Belting Like It’s 1989: Mariah And Whitney Enjoy (Fleeting) Chart Redemption

We complain often around here about the mainstream media’s tendency to oversimplify music stories in their quest for an easy headline. This week, Billboard‘s Hot 100 and Billboard 200 suggest splashy headlines that practically write themselves: Return of the Big-Voiced Divas! Topping the album chart is Whitney Houston’s much-dissected comeback effort I Look to You, her first No. 1 disc in more than 16 years. And breaking into the Top 10 on the songs chart is her onetime rival and duet partner, Mariah Carey, with the beleaguered pre-album track “Obsessed” — the single that might bring her one step closer to tying the Beatles’ all-time record for Hot 100 chart-toppers. So: mission accomplished, right? We can pretend pegged jeans and Bill Clinton are back in style, because Diva Era Redux is on? (Why not: Melrose Place is on the tube again!) Sure, let’s let the two aging pop queens enjoy their week of glory; in Houston’s case especially, it’s earned (and all the intense press Carey’s been getting lately almost makes me feel for her). But a close look at the numbers that brought them back to the winners’ circle suggests that we might not be talking much about these two come Christmas. The 305,000 copies I Look to You sold last week were a better total than even some of the most optimistic prognosticators anticipated. According to Billboard, it’s Houston’s biggest sales week since the early ’90s, when The Bodyguard soundtrack dominated Christmas 1992 and became the first album of the Soundscan era to shift a million copies in a week. Houston’s win this week brings up one of my favorite data points about her. It’s only her second No. 1 debut (out of four total career chart-toppers). But the interesting part is that she scored the first one a long, long time ago, in what we now consider the music-biz Stone Age: the years before Soundscan. Until 1991, when Soundscan data took over the Billboard charts, only a half-dozen albums had ever debuted at No. 1. That list is so short that if you’re a true geek like me, you can rattle it off from memory: Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies (both 1975); Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976); Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975‒85 (1986); Whitney Houston’s Whitney, and Michael Jackson’s Bad (both 1987). These are not quite those five acts’ best albums. (I’m an Innervisions man.) But in all six cases, the artist was coming off a string of hits and at a near-zenith of popularity and cultural dominance. They’d have to be: in the old days when Billboard compiled the charts by calling and faxing retailers manually, it was rare to find a plurality of them reporting that a brand-new album was their best-seller. Prior to ’91, the music business was perceived as being about the steady climb to the top. But Soundscan revealed that music is a lot more like the movie business — flicks debut on top but rarely ever grow to there — than anybody guessed. After Billboard flipped the switch, hundreds of albums debuted at No. 1. The first, just two months after the Soundscan launch in the spring of ’91, was Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind — not, I think even Maura would agree, a disc with the stature of the above six titles. Since then, acts as fleeting as Tha Dogg Pound, Godsmack and Danity Kane have made No. 1 debuts. But Houston’s Whitney did it in the era when it really mattered, making her, in June 1987, not just the first woman to debut atop the album chart but also the youngest and the newest — she was 23, and on her second album. (I was a teenager, but even I recall how this feat stunned the industry at the time. Reportedly, Epic/CBS Records vowed that very week that Jackson’s Bad would have to debut on top later that summer, even if they had to buy off every retailer in America. Whatever they did, they pulled it off.) Nowadays, of course, not only is a No. 1 album debut more common, but the cratering of the music industry has severely lowered the bar, so that discs selling as few as 60,000 copies can rule the Billboard 200. In that context, Houston’s total this week is mightily impressive, even if she does get ousted from the top slot next week by Jay-Z. (At one week, that would make I Look to You by far her shortest-lived chart-topper, versus the 14 weeks spent on top by 1985’s Whitney Houston, 11 weeks for Whitney and 20 weeks for The Bodyguard.) But the other difference between the old days and today is the formerly tighter relationship between hit albums and hit singles. All six of the pre-Soundscan No. 1 debuts produced Top 10 singles — in four cases, No. 1 singles (all but Elton’s Captain Fantastic and Bruce’s Live). Nowadays, in our era of narrowcasting and audience atomization, any act with a big enough rabid fanbase, even with no radio support whatsoever, can rule the roost for a single week. And Whitney, in her week of triumph, has two singles from I Look to You on the Hot 100, but neither one’s likely to be blaring from a car or supermarket checkout lane near you. The title track moves up 28 big spaces to… No. 70. And the Alicia Keys–penned (and actually quite excellent) dance-pop track “Million Dollar Bill” debuts at No. 100. No wonder we’re all wondering how Whitney will fare on Oprah next week or in the Grammy nominations in December; for now, at least, radio and iTunes aren’t going to keep her album afloat on the charts. As for Carey, her rise to No. 7 on the Hot 100 with “Obsessed” represents a quite literal breakthrough, after the song’s three frustrating weeks stuck at No. 11. She thereby avoids the ignominy (as reported in my last column) of seeing an album-leading single fall short of the top 10, as two of her last three such singles did. The song’s rise is due to genuine momentum at both radio and iTunes. She’s bulleted on the Hot 100 Airplay list, now ranked seventh among all radio songs nationwide. And her digital sales—combining sales of both Carey’s original mix and the Gucci Mane remix—are up about 4% this week, returning her to the Top 10 of the Digital Songs chart. Trouble is, that momentum is going to have to seriously pick up if Carey is to make the Top Five, never mind No. 1. (A reminder, for those who don’t already have it burned in their memory banks: With 18 career No. 1 singles, Carey is just two shy of the Beatles’ 20 chart-toppers, one of their most cherished chart records and one that Carey fans have been hot for her to break since her last album.) Carey’s sales are less than half that of this week’s top-selling single by Miley Cyrus, and her radio audience is a fraction of the spins received by the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” radio’s most-played song (and the Hot 100 chart-topper for an 11th week). Carey’s growth this week is solid, but “Obsessed” rises on the big chart mostly because the songs above her last week fell back in sales and airplay. Say this for her: Unlike Whitney Houston, whose singles-chart dominance occurred mostly in a tight dozen years from about 1986 to 1998, Carey has spent all of the last 19 years trying to keep up with current pop trends — and, mostly, getting rewarded for it. Billboard notes that the only years since 1990 Carey hasn’t appeared in the Hot 100’s Top 10 are 2002, 2004 and 2007. Staying abreast of the current Top 40 while pushing 40 is no mean feat, and the fact that Carey consistently pulls it off shows an Joe DiMaggio—like consistency that’s not to be dismissed. I’d be a fool to bet against Carey’s forthcoming Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel when it drops later this month; a Houston-like week of album-chart dominance is all but assured. Still, what Whitney and Mariah really have in common as we enter the fall hit-music derby is a pop audience not predisposed to reward them beyond, perhaps, a week or three of curiosity. When I think of these two’s conjoined fate, I think back to their only recorded duet, 1998’s “When You Believe” (recorded for the soundtrack of the animated Bible flick The Prince of Egypt). With both divas still chart champions, the industry braced for a hit of epic proportions, and headline-writers were already crafting tales of Moses-level domination. Instead, the tune stalled at No. 15 and was out of the Top 40 within weeks. Sometimes, the public just doesn’t want to follow the script.Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• In the last fortnight, rock programmers seem to have collectively decided to shake up their playlists for fall. After a deadly slow summer dominated by Linkin Park and the Silversun Pickups, the Alternative chart’s Top Five is all aflutter this week, with three songs less than two months old — by Alice in Chains, Muse and Pearl Jam — plus a new No. 1. That chart-topper is the three-month-old “Notion” by Kings of Leon, 2009’s premier rock debutantes. Of course, we use that word loosely, given the Kings’ long, well-documented struggle to break in America after four albums. “Notion” is the third consecutive bell-ringer from the band’s Only by the Night, a change in chart fate that’s exceedingly rare. I had to think hard to recall an act that scored three Modern Rock chart-toppers from a single album after scoring none at all from any of their prior discs. Only one other act qualifies: Green Day, who pulled three No. 1’s from Dookie in 1994—95 after their two prior albums, 39/Smooth and Kerplunk! got no radio love at all. And I’m not sure that even really counts, given that Dookie was that band’s major-label debut, and even at the start of the ’90s, when Green Day began recording, it was rare for an indie-label band to score a Modern Rock hit. So I guess we can legitimately call Kings of Leon the biggest turnaround story in the Alternative/Modern chart’s 21-year history. • As our long national nightmare of Black Eyed Peas domination enters its 23rd week, we eye the Top 10 of the Hot 100 to see who might stand a chance at ousting them sometime before the trees denude themselves. It’s not promising. Rarely in the two years I’ve been doing this column has there been, among the songs in the Top 10, such a mismatch between sales and airplay. That is, for every song except the Peas’ chart-topper “I Gotta Feeling.” While the late-summer dominator continues to wilt in sales — it’s been outdone by Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” at iTunes for a month now, and this week it just barely outsells Jay Sean’s No. 3 “Down” — it’s still radio’s most-played track by a wide margin. At radio, the only track close to approaching it is the second-ranked Taylor Swift single “You Belong with Me”; but on the big chart, Swift’s weakening sales (she’s 12th among all digital songs) result in a No. 6 Hot 100 placement. What about Swift’s gal pal Miley? “U.S.A.” is still the nation’s biggest download, but those sales are starting to drop (down 6% to 179,000), and her airplay isn’t remotely close enough to make up the difference: “Party” is the 35th most-played song at radio. It’s a similar story through most of the Top 10. The one song that gives me some hope comes from Jay-Z, whose “Run This Town” with Rihanna and Kanye West is already, in seven short weeks, the seventh most-played song at radio and a six-figure download (up slightly this week, to 120,000). A couple of years ago, I might have theorized that the release of The Blueprint 3 would give a promotional boost to his single, a phenomenon that used to be common around 2006 and 2007. But over the last year-plus, as album sales have gradually migrated to the digital realm, first-week album sales for big acts have generally hurt singles sales, as fans decide the full-length is more important to own than the hit track. So if Jay, Ri, and Kanye are going to rescue us from the Peas, it’s going to take at least a couple more weeks.Top 10s (Billboard issue date September 19, 2009; based on data collected August 31-September 6) Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):Hot 100 1. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks) 2. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks) 3. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 3, 4 weeks) 4. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 6, 6 weeks) 5. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 4, 32 weeks) 6. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 5, 20 weeks) 7. Mariah Carey, “Obsessed” (LW No. 11, 9 weeks) 8. Pitbull, “Hotel Room Service” (LW No. 9, 12 weeks) 9. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 13, 4 weeks) 10. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 7, 18 weeks)Hot Digital Songs 1. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 1, 179,000 downloads) 2. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 2, 147,000 downloads) 3. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 3, 146,000 downloads) 4. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 120,000 downloads) 5. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 5, 112,000 downloads) 6. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 6, 97,000 downloads) 7. Pitbull, “Hotel Room Service” (LW No. 9, 84,000 downloads) 8. Cobra Starship feat. Leighton Meester, “Good Girls Go Bad” (LW No. 7, 82,000 downloads) 9. Shakira, “She Wolf/Loba” (LW No. 8, 76,000 downloads) 10. Mariah Carey, “Obsessed” (LW No. 12, 72,000 downloads)Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks) 2. Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett, “Break Up” (LW No. 2, 18 weeks) 3. Drake feat. Trey Songz, “Successful” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks) 4. Fabolous feat. The-Dream, “Throw It in the Bag” (LW No. 5, 17 weeks) 5. Drake, “Best I Ever Had” (LW No. 7, 21 weeks) 6. Ginuwine, “Last Chance” (LW No. 5, 28 weeks) 7. Gucci Mane feat. Plies, “Wasted” (LW No. 10, 13 weeks) 8. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 9, 7 weeks) 9. Pleasure P, “Under” (LW No. 13, 11 weeks) 10. Mary Mary feat. Kierra “KiKi” Sheard, “God in Me” (LW No. 11, 42 weeks)Hot Country Songs 1. Jason Aldean, “Big Green Tractor” (LW No. 1, 17 weeks) 2. George Strait, “Living for the Night” (LW No. 4, 15 weeks) 3. Justin Moore, “Small Town U.S.A.” (LW No. 5, 31 weeks) 4. Toby Keith, “American Ride” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 5. Randy Houser, “Boots On” (LW No. 2, 29 weeks) 6. Rascal Flatts, “Summer Nights” (LW No. 3, 21 weeks) 7. Keith Urban, “Only You Can Love Me This Way” (LW No. 9, 10 weeks) 8. Blake Shelton, “I’ll Just Hold On” (LW No. 8, 29 weeks) 9. Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” (LW No. 12, 30 weeks) 10. Jack Ingram, “Barefoot and Crazy” (LW No. 10, 25 weeks)Hot Alternative Tracks 1. Kings of Leon, “Notion” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 2. Alice in Chains, “Check My Brain” (LW No. 5, 4 weeks) 3. Muse, “Uprising” (LW No. 6, 5 weeks) 4. Pearl Jam, “The Fixer” (LW No. 4, 7 weeks) 5. Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” (LW No. 2, 26 weeks) 6. Rise Against, “Savior” (LW No. 7, 12 weeks) 7. Linkin Park, “New Divide” (LW No. 1, 16 weeks) 8. Weezer, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” (LW No. 10, 3 weeks) 9. Paramore, “Ignorance” (LW No. 8, 9 weeks) 10. Chevelle, “Jars” (LW No. 12, 11 weeks)

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