same week, Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” the country’s biggest radio hit, received about two to three times that number of spins. Still, the nearly 3,000 spins for “Mirror” would have ranked it among the top 20 most-played songs nationwide in late June. Radio’s favorite Jackson track, “Billie Jean,” received an even more impressive 4,540 spins.
All of the above data reflects the days immediately after Jackson’s death, when his digital downloads were most torrid and radio attention most intense. In the most recent chart week, covering the full Monday-to-Sunday after his passing, sales and airplay for Jackson’s songs cooled a bit. In a parallel-universe version of the new Hot 100 (real data shown at the bottom of this column), Jackson’s biggest hits would have ranked no higher than “Mirror” at No. 9, with “Billie Jean” holding at No. 11, “Black or White” edging up a couple of slots, and all the other tracks falling a few places. Impressively, however, all 10 of the above Jackson hits would have remained in the Top 40.
With Jackson’s memorial service dominating news coverage this week, next week’s chart (covering this week’s radio and sales activity) might actually show Jackson’s hits moving back up. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Comprehensive Albums chart and my Bizarro-World Hot 100 to see whether the Summer of Jackson persists into mid-July.
(Postscript: Why do recurrent rules—i.e., the exclusion of old stuff—exist, anyway? Because the industry Billboard serves wants it that way. It’s not useful to the labels to know where Journey’s Greatest Hits or “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” rank among current hits week after week. If Billboard included these old albums and singles on the flagship charts, that would leave fewer spaces for emerging hits to make the lists’ lower rungs; imagine being on the label promotional team breaking a new pop act that would have made No. 90 on the Hot 100 if it hadn’t been for an old hit higher up that wouldn’t get out of the way. It became even more important for Billboard to have recurrent rules in place when SoundScan came online in 1991, because the more accurate data revealed that, even as new hits come and go, folks buy certain perennial discs forever. The downside, of course, is that we old-school chart freaks will never again see records riding the big album chart for 15 consecutive years, as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon did from 1973 to 1988.)
Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:
• Last week, surprising no one, the Black Eyed Peas succeeded themselves at No. 1, as “I Gotta Feeling” knocked “Boom Boom Pow” from the penthouse (final tally: 12 weeks at No. 1).
That puts the Peas in another elite club. Only 10 acts have ever succeeded themselves at No. 1; and if you go by my stricter rules, which exclude an Elvis Presley twofer in 1956 that predates the Hot 100 and two other pairs with featuring-artist credits (Puff Daddy in 1997, Ja Rule in 2002), the number of self-succeeding acts is just seven: the Beatles, Boyz II Men, Nelly, OutKast, Usher, T.I. and the Peas.
Only nine months separate the Peas’ moment of succession and the previous one, by T.I. But that’s an eternity compared with the pileup of singles by OutKast and Usher in 2004; that year, the succession of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” by “The Way You Move” came a mere 14 weeks before Usher’s “Yeah!” was succeeded by his “Burn.”
• The highest Hot 100 debut of the week falls just outside the Top 10, as mellow-girlypop avatar Colbie Caillat scores her second-biggest hit ever with the Archie-endorsed “Fallin’ for You.” Its ninth-place berth on the Digital Songs chart (118,000 downloads) results in a No. 12 debut, remarkable for a gal whose biggest hit, the fall 2007 smash “Bubbly,” took months to climb to its Top Five peak and whose followup single “Realize” made a tepid No. 20.
• Speaking of Caillat, and also in the never-underestimate-the-power-of-mellow-pop dept.: Late last summer, I compared Caillat’s too-tasteful strummy sound to a then-rising song by Jason Mraz. Well, here we are more than 10 months later, and that Mraz hit is looking to set a chart record — “I’m Yours” is in its 64th week on the Hot 100. That ties Mraz for third place with Carrie Underwood’s slow-rising and slow-falling “Before He Cheats” on the all-time longevity list. One more week, and he ties the second-place hit, a double-sided 1996 Jewel single (“You Were Meant for Me”/“Foolish Games”) that milked a mid-’90s chart aberration into a 65-week Hot 100 run. Then “Yours” has to stick around a full month after that to knock off the all-time champ, LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live,” which charted for 69 weeks in 1997-98.
As we explained here two years ago when Underwood was going for the record, the trick to pulling off a longevity feat is staying above No. 50; that’s the dividing line where Billboard’s recurrent rules kick in and songs older than 20 weeks are removed from the Hot 100 permanently. On this score, Mraz’s hit is doing well: it currently sits at No. 29 and is actually up two notches from the prior week. When Underwood’s hit was gunning for the record, it spent its last month knocking around the 40s, and here’s Mraz still touching the 20s. So it looks like Jewel is toast, and Rimes’ all-time record looks more vulnerable than it’s ever been.
• Boy, the recurrent rules just keep coming up this week, don’t they? The second-highest debut on this week’s Hot 100, at No. 45, is actually a reentry, a never-say-die track from the Ting Tings. And it wouldn’t be there if Billboard didn’t make an exception to its rules, because the song already had a 20-week chart run and was removed a couple of months ago.
Just when it looks like “That’s Not My Name” is about to peter out in America, it catches on with a few more radio stations. A boost in current airplay (according to news reports, even Radio Disney is catching on, with more than 300 spins on its syndicated kiddie network) prompts Billboard to allow the reentry by the track, which first appeared on the list last December. This isn’t even “Name”’s first comeback — it made a Hot 100 reentry last February, which I reported here. This third entry, just five slots below the Top 40, is its highest yet, and the fact that it’s fueled by radio is a good sign that it might drift higher and finally give the hit British act its first bona fide U.S. hit.
• How hot at country radio is Brad Paisley? So hot that his chart-toppers don’t behave themselves and fall away after they’ve peaked.
The Hot Country chart is all-airplay and, as we’ve discussed here before, carefully managed by the Nashville promotional establishment; songs adhere to regimented patterns. For the average country No. 1 hit, a typical chart run consists of a long, slow, steady climb, a week or three on top, and then a fast drop. (Billboard contributes to this by setting its recurrent rule such that songs disappear off the Country chart after they fall out of the Top 10 — one of the most rapid removal rules on any list except Adult Contemporary.) Just look at “Out Last Night” by Kenny Chesney, which was No. 1 a scant two weeks ago: it’s already down to No. 8, and it’ll be removed from the entire 50-position list when it (most likely) slips from the Top 10 next week.
But, by contrast, look at Paisley’s “Then”: his 10th No. 1 single in a row, it spent three weeks on top, the last of which was four weeks ago. But it won’t leave the Top Five. After slipping from the penthouse to No. 2, it actually held at No. 4 for two weeks, and this week it slips just one measly notch to No. 5. These are the kinds of poky patterns we expect from declining hits on the Hot 100 or R&B/Hip-Hop charts (see the former No. 1’s by Black Eyed Peas on the former and Keri Hilson on the latter, each still in the Top Five), but not Country. Which, again, says that Paisley is sneaking past the likes of Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith as the format’s biggest radio star.
• Let’s make a year-end prediction right now: If Anberlin’s “Feel Good Drag” isn’t the No. 1 Alternative song of 2009, I’ll eat my hat. Now in its 40th chart week, the former Modern Rock No. 1 song actually moved up one notch last week and is back down that same one notch to No. 6 this week. Other songs by the likes of Green Day and Kings of Leon have had flashier chart runs, but “Drag” has outlasted virtually every chart-topper that’s come before or after it this year.
Further down the Alternative list, emo stalwarts Taking Back Sunday score only their second Top 10 hit in a decade-long career, as “Sink into Me” sneaks up one notch to No. 10. They previously reached No. 8 at Modern Rock with 2006’s “MakeDamnSure.”
(Billboard issue date July 18, 2009; based on data collected June 29-July 5)
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, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 1, 4 weeks)
2. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks)
3. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 3, 9 weeks)
4. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down” (LW No. 4, 15 weeks)
5. Lady GaGa, “LoveGame” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks)
6. Sean Kingston, “Fire Burning” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks)
7. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” (LW No. 8, 13 weeks)
8. Pitbull, “I Know You Want Me” (LW No. 6, 19 weeks)
9. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 11, 11 weeks)
10. Linkin Park, “New Divide” (LW No. 9, 7 weeks)
Hot Digital Songs
1. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 1, 215,000 downloads)
2. Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror” (LW No. 3, 159,000 downloads)
3. The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (LW No. 5, 144,000 downloads)
4. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (LW No. 4, 129,000 downloads)
5. Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (LW No. 2, 128,000 downloads)
6. Sean Kingston, “Fire Burning” (LW No. 10, 125,000 downloads)
7. Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel” (LW No. 6, 123,000 downloads)
8. Linkin Park, “New Divide” (LW No. 11, 119,000 downloads)
9. Colbie Caillat, “Fallin’ for You” (CHART DEBUT, 118,000 downloads)
10. Michael Jackson, “Beat It” (LW No. 7, 107,000 downloads)
Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks)
2. Young Money, “Every Girl” (LW No. 2, 13 weeks)
3. Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Knock You Down” (LW No. 3, 16 weeks)
4. Beyoncé, “Ego” (LW No. 4, 8 weeks)
5. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 6, 10 weeks)
6. Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” (LW No. 5, 18 weeks)
7. Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett, “Break Up” (LW No. 11, 7 weeks)
8. Trey Songz, “I Need a Girl” (LW No. 8, 17 weeks)
9. Ginuwine, “Last Chance” (LW No. 9, 19 weeks)
10. Twista, “Wetter (Calling You Daddy)” (LW No. 7, 14 weeks)
Hot Country Songs
1. Dierks Bentley, “Sideways” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks)
2. Zac Brown Band, “Whatever It Is” (LW No. 2, 26 weeks)
3. Lady Antebellum, “I Run to You” (LW No. 5, 25 weeks)
4. Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy” (LW No. 6, 18 weeks)
5. Brad Paisley, “Then” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks)
6. Darius Rucker, “Alright” (LW No. 9, 13 weeks)
7. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 8, 12 weeks)
8. Kenny Chesney, “Out Last Night” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks)
9. Keith Urban, “Kiss a Girl” (LW No. 7, 17 weeks)
10. Rascal Flatts, “Summer Nights” (LW No. 11, 12 weeks)
Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Linkin Park, “New Divide” (LW No. 1, 7 weeks)
2. Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks)
3. Cage the Elephant, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” (LW No. 3, 16 weeks)
4. Green Day, “21 Guns” (LW No. 6, 7 weeks)
5. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 4, 25 weeks)
6. Anberlin, “Feel Good Drag” (LW No. 5, 40 weeks)
7. Franz Ferdinand, “No You Girls” (LW No. 7, 18 weeks)
8. Shinedown, “Sound of Madness” (LW No. 9, 13 weeks)
9. Manchester Orchestra, “I’ve Got Friends” (LW No. 10, 15 weeks)
10. Taking Back Sunday, “Sink into Me” (LW No. 11, 10 weeks)
The Invisible Glove: Jackson Presides Over Parallel-Universe Charts
What’s stronger and more impregnable than the news judgment of network television, the fiscal wisdom of Los Angeles City Hall, or a celebrity’s last will and testament?