A Strapped America Goes To The 99-Cent Store, And New Singles Storm The Top 40

Chris Molanphy | October 10, 2008 3:00 am

In a week where it seems the global financial crisis is inescapable, America decides that a buck is a nice price to spend on music, and the Top 40 of Billboard‘s Hot 100 sees a wave of new best-selling singles—including two in the Top 10 and a massive leap by a new No. 1 smash.

With that 79-place jump (which, ahem…I called last week), T.I. accomplishes two major chart feats. New No. 1 “Live Your Life” featuring Rihanna sets the record for the biggest leap to the top in history—which would be unremarkable, given the frequency with which this record has been broken recently, if not for the fact that T.I. is beating himself, having reset the mark just six weeks ago.

More impressively, by ousting his own “Whatever You Like,” T.I. joins a very elite club: acts that succeeded themselves at No. 1. During the Hot 100’s entire 50-year history, there have only been eight, and if you ignore featuring-artist credits, the number is six.

Besides these chart feats, T.I.’s hit also sets a record for the biggest debut sales week for a digital single. But we might want to get used to that happening. Already, iTunes is reporting a wave of new best-sellers as the music industry’s last blockbuster holiday hits full swing.

Let’s hold off on discussing T.I.’s record-setting leap (yawn) and talk about how the firehose of digital sales affects his single and several others.

Since Apple’s iTunes Store opened for business five years ago, the week just after Christmas has set a new record for digital sales volume, as millions of new iPod owners rush to their computers to fill the devices. By early January, Apple has crowned a new song the all-time one-week best-seller. The most recent beneficiary and current record-holder is Flo Rida, whose pop-rap smash (and likely No. 1 hit for all of 2008) “Low” sold nearly half a million downloads in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Just to give you an idea of scale, in a typical week, maybe five songs sell more than 100,000 copies. During that most recent late-December week, the top 24 songs all sold that well, and the 10 best-sellers moved more than 200,000 each.

That’s what makes this otherwise ordinary early-October sales week notable: almost the entire Top 10 of Billboard’s Digital Songs chart sold in the six-figure range, and each song in the Top Five moved more than 140,000. That’s not Christmas-big, but it’s impressive at a time that doesn’t seem to have any specific holiday or special-event-related trigger. If the forthcoming (inevitably dreadful) holiday season has any effect at all, it’s the fact that all of the blockbuster albums on which the industry has pinned its fourth-quarter hopes have leadoff singles, and they’re all dropping now.

These include new tracks by Christina Aguilera, Nickelback and David Cook, all of which we discussed in this column last week. Two of those three records make even more impressive Hot 100 debuts than I expected, and a fourth one I didn’t mention last week outperforms expectations as well.

Aguilera’s “Keeps Gettin’ Better” and Nickelback’s “Gotta Be Somebody” both debut within the big chart’s Top 10—at Nos. 7 and 10, respectively. Each is fueled by a decent amount of airplay and a whole lot of sales: 144,000 downloads for Xtina, 127,000 for the Canuck post-grungers.

The Cook single, by contrast, is a bit of an underperformer. With 109,000 downloads, Cook’s “Light On” makes a respectable Hot 100 showing at No. 17. But compared with fellow American Idol finalist David Archuleta, whose “Crush” debuted at No. 2 in August with 166,000 downloads in its first week, those numbers look a little… um, light. (Sorry.) Where Cook’s hit goes from here will depend on radio’s embrace, and so far things don’t look good: “Light On” is totally absent not only from the all-genre Hot 100 Airplay list but from both the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts, despite Cook’s status as the first Idol “rocker” winner and the presence of co-writer Chris Cornell.

Finally, the Killers’ catchiest song (and weirdest chorus lyric) in years results in their second-biggest Hot 100 debut: “Human” sells 70,000 copies and enters the big chart at No. 32. Only 2006’s “When You Were Young” did better, debuting at No. 29. Credit their promotional team with good timing: the band’s appearance on Saturday Night Live last weekend, in the last 24 hours of the tracking week for the chart, probably accounts for many thousands of those downloads.

All of these songs’ sales totals are impressive, but they’re dwarfed by the song at No. 1.

“Live Your Life” isn’t the lead single of T.I.’s Paper Trail, which debuts atop the album chart this week. Technically, “Life” isn’t even a single at all—despite previewing it at MTV’s Video Music Awards in early September and giving radio stations advance copies, Atlantic Records (and Island Def Jam, Rihanna’s label, which is co-promoting the song) never made it available at iTunes in advance of the album, Weezy-style. But the instant T.I.’s album dropped at iTunes, with all of its tracks simultaneously on sale at 99 cents, an army of fans swept in to buy the song.

To be exact, 335,000 fans bought it, making “Life” the second-biggest one-week seller of all time behind Flo Rida’s “Low,” and the biggest-selling digital song (a) in a non-holiday week and (b) in its debut week. The previous record-holder for that last distinction was Mariah Carey, who moved 286,000 copies of “Touch My Body” in its debut week last spring.

The first-week sales of “Life” are more than double those for this week’s second-biggest seller, Pink’s “So What.” In terms of the Hot 100, sales like that made the leap to No. 1 by the T.I./Rihanna song inevitable, regardless of how much airplay the song was receiving. But hey, airplay ain’t shabby: “Life” is already the 22nd most-played song at radio nationwide. On the airplay-heavy Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, “Life” is already in the Top 10.

As for the records T.I. sets, succeeding himself at No. 1 is the real mind-blower, because so few acts have done it. And when they do, it’s usually a sign that they’re at a peak of culture-dominating popularity: think the Beatles in 1964, Boyz II Men in 1994, or Usher in 2004.

In his column this week, Fred Bronson at Billboard has the complete list of acts that have done it, and he counts nine. But that includes an Elvis Presley twofer that precedes the existence of the Hot 100 (back in the days when Billboard reported multiple big singles charts), and two acts that scored with a featured-artist credit: Puff Daddy in 1997 (his “I’ll Be Missing You” was succeeded by the Notorious B.I.G.–fronted “Mo Money Mo Problems”), and Ja Rule in 2002 (his “Always on Time” was followed by Jennifer Lopez’s “Ain’t It Funny”). I’d argue to put those acts on a lower tier, leaving a half-dozen who did it on the Hot 100, with tracks they fronted: the Beatles, Boyz, Nelly, OutKast (a bit of a cheat to those of us who regard “Hey Ya!” as an André 3000 single and “The Way You Move” as a Big Boi single, but never mind), Usher, and now Clifford “T.I.” Harris Jr.

When T.I. soared from No. 71 to No. 1 with “Whatever You Like” in late August, I sniffed that this chart feat was becoming less amazing all the time, as several current acts like Usher and Maroon 5 had leapt to the top from outside the Top 40 (or, in Rihanna’s case, routinely: she’s done it three times).

Indeed, by beating his own record this week with the 80–1 leap of “Live Your Life,” the Atlanta rap king shrinks the time between record-breaking instances almost as low as it can go. It took 38 years for the Beatles (“Can’t Buy Me Love,” 1964, 26–1) to lose the record to Kelly Clarkson (“A Moment Like This,” 2002, 52–1); four and a half years for her to lose it to Maroon 5 (“Makes Me Wonder,” 2007, 64–1); 16 months for them to lose it to T.I.’s “Whatever”; and a month and a half for him to beat it himself.

Let me reiterate one word in the prior paragraph: almost. The smallest possible gap between record-setting instances, of course, would be one week, and it’s possible that that’s about to happen.

This week, Britney Spears debuts on the Hot 100 at No. 96 with “Womanizer,” entirely thanks to radio points. The song was until recently not available for purchase. Like T.I. a week ago, Spears has garnered remarkable out-of-the-box airplay, as “Womanizer” already ranks 55th among all songs spun, just a couple of weeks after going to radio. Which means the formula that sent T.I.’s last two hits to No. 1—first, early airplay, then an instant explosion of sales—is working for Spears as well: “Womanizer” was put on sale at iTunes three days ago, and lo and behold, at this writing it’s Apple’s top-seller, beating “Live Your Life.”

Should Britney pull a one-week sales total on the scale of T.I.’s—over 300,000, or even just the low 200’s—next week she could leap from No. 96 to No. 1, defeating his record after just seven days and possibly setting it for all time. That is, unless one day the stars align and a song debuts at Nos. 97, 98, 99 or 100 before shooting to the top. And then, once we’ve run out of Hot 100 positions, we’d never have to talk about this increasingly dubious chart record again.

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

• A couple more tidbits about the Killers: “Human,” with its New Order–esque synth sound, is being received warmly at the band’s “home format.” Last week, the song entered the Modern Rock chart at No. 13. That’s by far their best debut there—“When You Were Young” debuted at No. 27 on that list in the summer of 2006. And this week, “Human” becomes the band’s fastest Top 10 Modern Rock hit, rising to No. 8; “Young,” by contrast, took three weeks to move into the winners’ circle.

• When Billboard publishes its year-end charts, I’ll be a bit surprised if the person with the No. 1 R&B/Hip-Hop song of the year isn’t Keyshia Cole. She’ll either do it with her seven-week chart-topper from last winter/spring, “I Remember”; or her even bigger nine-week chart-topper from last spring/summer, “Heaven Sent.” I mention this because the latter just won’t die: a week after “Heaven” dropped out of the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 after a four-month run there, it jumps back to No. 9, for reasons known only to urban radio programmers. Interesting tidbit: because “Heaven” moved into the Top 10 last May the week after “Remember” dropped out, last week’s chart was the first week since early January that Cole hasn’t been somewhere inside the R&B Top 10. Even Alicia Keys (the other likely year-end winner) has been out of the winners’ circle more weeks than Cole.

• Some quick notes on struggling hits: Sony’s quest to give Leona Lewis a second Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 hasn’t died yet, as “Better in Time” creeps up four spaces to No. 14. “Better” might still make it, but Lewis’ team is really sweating it—the song is now in its 13th week on the Hot 100, and the label was pushing it to radio a couple of months before that. Just for perspective, “Bleeding Love,” best-selling single of this calendar year, made the Top 10 in its fifth chart week last March.

Right next to Lewis, at No. 15, is a song that just two weeks ago I thought stood a chance of reaching No. 1: Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown.” The collapse in his digital sales, in a week where iTunes buyers have other shiny new songs to distract them, is the culprit; “Lockdown” now ranks 12th on the Digital Songs chart. On the big chart, “Lockdown” has probably peaked overall, but continued growth at radio—it now ranks 48th there, up from 69th a week ago—could bring it back to the Top 10 by the time ’Ye’s 808 and Heartbreak drops in November.

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):

Hot 100 1. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 80, 2 weeks) 2. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 1, 9 weeks) 3. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 2, 7 weeks) 4. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks) 5. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 15, 6 weeks) 6. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 6, 10 weeks) 7. Christina Aguilera, “Keeps Gettin’ Better” (CHART DEBUT) 8. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 9. M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks) 10. Nickelback, “Gotta Be Somebody” (CHART DEBUT)

Hot Digital Songs 1. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (CHART DEBUT, 335,000 downloads) 2. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 2, 165,000 downloads) 3. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 10, 148,000 downloads) 4. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 1) 5. Christina Aguilera, “Keeps Gettin’ Better” (CHART DEBUT, 144,000 downloads) 6. Nickelback, “Gotta Be Somebody” (CHART DEBUT, 127,000 downloads) 7. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 4) 8. David Cook, “Light On” (CHART DEBUT, 109,000 downloads) 9. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 5) 10. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 7)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks) 2. Jennifer Hudson, “Spotlight” (LW No. 3, 21 weeks) 3. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It,” (LW No. 2, 13 weeks) 4. Jazmine Sullivan, “Need U Bad” (LW No. 4, 23 weeks) 5. Ne-Yo, “Miss Independent” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks) 6. Lil Wayne feat. Bobby Valentino, “Mrs. Officer” (LW No. 5, 14 weeks) 7. Lil Wayne feat. T-Pain, “Got Money” (LW No. 7, 21 weeks) 8. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 16, 4 weeks) 9. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 13, 28 weeks) 10. Robin Thicke, “Magic” (LW No. 9, 20 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Kenny Chesney, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks) 2. Darius Rucker, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (LW No. 1, 25 weeks) 3. Toby Keith, “She Never Cried in Front of Me” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 4. Carrie Underwood, “Just a Dream” (LW No. 6, 13 weeks) 5. Kid Rock, “All Summer Long” (LW No. 4, 21 weeks) 6. Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman” (LW No. 8, 17 weeks) 7. Jimmy Wayne, “Do You Believe Me Now” (LW No. 5, 28 weeks) 8. Tim McGraw, “Let It Go” (LW No. 9, 12 weeks) 9. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 11, 4 weeks) 10. George Strait, “Troubadour” (LW No. 7, 19 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. The Offspring, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” (LW No. 1, 11 weeks) 2. Weezer, “Troublemaker” (LW No. 2, 13 weeks) 3. Staind, “Believe” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 4. Apocalyptica feat. Adam Gontier, “I Don’t Care” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks) 5. Rise Against, “Re-Education (Through Labor)” (LW No. 4, 7 weeks) 6. Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes” (LW No. 5, 7 weeks) 7. Carolina Liar, “I’m Not Over” (LW No. 7, 23 weeks) 8. The Killers, “Human” (LW No. 13, 2 weeks) 9. Theory of a Deadman, “Bad Girlfriend” (LW No. 10, 16 weeks) 10. Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire” (LW No. 17, 7 weeks)