These Little-Town Blues: Jay-Z’s Yankee Anthem Gives NYC Its Best-Ever Chart Berth

In 2000, John Mellencamp gave one of the more heartfelt Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speeches I’ve ever seen, honoring the Lovin’ Spoonful. In the midst of his speech, the ex–Johnny Cougar sang a whole verse and chorus of the Spoonful’s 1966 No. 1 smash “Summer in the City.” Said Mellencamp: “That song meant a lot to a small-town boy from Indiana.”

Well, sure it did, I thought. But I bet you wouldn’t have liked the song half as much if it’d been called “Summer, New York City.”

It was smart of Spoonful leader John Sebastian and his brother Mark, both native New Yorkers, not to namecheck their hometown in their biggest hit. If they had, I can guarantee you “Summer in the City” wouldn’t have topped Billboard’s Hot 100. More than 50 years into the Rock Era, no song specifically about New York has gone all the way to No. 1.

But damned if that’ll stop Jay-Z. One week after his hometown ballclub won its 27th World Series, he and fellow New Yorker Alicia Keys find themselves one rung from the top of the charts with “Empire State of Mind.” It’s a song Jay wrote seemingly predicting a Yankee victory season, and its timing has been impeccable. If it weren’t for a competing hit by a bedroom pop geek from Minnesota, Jigga and Alicia would have the first-ever explicitly New York City–related chart-topper.

But then, songs about New York City are like baseball teams from New York City: something most of the country takes pride in loathing.

As a native New Yorker, I’m rooting for “Empire State of Mind,” but I can’t let my hometown pride get in the way of chart reality. Now that the baseball season’s over, it’s almost assured that this Jay/Alicia Bronx cheer isn’t going to get any higher than No. 2.

The data for the new Hot 100 comes from last week, when the Yankees clinched the Series, and that Gotham euphoria bumps “Empire” to its second-highest one-week digital sales total since it debuted in September with 193,000 copies. Last week, with the Bronx Bombers providing a lift – a performance by Jay and Keys before Series Game 2 didn’t hurt, either – the song was up 11% to 133,000, enough to make it the week’s third-biggest seller. Add to that the song’s strong and still-growing airplay: “Empire” now ranks sixth among all radio songs, surpassing Jay’s prior single “Run This Town” at radio for the first time. The result is an overall second-place Hot 100 ranking. It might have captured the penthouse, if not for Owl City’s “Fireflies,” which returns to No. 1 for a second (nonconsecutive) week.

Despite its titular reference to the “Empire State,” Jay-Z’s latest hit clearly isn’t an ode to Albany or Utica. The lyrics are entirely about New York City, and so it’s fair to regard it as the highest-charting song ever about the Big Apple. I dug through my chart books looking for a New York City song that had done as well, and the closest I can find is Glenn Frey’s schlocky, sax-drenched “You Belong to the City,” a No. 2 hit in 1985; written for a New York–set episode of Miami Vice, “Belong” never mentions Gotham specifically, unsurprising coming from a Detroiter-by-way-of-Cali like Frey.

It might seem surprising that New York, one of three U.S. cities that dominate the recording industry (besides Los Angeles and Nashville), has never been the subject of a chart-topping hit. Literally hundreds of songs have invoked, fetishized or revolved around the Big Apple. But much the way television executives dread a Subway Series or an all-Northeast Superbowl for the way it localizes and limits TV ratings, pop acts seem to have figured out long ago that the way to a national hit is either being as vague as possible, or naming your tune after a town tiny or exotic enough that it’s unlikely to inspire heartland suspicion.

Other acts that took the Frey approach and were rewarded include three “City”-referencing No. 1’s: the aforementioned Lovin’ Spoonful 1966 track; 1978’s “Hot Child in the City” from slick one-hit pop-rocker Nick Gilder; and the widely-agreed-upon Worst Pop Song Of All Time, 1985’s “We Built This City” from Starship. How’s this for craven: the San Francisco–based Starship garnered nationwide airplay for “City” by allowing radio stations to replace the bit of Bay Area DJ patter in the song’s bridge with their own local drive-time jocks’ yammerings. (Miley Cyrus is replicating the approach this year in her current smash “Party in the U.S.A.,” for which she’s recorded different radio call letters to reference in the lyric, “And [name of station]’s on.”)

Of the five biggest U.S. cities only two, third-ranked Chicago and fifth-ranked Philadelphia, have had a No. 1 hit named after them – weirdly, within a year of each other, and both by British acts. One-hit group Paper Lace took “The Night Chicago Died” to the top of the Hot 100 in 1974, and Elton John landed the chart-topper “Philadelphia Freedom” in 1975. [Addendum, from commenter Matos: I forgot MFSB’s “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia),” also known as the Soul Train theme. Bizarrely, it, too topped the Hot 100 in ’74.]

Besides that pair, it’s a parade of random towns topping the chart, from world-renowned to flyspecks: Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua” and Les Baxter’s “Poor People of Paris” (both instrumentals, both in 1956); Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” and Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” (back-to-back in 1959); Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” (1960); Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta” (another instrumental, in 1961); the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” (1966 – so many U.S. towns are named Clarksville, no one can even agree which one the gentle antiwar song is about); the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral” (1967); Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up (Live at Glasgow)” (1980); Jann Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” (the last-ever chart-topping instrumental, in 1985); and Fergie’s “London Bridge” (2006 – and I think we can agree this piece o’ crap, lyrically, had nothing to do with Old Blighty).

Among songs with New York in the title – Jay-Z’s technically doesn’t count here – the highest-charting has been the doo-wop favorite “The Boy from New York City,” which hit the Top 10 twice: No. 8 by the Ad-Libs in 1965, and No. 7 by the Manhattan Transfer in 1981. Most of the famous New York songs didn’t even make the winners’ circle, from the Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (No. 14, 1967) to Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” (No. 14, 1978) to, of course, Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” (No. 32, 1980). For the record, Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” wasn’t released as a single in 1976 and couldn’t chart under then-current Hot 100 rules.

Among acts with New York–related names, just two have hit No. 1, both in 1976: the Manhattans, with “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” and Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, with the instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven.” And by the way, the Manhattans were from Jersey City and claim they named the group after the cocktail.

So what’s the deal here – is New York simply Billboard chart poison? Is this provincialism rearing its ugly head? Has the rest of the nation no respect for the town that invented whole volumes of the Great American Songbook, from Broadway to Brill Building to hip-hop? (My non–New York readers will forgive me a bit of melodrama; it’s my first week doing the column post-Idolator, and I’m entitled to a bit of shameless bias.)

Mind you, no one seems to mind references to big cities in national pop hits, overt or oblique. New York was name-checked in such internationally-minded smashes as M’s “Pop Musik” and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” And at least two other chart-toppers mention Gotham so prominently, they might as well have been penned by the Ed Koch administration: “Stayin’ Alive” (1978), in which the Bee Gees consider the New York Times’ effect on man; and the yacht-rock schlockfest “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” (1981), in which Christopher Cross gets caught between the moon and New York City. Anyway, L.A. hasn’t fared any better or worse: no chart-toppers are named after it, although the Eagles’ deathless “Hotel California” might as well be.

Looking at it from a pure numbers perspective, it’s pretty difficult to get people across the county to buy or request a song specifically about a city they’ve never lived in or even visited. Sure, the so-called regional hit is as old as popular music itself, but songs that break regionally have to spread to other cities to amass the points necessary to scale the Hot 100’s upper reaches.

When Soundscan came along in 1991 and made chart data-gathering more accurate, it also, incidentally, revealed just how popular hip-hop, a city-centric art form, was nationwide. Prior to that, few record-store owners or regional DJs were inclined to tell Billboard that a song about New York was doing well where they lived; either it truly wasn’t, or they weren’t noticing. Now that we have more accurate measures of song popularity, regional hits with a devoted enough fanbase can do quite well on the big chart. Right now, Jay-Z is benefiting from huge iTunes sales, which I would imagine are concentrated in New York but are clearly still big enough to swamp most other hits; and heavy airplay not just from New York stations but also black radio nationwide. (This week, “Empire State of Mind” moves to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.)

Before digital downloads began charting in 2005, a song like “Empire” would have had a hard time getting to No. 2; before the launch of Soundscan in 1991, it probably would’ve been impossible. Assuming “Empire” never gets to No. 1, we can blame regional bias, but we can’t blame the numbers. It’s just way too specific a song, lyrically – with Jigga name-checking everything from Bed-Stuy to “dollar cabs” – to mean much to listeners in other cities, let alone hamlets and townships.

Forgive my facile pop psychology, but the answer is pretty simple, just thinking about John Mellencamp’s adoration of “Summer in the City” while roaming the mean streets of Seymour, Ind. Pop hits are all about projection – imagining yourself dancing in, living out or just passing through the depicted fantasia. Small-town Americans will happily pass through urban America for three or four minutes…but preferably their imagined Emerald City, not yours.

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

• If Jay-Z’s latest is exceeding chart expectations, Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” is arguably underperforming. Stuck between Nos. 6 and 7 for almost two months now, the song never reached the Top Five, making it the lowest-charting of her four Hot 100 hits to date. (“Just Dance” and “Poker Face” went all the way to No. 1; “LoveGame” made No. 5.) “Paparazzi”’s peak wouldn’t be remarkable if not for the fact that it’s a radio monster – unlike all three of her previous hits, this week “Paparazzi” reaches No. 1 on Billboard’s Radio Songs/Hot 100 Airplay chart, meaning it’s the most-played track in America of any genre. Not even the ubiquitous “Poker Face” pulled that off; last winter/spring it got stuck at No. 2 on the airplay list behind Flo Rida’s “Right Round.”

“Paparazzi” has had two problems in its chart run: digital sales, and more recently, self-inflicted competition. The song has sold very well at iTunes, but never spectacularly. In its single biggest week back in September, “Paparazzi” rolled 164,000 downloads; that’s an excellent number for the fourth single from a more than year-old album, but in their chart-topping weeks “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” sold more than 200,000. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, for the past two weeks Gaga fans have had an additional download to choose from: “Bad Romance,” the first single from The Fame Monster, the forthcoming special edition of Gaga’s hit album The Fame. In its first week, “Bad Romance” shifted 143,000 downloads and debuted on the big chart at No. 9; in this, its second week, it moved another 96,000, falling to No. 18. But those sales figures dwarfed the download totals of “Paparazzi” (almost double in week one; nearly one-third better in week two). In short, for Gaga, it’s a good problem to have.

• One last tidbit on Jay-Z: by moving to No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop list, he evicts Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings” after an epic 14-week run. “Empire State of Mind” is now only the sixth song to ascend to the top of this list in 2009.

As Billboard points out in its own Chart Beat column this week, there’s just five weeks left in the year (given the magazine’s heavily front-loaded chart-dating system), and three more songs would have to revolve through the R&B/Hip-Hop top slot to avoid setting the dismal record of fewest No. 1’s in a year. (It was set in 2007, when just eight songs were on top.) It’s actually not inconceivable that turnover could pick up in the top slot. Again, with the World Series over, “Empire” will likely drop out of No. 1 quickly, making room for Usher’s fast-rising “Papers.” Then the only question is how tenaciously he holds the penthouse.

• The Alternative chart is going through one of its egregiously sleepy periods, with half of the Top 10 (including the entire Top Four) holding position. Only one song breaks into the winner’s circle: Death Cab for Cutie’s New Moon soundtrack song “Meet Me at the Equinox,” which creeps up one notch to No. 10. This is only Death Cab’s fourth career Top 10 hit, their first since the No. 6–peaking “I Will Possess Your Heart” in 2008. Assuming it doesn’t go much further, it would fall short of both their Modern Rock high-water mark (“Soul Meets Body,” No. 5, 2005) and the biggest hit from a Twilight soundtrack (Paramore’s “Decode,” which reached No. 5 last January).

Top 10s
(Billboard issue date November 21, 2009; based on data collected November 2–8)
Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads in parentheses):

Hot 100
1. Owl City, “Fireflies” (LW No. 2, 12 weeks)
2. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 3, 9 weeks)
3. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks)
4. Iyaz, “Replay” (LW No. 12, 12 weeks)
5. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 4, 19 weeks)
6. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 5, 13 weeks)
7. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (LW No. 6, 11 weeks)
8. Britney Spears, “3″ (LW No. 8, 5 weeks)
9. Rihanna, “Russian Roulette” (LW No. 75, 3 weeks)
10. Beyoncé, “Sweet Dreams” (LW No. 11, 16 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs
1. Owl City, “Fireflies” (LW No. 1, 194,000 downloads)
2. Iyaz, “Replay” (LW No. 10, 154,000 downloads)
3. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 4, 133,000 downloads)
4. Rihanna, “Russian Roulette” (LW No. 75, 132,000 downloads)
5. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 4, 125,000 downloads)
6. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 6, 122,000 downloads)
7. Ke$ha, “TiK ToK” (LW No. 7, 122,000 downloads)
8. Britney Spears, “3″ (LW No. 8, 118,000 downloads)
9. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (LW No. 3, 96,000 downloads)
10. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 12, 95,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks)
2. Usher, “Papers” (LW No. 4, 6 weeks)
3. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 1, 28 weeks)
4. Trey Songz feat. Drake, “I Invented Sex” (LW No. 6, 13 weeks)
5. Drake feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem, “Forever” (LW No. 3, 11 weeks)
6. Gucci Mane feat. Plies, “Wasted” (LW No. 5, 22 weeks)
7. Maxwell, “Bad Habits” (LW No. 7, 22 weeks)
8. LeToya feat. Ludacris, “Regret” (LW No. 8, 14 weeks)
9. Birdman feat. Lil Wayne & Drake, “Money to Blow” (LW No. 15, 9 weeks)
10. Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett, “Break Up” (LW No. 11, 27 weeks)

Hot Country Songs
1. Carrie Underwood, “Cowboy Casanova” (LW No. 3, 10 weeks)
2. Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (LW No. 4, 13 weeks)
3. Luke Bryan, “Do I” (LW No. 6, 29 weeks)
4. Zac Brown Band, “Toes” (LW No. 1, 20 weeks)
5. Reba McEntire, “Consider Me Gone” (LW No. 10, 14 weeks)
6. Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (LW No. 2, 20 weeks)
7. Kenny Chesney feat. Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks)
8. Keith Urban, “Only You Can Love Me This Way” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks)
9. Taylor Swift, “Fifteen” (LW No. 9, 11 weeks)
10. Craig Morgan, “Bonfire” (LW No. 11, 25 weeks)

Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Muse, “Uprising” (LW No. 1, 14 weeks)
2. Weezer, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” (LW No. 2, 12 weeks)
3. Foo Fighters, “Wheels” (LW No. 3, 7 weeks)
4. Rise Against, “Savior” (LW No. 4, 21 weeks)
5. 30 Seconds to Mars, “Kings and Queens” (LW No. 7, 5 weeks)
6. Breaking Benjamin, “I Will Not Bow” (LW No. 5, 13 weeks)
7. Three Days Grace, “Break” (LW No. 8, 10 weeks)
8. Chevelle, “Jars” (LW No. 6, 20 weeks)
9. AFI, “Medicate” (LW No. 9, 11 weeks)
10. Death Cab for Cutie, “Meet Me on the Equinox” (LW No. 11, 8 weeks)

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