Because She Got High: M.I.A.’s “Plane” Takes The “Express” Route To The Hot 100

For more than three years now, Interscope has tried a range of well-worn tactics to make singer/rapper/agitprop icon M.I.A. a best-seller in America: single releases with high-profile remixes; ads proclaiming her across-the-board rock-critic and blogger love; mixtape tracks; eye-catching and at times controversial music videos; and teaming her up with Timbaland for what turned out to be the weakest track on her latest album, Kala.

This week, seemingly out of nowhere and thanks to none of the above efforts, M.I.A. has her first hit on Billboard‘s Hot 100, “Paper Planes,” which makes its debut all the way up at No. 55.

M.I.A. can credit the House Of Apatow for her sudden chart fortunes, as trailers and ads for the forthcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco stoner comedy Pineapple Express prominently feature the track.

I think M.I.A. fans knew last summer that this song was destined to become her crossover hit, and if it goes no further than this, it will have already fulfilled its destiny. Except it’s going to do better because, somewhat improbably, M.I.A. is apparently connecting with one of the most loyal music-buying audiences in history: stoners.

“Paper Planes” makes its chart appearance a little less than a year after the release of Kala, and seven months after Idolator named “Paper Planes” one of the awesomest songs of 2007.

That’s the result of an explosion in sales at iTunes, where the song currently ranks 20th among Apple’s best-sellers. According to SoundScan, the digital track has sold 434,000 copies cumulatively–but nearly one-tenth of those sales came in the past week alone. As Pineapple‘s opening date of Aug. 6 gets closer and its ads become more omnipresent, it’s not crazy to speculate that “Paper Planes” could become a top 10 download and an official Top 40 hit.

Until now, Interscope has had little to show for its promotional efforts on M.I.A.’s behalf–her U.S. chart performance has been modest, at best. Her debut Arular sold rather weakly despite an avalanche of hype in 2005; Kala did better, debuting in the Top 20, but to date it’s tallied just under a quarter-million in sales. As for the song charts, she’s got a spotty record: a supporting performance on a lone R&B/Hip-Hop hit (Jamesy P’s Soca hit “Nookie,” No. 54 in 2005); some club play last spring for her Bollywood homage “Jimmy” (No. 28 on Hot Dance Club Play in March); and several appearances on the Singles Sales charts, which track physical releases and can be reached with just a few hundred in sales.

“Paper Planes” is in a whole other category. It’s already halfway up the Hot 100 and even scored some chart ink back in May on the lower reaches of the Pop 100, a Top 40-oriented list–which must mean at least a handful of radio stations have tried spinning it.

Obviously, most any song affiliated with a massive media property–movie, TV show, ad campaign–does well on iTunes and on the Hot 100. Just this week, an 11-year-old Smashing Pumpkins track featured in the new Watchmen trailer, “The End Is the Beginning Is the End,” sold nearly 11,000 copies thanks entirely to that exposure. For a song to take on a life of its own, it’s got to connect with the kind of audience that’ll keep coming back and telling their friends about it–Grey’s Anatomy fans, say, or metalheads.

Or, better yet, stoners. Allow me to digress for a moment.

Buried in the online edition of Billboard every week is one of its least sexy charts: Hot Ringtones. This chart was old-school from the moment Billboard launched it, in late 2004, since it tracks sales of polyphonic tones used by older and cheaper cell phones. But enough people buy the blippy, oddly expensive tones every week–and the music industry makes enough money from them–that they continue to be tracked by Billboard and SoundScan. (There’s a separate, more contemporary chart called Hot Ringmasters that tracks the better-sounding, actual-song-sampling ringers you’ve heard on phones in recent years.)

On this week’s Hot Ringtones, five “songs” have been listed for more than three years now. The top three longevity champs are instrumental ditties with deep pop-culture resonance: the themes from Super Mario Brothers, The Pink Panther, and Mission: Impossible. In fourth is 50 Cent’s deathless 2005 hit “Candy Shop.” And in fifth place, now in its 167th week, is Afroman’s 2001 hit “Because I Got High.” You can just imagine the thousands of 4:20 fans who’ve downloaded that ringtone after hearing their buds’ phones explode with it.

Afroman’s longevity with an ode to getting baked might explain why M.I.A.’s biggest hit might have a long shelf life. Those of us who love “Paper Planes” have talked about a lot of its catchy elements: the gunshots, the Clash sample, the kids’ chorus, the loping beat. But someone in Columbia Pictures’ marketing department keyed into the one thing that was easy for all of us elites to miss–the lyrics about weed: “I’ll fly like a paper, get high like planes”; “Pirate skulls and bones/Sticks and stones and weed and bombs.” Okay, it’s not nearly as obvious as “Because I Got High.” But featuring it in a movie trailer that opens with Rogen driving a car in a cloud of heavy smoke makes the connection plain.

Sure enough, the same week “Paper Planes” makes its Hot 100 debut, it debuts at No. 32 on Billboard‘s Hot Ringmasters chart. Unlike the Ringtones chart, which is filled with old reliables like the Mario Bros., the Ringmasters list tends to track current hits more closely; the week’s top “master” is Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” which is also the top Hot 100 hit. So, sure, there are innocent reasons why M.I.A.’s track makes an appearance here: it’s now a hit. Then again, most of the top-selling Ringmasters are more established hits than “Paper Planes” is.

In short, somebody–a lot of somebodies–clearly thinks it’s a gas to hear “Paper Planes” coming out of a phone when their homeboy calls. What makes it an ideal ringtone? Is it the gunshots? The insistent beat? Or just maybe, does that three-second snippet inspire fond thoughts of the next great high?

We’ll probably have a better sense of this a few months from now, to see whether “Paper Planes” is still selling ringtones. Say one thing for stoners: they are loyal, but some of them are a little slow on the uptake. (I mean: Afroman, guys? Still?!)

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

• We’ve been hoping for the last couple of weeks that Rihanna would save us from Katy Perry at the top of the Hot 100–but if she’s going to do it, it probably isn’t going to be with the song at No. 2, “Take a Bow.” As discussed here two weeks ago, there was a chance that “Bow” might crawl back to No. 1 thanks to late-blooming radio love. Nearly three months after it topped the Hot 100, “Bow” is now in its second week at the top of Billboard‘s Airplay chart. Unfortunately, at the same time, it’s out of the money on the Digital Songs list, off more than 10% this week alone. As long as Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” keeps selling truckloads of digital singles, radio alone likely won’t bring “Bow” back to the top.

That leaves the Autotuneriffic “Disturbia,” Ri’s latest madly catchy hit, which is starting to pick up the ball. It’s been stuck at No. 15 for the last three weeks, but there are signs that that’s about to break. “Disturbia” is rising steadily in radio airplay, but take a peek at iTunes: it’s now the second-biggest seller at the Apple Store, after “Kissed.” I would attribute this sales burst to the release this week of the attention-grabbing video, which has succeeded in drawing buzz. (I heard my local morning-show deejays just yesterday debating whether it’s “too creepy.”) The uptick for “Disturbia” happened after the end of the tracking week for this week’s charts, so expect to see a burst on next week’s Hot 100.

• Speaking of “Disturbia,” I just learned recently that Chris Brown co-wrote it, which is apropos since he’s got an Autotune-heavy club hit of his own on the rise right now. “Forever,” which sounds like the inverse of “Disturbia” and was written by virtually the same team (Brown, Andre Merritt, and Rob Allen) is up another notch to No. 3 this week. “Forever” still could be a candidate for the top slot, but it has some of the same issues as Rihanna’s “Bow”: heavy airplay, modest sales. “Forever” does clear 100,000 downloads this week, but it doesn’t appear to be breaking out the way “Disturbia” is. Maybe Brown kept the wrong hit for himself…

• The action in the Country Top 10 is at the top and the bottom this week. The new No. 1, “Good Time,” is Alan Jackson’s 23rd career chart-topper and immediately follows another bell-ringer, “Small Town Southern Man”; that’s his first time scoring back-to-back No. 1’s since 2001-02, when he did it with “Drive (for Daddy Gene)” and that 9/11 ballad. And down at No. 10… holy cow, what was I saying last week about slow-moving country hits? Check out the 40 weeks it took American Idol Season 2 finalist Josh Gracin to grab his fourth Top 10 country hit.

• The Modern Rock list looks perky for once, with every song but two in the Top 10 moving at least one spot. That starts at the top, where, after an 11-week run, Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” finally succumbs–to a very familiar face, Dave Grohl. “Let It Die” is Foo Fighters’ third straight chart-topper. I must confess, “Die” is my favorite of this round of Foo hits. Not that this list needs any more Foo, God help us…

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. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 11 weeks) 2. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 3. Chris Brown, “Forever” (LW No. 4, 13 weeks) 4. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 3, 19 weeks) 5. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 7, 11 weeks) 6. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 5, 23 weeks) 7. Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” (LW No. 6, 23 weeks) 8. Lil Wayne, “A Milli” (LW No. 8, 13 weeks) 9. Kardinal Offishall feat. Akon, “Dangerous” (LW No. 14, 11 weeks) 10. Jesse McCartney, “Leavin’” (LW No. 11, 13 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 159466 downloads) 2. Jonas Brothers, “Pushing Me Away” (CHART DEBUT, 116,346 downloads) 3. Miley Cyrus, “7 Things” (LW No. 2, 114,307 downloads) 4. Jonas Brothers, “Burnin’ Up” (LW No. 3, 107,226 downloads) 5. Chris Brown, “Forever” (LW No. 7, 101,681 downloads) 6. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 4, 101642 downloads) 7. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 6, 94,649 downloads) 8. The Pussycat Dolls, “When I Grow Up” (LW No. 5, 93,002 downloads) 9. Metro Station, “Shake It” (LW No. 9, 79,386 downloads) 10. Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” (LW No. 10, 77,784 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 1, 17 weeks) 2. Lil Wayne, “A Milli” (LW No. 2, 13 weeks) 3. Alicia Keys, “Teenage Love Affair” (LW No. 4, 23 weeks) 4. The-Dream, “I Luv Your Girl” (LW No. 3, 21 weeks) 5. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 7, 13 weeks) 6. Chris Brown, “Take You Down” (LW No. 6, 17 weeks) 7. Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West, “Put On” (LW No. 9, 11 weeks) 8. Plies feat. Ne-Yo, “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” (LW No. 5, 21 weeks) 9. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 8, 19 weeks) 10. David Banner feat. Chris Brown, “Get Like Me” (LW No. 12, 21 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Alan Jackson, “Good Time” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 2. Blake Shelton, “Home” (LW No. 1, 26 weeks) 3. Sugarland, “All I Want to Do” (LW No. 5, 9 weeks) 4. Brooks & Dunn, “Put a Girl in It” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks) 5. Keith Urban, “You Look Good in My Shirt” (LW No. 6, 9 weeks) 6. Taylor Swift, “Should’ve Said No” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 7. Keith Anderson, “I Still Miss You” (LW No. 8, 25 weeks) 8. Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead” (LW No. 9, 29 weeks) 9. Montgomery Gentry, “Back When I Knew It All” (LW No. 4, 22 weeks) 10. Josh Gracin, “We Weren’t Crazy” (LW No. 11, 40 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Foo Fighters, “Let It Die” (LW No. 2, 16 weeks) 2. Weezer, “Pork & Beans” (LW No. 1, 14 weeks) 3. The Offspring, “Hammerhead” (LW No. 3, 11 weeks) 4. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 5, 7 weeks) 5. Disturbed, “Inside the Fire” (LW No. 7, 17 weeks) 6. Linkin Park, “Given Up” (LW No. 4, 20 weeks) 7. Seether, “Rise Above This” (LW No. 6, 22 weeks) 8. Saving Abel, “Addicted” (LW No. 8, 18 weeks) 9. Staind, “Believe” (LW No. 11, 4 weeks) 10. Carolina Liar, “I’m Not Over” (LW No. 12, 12 weeks)

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