Project X Turns On The AC

Michaelangelo Matos | April 28, 2008 4:30 am

As 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.