Archive forAugust, 2006

SHOWN UP BY THE RUNNER-UP

By request, a list of well-known #2 singles, many of them stopped by crappy, forgettable #1s.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the agonizing sight of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the undisputed best single of 2006, getting stuck at #2 on the Billboard charts thanks to the dreadful Fergie smash “London Bridge.”

In passing, I mentioned that Gnarls getting stuck in the runner-up slot was maddening but not shameful (quoting myself): “a #2 peak puts ‘Crazy’ in good company. Someday I’ll have to do a blog post about the long list of classic #2 singles – ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ ‘Since U Been Gone’ – many of which were foiled by forgettable #1s.”

That someday is today, as one of my loyal readers instantly requested such a post. I should confess straight away, the research for this was easy – I mean too easy; junior-high-term-paper easy – because there’s a single source: The Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles. Yup, they actually publish such a thing; it’s meant as a companion volume to Fred Bronson’s beloved Billboard Book of Number One Hits. The No. 2 Singles book not only tells a little story about each hit-that-didn’t-quite-make-it, there’s also data about which song(s) prevented the #2 hit in question from going all the way. What I aim to provide here is some critical judgment about the songs that wuz robbed.

 

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THE WAR ON FERGIE

    I scoffed when she dumbed down a pretty good rap group. I cringed when she sang about her lady lumps. But now she’s interfered with my favorite song of the year. This is war.

I am rarely mistaken for a sports nut. I mean, who’s going to look at my wimpy, city-boy ass and think, There’s a guy who likes his Final Four? But on the rare occasion when I have to confess my general lack of interest in sports, I offer the pithy explanation, “Music is my sports.”

I mean this quite literally, much more so than most music fans. Hipster rock fans are a dime a dozen; even schlocky pop fans who can sing everything on Z100-FM are thick on the ground. But I am that rare beast who studies Billboard charts the way most guys peruse box scores. And much like a sports nut debating the minutiae of salary caps and first-draft picks, I dig behind the stats to find the reasons why one song or album tops another on the charts – there’s almost always some extraneous reason besides talent and popularity, usually involving radio formats or marketing gimmicks or an Oprah appearance.

Finally, like a sports nut, I pick my teams and root for them. When a favorite player tops a chart, I exult; when he/she/they lose a bullet or slip a few rungs, I quietly mourn.

My peculiar approach to music fandom explains why I am so angry today. Thursdays are when Billboard announces the results of the next week’s singles charts. (Unlike the album charts, which are widely reported because Soundscan data is relatively easy for numerous media outlets to obtain, the Hot 100 singles chart is pretty much only reported by Billboard; it involves complicated sales-plus-radio formulas that no other outlet can calculate.) And boy, did I not like what Billboard reported today.

The new Number One single in America is the debut solo single by Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, “London Bridge.” On its face, this is a revolting development: “London Bridge” is a thin, hokey girlyrap ditty – “Hollaback Girl” for dummies. Its title sounds classy, until you realize it’s a metaphor for “going down.” It’s also an obvious sequel – probably dreamed up by a record-exec with dollar signs in his eyes – to last year’s surprise Black Eyed Peas smash “My Humps,” widely agreed to be one of the most toxic songs ever.

But let’s ignore the song’s lousy artistic qualities. Statistically, it’s done something even more horrifying: By shooting to #1, it blocked the best single of 2006 – Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” – from topping the charts in America. For the fifth week in a row, “Crazy” is #2. “London Bridge” shot from #5 to #1.

The awesomeness of Gnarls’s song is not up for debate. Not only did it top charts around the world for months last spring, it has also been covered by more than a half-dozen major artists in its short six-month life – just last weekend, Jack White and the Raconteurs played it at Lollapalooza – and it is expected to top critics’ polls for single of the year handily. But as a chart phenomenon, it has crossed over slowly in America. This is yet another thing that made me love “Crazy”: its rise reminds me of the old-fashioned, slow-and-steady crossovers we used to see on the charts when I was a teenager, when songs would percolate at a couple of stations in pockets around the country and then slowly spread, picking up stations and selling more singles as each week passed. Nowadays, such chart climbs are somewhat rarer; like hit movies, hit songs often explode out of nowhere, with big label budgets foisting them on the public. But in America, at least, “Crazy” behaved more like the Little Engine That Could.

When I last wrote about “Crazy,” in mid-July, it had just risen to the runner-up slot. It’s been waiting patiently there ever since, stuck behind Nelly Furtado’s smash #1 hit, “Promiscuous,” which topped the Hot 100 for six weeks. (I half-wonder if Furtado has mixed feelings about this; she’s one of the acts that has recorded a cover of “Crazy.”) According to Billboard chart columnist Fred Bronson, last week “Crazy” came just a few points shy of slipping past “Promiscuous” into the top slot; one more week, Fred said, should do it.

But Fergie had other plans. The red flag went up last week, when “London Bridge” vaulted from #84 to #5 all at once, setting a record for the second-biggest single-week jump in Hot 100 history. Thus, this week, the last leg of her conquering journey was comparatively shorter.

The teeth-gnashing thing is that Furtado’s single was ready to wane: this week, “Promiscuous” drops from #1 to #3, behind Gnarls. In short, had there been no “London Bridge,” “Crazy” this week would have achieved its historic status as an American #1 single. Instead, it will go down as a runner-up.

If that comes to pass, one takes solace that a #2 peak puts “Crazy” in good company. Someday I’ll have to do a blog post about the long list of classic #2 singles – “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Since U Been Gone” – many of which were foiled by forgettable #1s.

But the really depressing thing about the failure of “Crazy” to top the iconic Hot 100 in America is what caused it: a mix of predictable U.S. radio-programmer indifference bolstered by a sudden rush of consumer whim.

The radio thing is easy to explain: programmers have been slow to move on “Crazy”; on the separate chart Billboard runs which isolates just radio airplay, “Crazy” has never risen higher than #10. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it would be understandble if the general public were indifferent to “Crazy.”

It isn’t: both in traditional retail stores and on iTunes, Gnarls Barkley has been a big seller. You’d think that by now, radio would be playing the crap out of a song/act the public has clearly embraced. In one of the worst summers for music sales in U.S. history, Gnarls’s album St. Elsewhere has remained in the Top 10 (often the Top Five) since June, never reaching #1 but continually providing record retailers with the kind of bread-and-butter CD sales they desperately need. Meanwhile, “Crazy” has been the #1 seller on iTunes since early July, the culmination of months among Apple’s Top 10 digital songs.

As I wrote more than a year ago, Billboard made a smart move in early 2005 by adding iTunes sales to the Hot 100. It has been a revolutionary change, giving a more accurate, more direct sense of what songs catch the general public’s fancy week to week. The only reason “Crazy” got as high as #2, given radio’s mild response, was its awesome sales on iTunes, which more than outweighed the radio ranking.

But: live by iTunes, die by iTunes. “London Bridge” is huge there, too. The big leap Fergie made two weeks ago coincided with the single’s release on iTunes, where it shot to #1. The Fergie song has just-okay radio airplay (not much better than Gnarls’s), but two straight weeks of heavy iTunes sales made up the difference. The same public that bought “Crazy” for weeks went gaga for “London Bridge,” and they’re the reason for the Gnarls Barkley coup. It would be nice to blame indifferent radio programmers. But the fact is, it’s mostly the public’s fault.

Looking back over the history of Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson herself, the public’s whims also play a role. “My Humps” was a throwaway song on the Black Eyed Peas’ last album that was never intended as a single. Last fall A&M/Universal, the Peas’ label, was busy working their hand-picked emphasis track, “Don’t Lie,” to radio. But then America spoke: on iTunes, “My Humps” took off, its whiny odes to “lady lumps” and the pleasures of getting one’s boyfriend to buy expensive blue jeans having touched a nerve with club kids and teenyboppers with iPods. The label quickly shifted focus from “Don’t Lie” to “My Humps,” and the song became a chart smash. Fergie’s is the only voice you hear through 80% of “My Humps.” The Black Eyed Peas, a middling hip-hop act that arguably signed a pact with the devil by taking in teen-pop refugee Fergie in order to score hits, found themselves a sideshow to her preening. (In a recent interview, longtime BEP leader Will.I.Am bemoaned the group’s new schlock-pop media profile, a crisis of confidence brought on when he watched a hilariously apt Saturday Night Live fake ad that lampooned the Peas for being shills.)

I reviewed the Black Eyed Peas’ 1998 debut CD for CMJ back in the day, and I must say I found them pleasant but somewhat forgettable as “conscious,” post–De La Soul backpacker-rappers. They suffered through two dud albums as a three-man team before teaming up with Fergie in 2003. I suppose it’s hard to be angry with Fergie for dumbing down and providing hits to a group that was never at the forefront of hip-hop to begin with. I also couldn’t get too angry when “My Humps” polluted the radio last year; if it was screechy and annoying, at least it was funny. The moment she started to offend me was when her handlers – I picture a cabal of managers, agents, and label execs – decided to launch her solo career based entirely around the “My Humps” template. So 2006 is the year the War on Fergie began.

And the moment when she stopped Gnarls Barkley at the brink of #1 will go down as her Archduke Ferdinand moment. Down with Fergie!

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