Giant-Killer: How Ke$ha Held Back “We Are the World” II on the Hot 100

For months now, the media has been positioning art-damaged dance queen Lady Gaga as the heir apparent to Hall of Fame diva Madonna.

But after Billboard’s release of the latest Hot 100, perhaps Ke$ha is more deserving of the title. With just her first hit single, the party girl has – without breaking a sweat – duplicated a giant-killing feat pulled by Madge’s sixth hit in 1985.

That would be the defeat of “We Are the World,” a heavily hyped all-star charity record both in its original 1985 incarnation and in a mediocre 2010 remake for Haitian relief. The original version by USA for Africa did manage to top the Hot 100 in spring ’85 before being ousted four weeks later – remarkably quickly – by a hotter-than-hot Lady M with her undying ballad “Crazy for You.”

A quarter-century later, the redo by Artists for Haiti has suffered an even greater chart humiliation: not reaching the No. 1 spot at all, thanks to Ke$ha’s now nine-week-old chart-topper “TiK ToK.” While “WATW” ’10 is still selling well, it’s quite likely that its No. 2 debut this week is as high as it’ll ever go.

The Hot 100 of today is pretty radically different from the 1985 chart, but it’s still an interesting thought exercise to compare the chart performances of the two versions (and the pop-diva songs that held them back), to understand how each version reflects the radio and sales landscape of its day.

With first-week digital downloads of 267,000, the new “World” was the week’s top-seller. That’s enough for the song to blast onto the Hot 100 all the way up in the runner-up slot, a feat that was essentially impossible in 1985 and is somewhat rare even today. In the last decade, only a dozen songs debuted in the Hot 100’s two top slots. Interestingly, it’s now happened twice in 2010 already: Taylor Swift’s Valentine’s Day soundtrack song “Today Was a Fairytale” debuted and peaked at No. 2 a month ago.

It should be said that, by modern digital-sales standards, “World’s” 267,000 is a strong but not terribly impressive number. That Swift single, for example, shifted 325,000 copies in its debut week in January. Granted, “Fairytale” is by the most popular current act in America, and it’s the first new material by said megastar in more than a year. But by any yardstick, 267,000 is pretty ho-hum. The biggest-ever debut sales week by a group was the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow,” which shifted 465,000 copies in its debut last spring – without the benefit of the literally Olympian hype garnered by Quincy Jones’s and Lionel Richie’s reconvening of the star-studded.

Still, the “World” sales total outdoes Ke$ha’s for the week by nearly 75% – and she’s No. 1 on the big chart, not Artists for Haiti. How’d that happen?

Airplay, obviously – “World” has almost none, “TiK ToK” has a ton. Ke$ha’s smash has been the most-played song in America for more than a month. “World” doesn’t appear on the Radio Songs list at all. According to Billboard, “96 percent of the Hot 100 chart points for ‘We Are the World 25: For Haiti’ stem from digital sales…246 stations sampled the new interpretation following its Feb. 12 release, with…KRUZ Santa Barbara leading with 29 plays.” Just to be clear: the one station in America that played “World” the most – for the week – played it less than 30 times. The biggest hit records might be played on each station between 20 and 30 times a day.

Charity records, if they connect with the public, are always sales monsters; but it’s much harder to convince radio program directors to spin them. For example, the biggest charity single of all time, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997,” never ranked higher than 21st among all radio songs at its peak. (The “double-A-side” single actually produced a bigger radio hit with the bluesy ballad “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” which reached No. 18 at radio.) Divorced from their original, hype-fueled event releases, do-gooder songs are a tough fit in the midst of any radio format mix.

That’s what made the original “We Are the World” special – back in 1985, it was not just a huge seller but an airplay smash, peaking at radio, on the sales list and on the all-encompassing Hot 100 at No. 1. True, this was back in the pre-Soundscan/BDS days of rampant payola and corrupt, non-computerized airplay reporting; so we can’t be sure exactly how much airplay “World” I got. But as a Gen-Xer glued to his radio back then, I can attest that I heard Lionel, Michael, Cyndi et al. belt out “World” plenty.

We’ll probably never again see a period as chart-friendly to charity singles as the mid-’80s. From “World” to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to “Sun City” to (God help us) “Hands Across America,” the Hot 100 was awash in massed voices belting out platitudes from 1984 to 1986. (Even the shamelessly self-promotional “Superbowl Shuffle” by the Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew was a charity single, recorded to benefit “Chicago’s neediest families” but more likely to benefit Mike Ditka’s next contract negotiation.) The biggest charity hit at radio wasn’t even USA for Africa’s, but rather Dionne (Warwick) and Friends’ “That’s What Friends Are For,” a four-artist pileup for AIDS research that spent the same number of weeks at No. 1 (four) as “We Are the World,” spent more weeks on the Hot 100 (23 vs. 18), and wound up the No. 1 song of 1986. To this day, Warwick’s “Friends” is an easy-listening radio standard, unlike the kitschy “World.”

Speaking of radio standards, Madonna’s “Crazy for You,” the song that ultimately tossed “World” I from the top slot, was already on its way up the charts when USA for Africa debuted. As “World” rose, it passed multiple Madge singles on its way, including the No. 2–peaking “Material Girl” as well as “Crazy for You.” If any act was going to oust the all-star “World” from the top slot in a month flat, by all rights she should be the one.

While Madonna’s cultural clout would deepen as she entered the 1990s, in early ’85 she was at her absolute zenith as pop-culture object and Zeitgeist-shifter. Thanks to the soundtracks of Vision Quest and Desperately Seeking Susan, along with the still-fresh Like a Virgin album, which was less than six months old, Madonna dominated radio and record bins in the first half of ’85 like the Beatles in 1964 or Michael Jackson in 1983–84 – not their last respective moments of hugeness, but the time when their cultural dominance was fresh and effortless. Within the industry there was a bit of gasping when “Crazy” topped “World” on the Hot 100, but with hindsight it’s easy to see how such a hot act would ultimately outlast a one-off event single – particularly with such a radio-friendly ballad.

Radio has always been a challenge for even the most well-intentioned, well-hyped do-gooder hits, then and now. But back then, radio would give a charity record a chance in regular rotation. In the modern, heavily focus-grouped and demographically targeted radio of today, charity songs are novelty records, period – not deserving of spins beyond morning-show curiosity play. That’s where “World” II never really stood a chance.

The one chart advantage “World” II has over its predecessor a quarter-century ago is the accurate counting of singles sales. In the days before Soundscan, it was essentially impossible to score a Top Five debut on the Hot 100; a couple of Beatles singles had debuted in the lower half of the Top 10, but that was it. Retailers were slow to report their best-selling 45’s, even singles as massive as the original “World” – sales reports would dribble in weeks after even the hottest new songs had dropped at retail.

“World” I took what would now be considered a poky path to the top of the charts for an “event” single, debuting at No. 21 and reaching No. 1 in its fourth week. (How slow were the charts back then? So slow that even after “World” leapt into the Top Five in its second week, it was held out of No. 1 for a couple of weeks by Phil Collins’s glacial ballad “One More Night.”)

After the introduction of Soundscan data to the charts in 1991, it became clear that major singles could land at retail like hit movies, instantly materializing at or near the top of the charts. We’ve had dozens of Top 10 debuts on the Hot 100 since 1991, including 16 hits that have debuted at No. 1. In other words, if Soundscan had existed in 1985, it’s quite likely that “World” I would have debuted in the Top Five or even at No. 1.

That brings us back to “World” II, which, fueled by hundreds of thousands of singles sales, debuts on the big chart at No. 2. Accurate, computer-based tallying gives the new charity single the kind of debut it merits – and the sort of boost the Haitian-relief track needs if it’s going to stay in the public’s consciousness.

Unfortunately for Lionel, Quincy and their coalition of the willing, they won’t be getting a similar boost from 21st-century radio, and that likely will prove fatal to the song’s chart-topping chances. While the song remained a top-seller in its second week, it’s doubtful it sold as many copies as in week one (we’ll find out next Wednesday), and the radio picture doesn’t appear to have improved. Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” is still mighty at radio but fading at iTunes, which theoretically could give Artists for Haiti an opening to take the penthouse. But with the unkillable Black Eyed Peas taking over the top slot among iTunes’ best-sellers with “Imma Be” and rising toward the Radio Songs Top 10 as well, the chances of “World” II spending even a week at No. 1 are getting slimmer.

As a song, “World” II is even kitschier than the original and, most critics seem to agree, misbegotten. Unlike a lot of charity records, the cause supported by “World” II is truly worthy and virtually unimpeachable. But in interviews, Richie has confessed that he and Jones wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “World” one way or another; though they don’t say as much, the Haitian earthquake appears to have arrived at a…let’s say, opportune moment.

Like movie multiplexes in the summer, the charts right now seem to be awash in sequels. Ke$ha and Gaga barely add up to one Madonna (that is, combining the former’s insouciance plus the latter’s transgressiveness – but neither one has yet recorded a song as great as, say, “Borderline”). Still, as modest as the pleasures of “TiK ToK” are, it takes something as overcooked and uninspired as “We Are the World 25: For Haiti” to make clear just how dispiriting a culture of sequels can be.

A few other notes on this week’s charts:

• How many No. 1 hits has Lady Gaga had? If you follow the mass media, you might think the answer is a staggering five, rather than the actual two she’s scored on the Hot 100: “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” This inaccuracy has been annoying me for months now, and Billboard itself is largely to blame.

For a little less than two decades, the magazine has published a Pop Songs chart – in addition to and separate from the Hot 100 – that’s limited to Top 40 radio airplay. This makes Pop Songs a purer representation of what a “pop” station would play – but it doesn’t have the history, clout, sales data or all-genre ecumenicalism of the 51-year-old Hot 100, which whatever its faults is a pop-music fan’s standard-bearer. (I mean, I see the value in Wall Street guys following an index that’s limited to banks or oil companies, but that doesn’t make it the Dow.)

Since her breakthrough in early ’09 with “Just Dance,” every track Gaga has released has topped Pop Songs – including, more recently, “LoveGame,” “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance,” all songs that failed to top the Hot 100 (her sixth single “Telephone” is on its way up Pop Songs as we speak). That’s an unprecedented track record on the Pop Songs chart, and Billboard has trumpeted this feat extensively in its news coverage of Gaga. But as you can imagine, newspaper and other MSM reporters with little chart-geek knowledge are picking up this data point and reporting “five No. 1 hits” as if they’re on the iconic Hot 100.

The reasons Billboard’s smaller charts exist, when you get right down to it, are twofold: (1) as a valid yardstick for industry people who focus on this or that subgenre to do their work; and (2) as a shameless grab for extra bragging rights, by giving more charts for a wider range of acts to top. (Yanni may be a punchline to the wider world, but on the Top New Age list he’s a demigod.) It’s Billboard’s job to provide these lists as tools for the industry, but it’s also their job to clarify for the media how big a feat “five straight No. 1’s on the Pop Songs list” is.

For Gaga, it’s a solid accomplishment, sure – and honestly, if it were up to me, I’d rather the superb “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance” had topped the Hot 100 rather than some of her songs that did – but let’s not get carried away. Gaga isn’t one-quarter of the way to equaling the Beatles’ or Mariah Carey’s record-setting lists of actual Hot 100 chart-toppers. She’s a strong pop act who’s topped the big chart twice. Period.

• In the category of small-chart feats that actually matter: Two weeks ago, French indie-pop act Phoenix pulled off a notable record, as their nearly year-old single “1901” topped the Alternative chart in its 31st chart week – the slowest rise to the penthouse in the erstwhile Modern Rock list’s 22-year history. The Glassnote-distributed track is also only the fourth song on an actual independent label to top this list, after songs on Epitaph (the Offspring’s “Come Out and Play,” 1994), Tommy Boy (Everlast’s “What It’s Like,” 1998) and Dangerbird (Silversun Pickups’ “Panic Switch” last summer).

As Billboard reported, that 31-week climb beat by two weeks the prior slowpoke record-holder – Anberlin’s “Feel Good Drag,” which reached No. 1 last spring after 29 weeks. Other glacial chart-toppers included 10 Years’ “Wasteland,” which took 27 weeks in 2006, and Finger Eleven’s “Paralyzer,” which took 26 weeks in 2007. Arguably, what differentiates Phoenix from all of these other slow-builders – and explains why it took the band even longer – is what an odd fit “1901” is for modern-day alt-rock radio, which leans away from the kind of shiny urban pop Thomas Mars & co. play. Had it not been for a Cadillac commercial late last year that featured “1901” prominently, it’s unlikely that critical darlings Phoenix would have even made the Top 10, let alone the penthouse.

• A seemingly technical expansion of Billboard chart data could have major implications for its big genre charts in the future. A week ago, the magazine buried this small tidbit into its subscriber newsletter:

    Nielsen Soundscan is launching new digital song genre charts, most of which will soon become part of the Billboard chart menu in print and on Billboard’s chart managers will oversee the digital genre charts, which includes reviewing tracks, assigning appropriate genres, and designating one overall core genre per song. A song may fit many genres, but will only be counted under one core genre. The song core genres are blues, comedy, jazz, R&B/hip-hop, children, country, Latin, rock, Christian/gospel, dance/electronic, new age, world music, classical, holiday/seasonal and pop.

Why is this interesting? Because it could finally address a handicap on most of Billboard’s lists since the industry switched to a virtually all-digital market for singles. Other than the Hot 100, no major Billboard genre chart includes digital song sales – which, in 2010, is kind of insane.

The biggest chart to suffer has been Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, a venerable list that dates to the ’60s and is supposed to combine radio airplay and singles sales, like the Hot 100, but has become virtually all-airplay in the last decade as the physical singles market has disappeared. The politically fraught question was how to include digital song sales on this chart without damaging its primary purpose: tracking the urban/African-American music economy, which includes its own demimonde of mom-and-pop retailers. But time marches on, and Billboard will likely conclude that the damage to these retailers (by minimizing their chart impact) is outweighed by the need to track how well R&B and hip-hop songs are selling digitally – already a major factor on the all-genre Hot 100. The same goes for the Latin Songs list, which also is its own fiefdom but badly needs to incorporate digital song sales to remain relevant.

Depending on Billboard’s findings after it begins gathering this data, one could imagine other seismic changes to the charts. The most drastic, and welcome, move the magazine could make would be to add digital data to one of the other biggies, Hot Country Songs – a chart that’s been all-airplay for decades, even when the vinyl 45 was king of the roadhouse jukebox. Including digital sales on this chart would counterbalance the awesome power of country radio program directors and empower the country consumer in ways that could upend an age-old status quo. Yippee-kay-yay?

Top 10s
(Billboard issue date February 27, 2009; based on data collected February 8–14)
Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads in parentheses):

Hot 100
1. Ke$ha, “TiK ToK” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks)
2. Artists For Haiti, “We Are the World 25: For Haiti” (CHART DEBUT)
3. The Black Eyed Peas, “Imma Be” (LW No. 2, 11 weeks)
4. Young Money feat. Lloyd, “BedRock” (LW No. 4, 12 weeks)
5. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (LW No. 5, 16 weeks)
6. Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (LW No. 3, 27 weeks)
7. Train, “Hey, Soul Sister” (LW No. 7, 20 weeks)
8. Ludacris, “How Low” (LW No. 8, 10 weeks)
9. Jason DeRulo, “In My Head” (LW No. 11, 10 weeks)
10. David Guetta feat. Akon, “Sexy Bitch/Chick” (LW No. 6, 28 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs
1. Artists For Haiti, “We Are the World 25: For Haiti” (CHART DEBUT, 267,000 downloads)
2. The Black Eyed Peas, “Imma Be” (LW No. 1, 215,000 downloads)
3. Train, “Hey, Soul Sister” (LW No. 5, 161,000 downloads)
4. Young Money feat. Lloyd, “BedRock” (LW No. 4, 157,000 downloads)
5. Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (LW No. 2, 155,000 downloads)
6. Ke$ha, “TiK ToK” (LW No. 3, 153,000 downloads)
7. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance” (LW No. 6, 124,000 downloads)
8. Jason DeRulo, “In My Head” (LW No. 9, 124,000 downloads)
9. Ke$ha feat. 3OH!3, “Blah Blah Blah” (LW No. 12, 115,000 downloads)
10. Ludacris, “How Low” (LW No. 11, 98,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Melanie Fiona, “It Kills Me” (LW No. 1, 26 weeks)
2. Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” (LW No. 6, 16 weeks)
3. Timbaland feat. Drake, “Say Something” (LW No. 5, 15 weeks)
4. Ludacris, “How Low” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks)
5. Trey Songz feat. Fabolous, “Say Aah” (LW No. 4, 22 weeks)
6. Mary J. Blige, “I Am” (LW No. 7, 14 weeks)
7. Robin Thicke, “Sex Therapy” (LW No. 8, 17 weeks)
8. Young Money feat. Lloyd, “BedRock” (LW No. 3, 18 weeks)
9. Trey Songz feat. Drake, “I Invented Sex” (LW No. 9, 27 weeks)
10. Sade, “Soldier of Love” (LW No. 10, 11 weeks)

Hot Country Songs
1. Josh Turner, “Why Don’t We Just Dance” (LW No. 1, 26 weeks)
2. Brad Paisley, “American Saturday Night” (LW No. 3, 16 weeks)
3. Jason Aldean, “The Truth” (LW No. 2, 22 weeks)
4. Darius Rucker, “History in the Making” (LW No. 4, 24 weeks)
5. Billy Currington, “That’s How Country Boys Roll” (LW No. 6, 23 weeks)
6. Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)” (LW No. 7, 20 weeks)
7. Blake Shelton feat. Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone” (LW No. 9, 18 weeks)
8. Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home” (LW No. 8, 12 weeks)
9. Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That” (LW No. 11, 27 weeks)
10. Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around” (LW No. 12, 14 weeks)

Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Phoenix, “1901″ (LW No. 1, 32 weeks)
2. Muse, “Uprising” (LW No. 3, 28 weeks)
3. Cage the Elephant, “Back Against the Wall” (LW No. 4, 28 weeks)
4. 30 Seconds to Mars, “Kings and Queens” (LW No. 2, 19 weeks)
5. Rise Against, “Savior” (LW No. 5, 35 weeks)
6. Pearl Jam, “Just Breathe” (LW No. 6, 17 weeks)
7. Flyleaf, “Again” (LW No. 7, 25 weeks)
8. Weezer, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” (LW No. 8, 26 weeks)
9. Alice in Chains, “Your Decision” (LW No. 10, 11 weeks)
10. Three Days Grace, “Break” (LW No. 9, 24 weeks)

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