Damn That Radio Song: T.I.’s Twofer Still Tops, But Airplay Gives One Song The Edge

“Okay, it’s official,” I wrote to Maura midday on Thursday, when Billboard released the new Hot 100. “I have seriously underestimated ‘Whatever You Like.’”

That durable smash by Atlanta rap deity T.I. moves into the penthouse for the third time since late August. Directly behind it is T.I.’s simultaneous hit, the Rihanna duet “Live Your Life,” which moves up to No. 2 two weeks after it spent a sole week in the top spot.

After I bravely predicted a few weeks ago that the irresistible “Life” would dominate the fall and make “Whatever” a distant memory, the T-and-Ri pairing has had a hard time holding onto the top spot. Last week’s coup by Britney Spears’s well-hyped “Womanizer” was pretty predictable. But the idea that T.I.’s new hit would also have to fight off his older one—a loping, sluggish song that’s neither a ballad nor a club jam—was a development few saw coming, least of all me.

If there’s one thing it shows, it’s that for all our talk here in recent weeks about the dominance of digital sales on the charts these days, airplay still matters. “Whatever” wouldn’t still be competing for the top slot without radio’s fervent support.

On the Hot 100, “Whatever You Like” is in its sixth non-consecutive week at No. 1, but the more telling statistic is it’s now in its fifth week as the most-played song in the country. It’s not doing shabbily at iTunes and other digital stores, mind you, shifting 154,000 downloads. That makes it the chart week’s fourth-biggest seller—impressive, especially for a two-month-old single, but not enough to top the big chart if it weren’t for all those radio spins.

The airplay is coming from multiple formats—from the more predictable R&B/hip-hop and rhythmic Top 40 stations, where it’s currently or recently has been top-ranked; to mainstream Top 40, where it’s now in the top five; and even the Latin rhythm format, where it recently made the top 10. (In any given week, Latin stations spin a half-dozen or more current English-language hits alongside regulars like Juanes and Daddy Yankee.)

One of the smarter comments I received this week on my special bonus column on AC/DC’s singles-chart history came from a self-proclaimed former “radio guy” who worked at a rock station in the ’80s and ’90s. He observed how certain hits would be affected by “dayparting,” the industry term for segregating certain songs to parts of the day when they’re likely to find favor with that hour’s listeners. The average radio station doesn’t actually have one monolithic type of listener all day and night—older listeners tend to tune in mostly during the day, up through drive time, then leave the radio to teens at night, when more aggressive or adventurous stuff can be played.

In that light, it probably doesn’t hurt that “Whatever You Like” is T.I.’s first hit in which he does almost no rapping—except for his opening chitchat as the song starts, the whole song is sung. That means program directors can safely slot it in both daylight hours, when older demographics would object to anything with heavy straight rapping, and at night, when T.I.-loving kids will sing along.

In a normal post-iTunes era week on the Hot 100, whatever’s on top of the Digital Songs list is also No. 1 on the big chart. That’s because the sales list tends to be topped by the smash of the moment—new records enjoying a burst of sales from eager fans—and those sales can be so large, they swamp whatever advantage the most-played radio hits have. But in certain weeks where the top-sellers are all relatively evenly matched, like this week, airplay makes a big difference.

Among the top four digital sellers—Spears’ “Womanizer,” the T.I.–Rihanna duet, Taylor Swift’s new hit “Fearless,” and T.I.’s “Whatever”—there’s only a difference of about 47,000 downloads. That might sound like a lot, but just for comparison, last week the spread among the top four was almost 130,000 copies; the top single (Britney’s) outsold the runner-up (T.I./Rihanna) by almost 60,000 alone.

Meanwhile, over on the Hot 100 Airplay list, which ranks spins across all current-based radio formats, these four records are all over the place: “Whatever” ranks first, “Life” ranks fourth, “Womanizer” is 38th, and Swift’s latest isn’t registering at all (radio is still focusing on her older “Love Story”). That radio lead is what makes “Whatever” the overall leader on the Hot 100.

As impressive as “Whatever” looks right now, beneath the surface “Life” is still the outperformer. The duet’s fourth-place ranking at radio is in only its fourth week charting—absurdly fast, considering how slowly programmers normally add new records. (The Britney record is also in its fourth week at radio and isn’t doing nearly that well, hampered in part by the smaller number of radio formats playing her.) “Life” moved from No. 45 on the airplay chart three weeks ago, to No. 22, then No. 9, now No. 4, an Olympian feat of playlist penetration. All this, and it’s still selling like crazy: at 198,000 copies, “Life” is only about 3,000 short of Britney’s digital downloads.

What I’m saying is, there’s a great chance “Live Your Life” will return to No. 1, even if “Whatever” continues to get more airplay and “Womanizer” continues to outsell it. When “Life” went to No. 1 two weeks ago, its record-setting sales total made airplay numbers moot. Now that its sales are less massive (but still big!) airplay matters, and now the song’s got lots of it. Another week of rising airplay—let’s say it becomes the third-most-played radio hit—and sales in the neighborhood of 200K again would likely give it enough chart points to recapture the flag.

That is, unless something stops it. A song completely out of left field—currently outside the Top Five, Top 10 or even Top 40—could shoot to No. 1 on a big sales burst. Of the last four No. 1 hits, three (“Whatever,” “Life,” “Womanizer”) shot to the top from below No. 70, and we might see yet another pole-vaulter next week. At this writing, the top seller on iTunes is Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” which just hit the store on Tuesday and has been charting on the Hot 100 for two weeks on airplay alone. Currently No. 68, “Boy” will surely leap into the Top Five next week and, with a sales total similar to T.I.’s or Britney’s, could very well leap to the top.

Nonetheless, if there’s one part of my faulty pro-“Life” prediction that might bear out, it’s that the O-Zone–sampling hit will likely be wafting from radios right through the holidays, whether it makes a comeback to the penthouse or not.

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

• How ’bout another prediction? “Fearless,” that new hit by Taylor Swift, which makes its Hot 100 debut at No. 9, will drop big-time on next week’s chart. Why so confident? Well, for one thing, as I hinted above, the debut is due entirely to sales and not airplay, and that won’t last. (Check the current standings at iTunes: “Fearless” is down to No. 12, after topping Apple’s list last week and starting at No. 3 on Billboard’s full Digital Songs list.) For another, most of the blockbuster digital sellers we’ve seen in the last few weeks have enjoyed a week or two of high Hot 100 placement before falling, sometimes precipitously. Take a look at these performance snapshots by recent top sellers that had big Hot 100 debuts:

Taylor Swift, “Change”: Debuted at No. 10 (August 30), two weeks later at No. 100, now off the chart.Taylor Swift, “Love Story”: Debuted at No. 16 (September 27), next week No. 5, now No. 14.Christina Aguilera, “Keeps Gettin’ Better”: Debuted at No. 7 (October 18), last week No. 17, now No. 27.Nickelback, “Gotta Be Somebody”: Debuted at No. 10 (October 18), last week No. 16, now No. 17.The Killers, “Human”: Debuted at No. 32 (October 18), last week No. 52, now No. 58.David Cook, “Light On”: Debuted at No. 17 (October 18), last week No. 66, now off the chart.

In this light, the aforementioned hits by Britney and T.I. look especially impressive—even after their initial weeks of big sales, they’re still riding high. But here’s the difference: those high-flying Britney and T.I. hits began their lives with solid radio airplay, then piled big sales onto it. They didn’t debut high on the chart, like the hits listed above from Swift, Aguilera et al. If those songs had posted strong airplay first, they’d have debuted low on the Hot 100, then jumped up the chart when digital sales came pouring in. Instead, they had anemic airplay, scored a week or two of big sales from rabid fans, but then had nothing to keep them aloft when sales fell back to earth.

Are you detecting the theme of this week’s column? Sales are flashy and overpowering, but airplay is what keeps hits alive.

• Toby Keith takes over No. 1 on Hot Country Songs with “She Never Cried in Front of Me (Even When People Accused Her of Spending Too Much on Her Campaign Wardrobe).” (Okay, I made up the part in parentheses.)

With that move, Keith retains his lead as the guy with the most country chart-toppers this decade. Since 2000, Mr. Boot-in-Yer-Ass has topped the chart 14 times (out of 17 times total in his career). That beats 12 post-millennial No. 1s each for two other fellas: Phillies scion and Obama supporter Tim McGraw, and weeping lonelyheart Kenny Chesney, who topped last week’s chart and gets evicted by Keith this week.

• Speaking of Chesney, he appears to be soothing his woman troubles by dueting with an array of different men. Our own Michaelangelo Matos wrote me this morning to point out that he’s got three duets in the lower 50s of the Country chart: “I’m Alive” by Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews is at No. 55; “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)” credited to Kenny Chesney with Willie Nelson is at No. 56; and “Down the Road” by Kenny Chesney with Mac McAnally checks in at No. 59. All come from Chesney’s new chart-topping album Lucky Old Sun, which generates no less than one-tenth of this week’s 60-position Country chart: six new Chesney songs are being spun enough by radio stations to make the list.

• Don’t look now, but Kings of Leon, the so-called “Southern Strokes,” are charting at least as well as the actual Strokes. “Sex on Fire,” already a No. 1 pop hit in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia, is now a Top Five Modern Rock hit here. Its No. 5 peak matches that of the Strokes’ highest-charting rock song, 2002’s “Last Nite.” Does the Christina Aguilera mashup come next?

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. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 2, 11 weeks) 2. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 3, 4 weeks) 3. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 4, 9 weeks) 4. Britney Spears, “Womanizer” (LW No. 1, 3 weeks) 5. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks) 6. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 6, 18 weeks) 7. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 7, 8 weeks) 8. Ne-Yo, “Miss Independent” (LW No. 9, 9 weeks) 9. Taylor Swift, “Fearless” (CHART DEBUT) 10. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It” (LW No. 8, 12 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Britney Spears, “Womanizer” (LW No. 1, 201,000 downloads) 2. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 2, 198,000 downloads) 3. Taylor Swift, “Fearless” (CHART DEBUT, 162,000 downloads) 4. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 3, 154,000 downloads) 5. Pink, “So What” (LW No. 4, 147,000 downloads) 6. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 7, 141,000 downloads) 7. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 5, 139,000 downloads) 8. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown” (LW No. 7, 95,000 downloads) 9. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 9, 94,000 downloads) 10. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 11, 87,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Jennifer Hudson, “Spotlight” (LW No. 1, 23 weeks) 2. Ne-Yo, “Miss Independent” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks) 3. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks) 4. T-Pain feat. Lil Wayne, “Can’t Believe It,” (LW No. 4, 15 weeks) 5. Jazmine Sullivan, “Need U Bad” (LW No. 5, 25 weeks) 6. Lil Wayne feat. Bobby Valentino, “Mrs. Officer” (LW No. 6, 16 weeks) 7. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 7, 6 weeks) 8. Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows” (LW No. 11, 6 weeks) 9. Slim feat. Yung Joc, “So Fly” (LW No. 8, 20 weeks) 10. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 20, 2 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Toby Keith, “She Never Cried in Front of Me” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks) 2. Kenny Chesney, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks) 3. Carrie Underwood, “Just a Dream” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 4. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 7, 6 weeks) 5. Darius Rucker, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (LW No. 4, 27 weeks) 6. Tim McGraw, “Let It Go” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks) 7. Zac Brown Band, “Chicken Fried” (LW No. 11, 18 weeks) 8. Sugarland, “Already Gone” (LW No. 9, 8 weeks) 9. Montgomery Gentry, “Roll with Me” (LW No. 10, 13 weeks) 10. Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman” (LW No. 8, 19 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. The Offspring, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks) 2. Weezer, “Troublemaker” (LW No. 2, 15 weeks) 3. Rise Against, “Re-Education (Through Labor)” (LW No. 4, 9 weeks) 4. Apocalyptica feat. Adam Gontier, “I Don’t Care” (LW No. 3, 16 weeks) 5. Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire” (LW No. 8, 9 weeks) 6. The Killers, “Human” (LW No. 6, 4 weeks) 7. Staind, “Believe” (LW No. 5, 17 weeks) 8. Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks) 9. Theory of a Deadman, “Bad Girlfriend” (LW No. 9, 18 weeks) 10. Nickelback, “Gotta Be Somebody” (LW No. 15, 3 weeks)

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