Such Great Hoots? Owl City Is A Rare Boy-Pop Chart-Topper

Back in 1997, when I was a critic for CMJ, I led off my review of a new album by vintage Britpoppers the Sundays with the following sideswipe at another band:

“In the five years since their last album, [the Sundays] watched the Cranberries swipe their sound and turn it into three obscenely popular and dreck-filled albums.”

I can’t front: I had a soft spot for the Cranberries’ light-as-air Top 10 smash “Linger.” But I could never get past the fact that the Sundays, a better band with one major alternative hit to their name (the downy, warm-blanket 1990 Modern Rock chart-topper “Here’s Where the Story Ends”), had failed to cross over to the U.S. Top 40 while Dolores O’Riordan rampaged across my radio dial. The ’Berries weren’t awful, just… a little undeserving, and massively benefiting from someone else’s sound.

This week—unless he’s too busy counting his Twilight soundtrack money or canoodling with the missus—Ben Gibbard is probably feeling something similar. It’s got to be a bit galling that Owl City’s “Fireflies,” the new No. 1 song on Billboard‘s Hot 100, is a candied replica of a sound he and Jimmy Tamborello codified six years ago.

Again, I can’t front: on a Top 40 radio dial awash in Black Eyed Peas’ faux-hop and Miley Cyrus’s shrill Autotunage, “Fireflies” is a nice contrast. But it’s basically The Postal Service for Dummies, and it’s mystifying how easily it shot to No. 1 during the same decade when “Such Great Heights,” which some of us consider one of the best-written pop songs of the ’00s, didn’t even grace the Hot 100.

But you don’t have to be a Gibbard fan to still find Owl City’s feat bizarre. Because even if you’ve never heard of the Postal Service, “Fireflies” represents a head-scratching rarity: a No. 1 hit by a solo white guy with no other radio format to call home.


We’ll never know how “Such Great Heights” would have done on a Hot 100 that included digital sales points, because iTunes was in its infancy in 2003. For “Fireflies,” digital sales make all the difference: shifting nearly 200,000 downloads this past week, the track outdid Cyrus’ perennial best-seller “Party in the U.S.A.” by more than 50,000 downloads or 37%. That huge margin entirely explains how Owl City got to No. 1, because the song is only ranked 28th on Hot 100 Airplay, the radio chart used to compile the big chart. “Fireflies” is rising fast at radio — two weeks ago, it only ranked 61st — but don’t be surprised if you still aren’t hearing the No. 1 song in America booming from a car window near you.

Even if he hides behind a project name a la Nine Inch Nails, Owl City’s Adam Young is a one-man band. This is an important distinction, because solo males are a rare presence atop the Hot 100 nowadays. Young replaces another one in the top slot, Jay Sean, with his own maiden-voyage chart-topper “Down.” (That song’s supported by Lil Wayne, but that doesn’t make it a group performance.) Prior to these two, the list this decade of solo male pop songs topping the Hot 100 is a short one.

To be specific, I’m not just talking about male solo acts, I’m talking about non-hip-hop or R&B male soloists. I don’t add that caveat to be racially divisive; crossover support from urban radio has a huge impact on Hot 100 chart performance, because it provides a hit track with a huge pool of airplay points simultaneous with Top 40 radio. If you’re a white guy who isn’t Eminem or Justin Timberlake, you probably don’t have urban radio on your side, and it’s that much harder to top the big chart.

So with all that in mind, let’s look at a list of solo-male Hot 100 chart-toppers since 2000 that didn’t also make the top 40 portion of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Like I said, it’s short:

Enrique Iglesias, “Be With You” (2000)
Clay Aiken, “This Is the Night” (2003)
James Blunt, “You’re Beautiful” (2006)
Daniel Powter, “Bad Day” (2006)
Taylor Hicks, “Do I Make You Proud” (2006)
Justin Timberlake, “What Goes Around…Comes Around” (2007)*
Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (2009)
Owl City, “Fireflies” (2009)
(* Timberlake scored three Hot 100 chart-toppers from his second solo album, but only this one failed to get appreciable urban-radio airplay; both “SexyBack” and “My Love” were big R&B/Hip-Hop chart hits.)

For most of these eight songs, it’s pretty easy to determine the mysterious “it” factor that got them past the handicap solo pop men normally have on the Hot 100.

Aiken’s and Hicks’ tracks can be eliminated right away. These were American Idol coronation songs that each topped the Hot 100 based on a couple of fluke weeks of massive CD-single sales. I defy anyone reading this column, pop fan or no, to hum me a bar of those two tracks.

One other song benefited massively from Idol: Powter’s “Bad Day,” which inaugurated the producers’ tradition of picking a ditty each season to play off the show’s low-vote-getters. All that weekly TV exposure made “Day” the No. 1 song of 2006 and the only U.S. hit for the Canadian singer.

The other schlock-pop hit of spring 2006, “You’re Beautiful,” actually was a crossover hit, just not from urban radio. It broke at adult-contemporary radio first, itself a rare feat; most A/C crossover hits break at Top 40 first and A/C months later. Blunt bucked that trend, debuting on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart in the summer of 2005, three months before the song debuted on the Hot 100 and began its months-long, Oprah-fueled climb to the top. Top 40 radio did play “Beautiful” plenty, but the song had the rare advantage of simultaneous, massive A/C airplay that did for it what urban radio normally does for other chart-toppers.

This leaves the tracks by Iglesias, Timberlake, Sean, and Owl City, and even among this small group, “Fireflies” is the odd duck. Iglesias and Timberlake were both following up very recent No. 1 hits, and the Spanish-language version of Iglesias’ song was a huge Latin Pop chart hit. As for Jay Sean, who dethroned the mighty Black Eyed Peas just a few weeks ago, there’s the little matter of Lil Wayne’s support; one year ago, the unknown Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock,” also sporting the Wayne imprimatur, became a huge hit, benefiting from Weezy’s Good Housekeeping seal just as Sean no doubt has. Owl City’s “Fireflies,” supported by no featured rappers or prior hit momentum, has none of these factors going for it.

Aha, you’re thinking — What about rock radio? It’s true that “Fireflies” has made a dent on the Alternative chart, but it’s surprisingly modest: up one notch to No. 29 this week, which is actually down from its peak of No. 27 a month ago. Modern rock airplay can certainly help a non-hip-hop hit cross over to Top 40 radio; just two years ago, the very white-bread smash “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s peaked at No. 3 on this list before topping the Hot 100. But don’t forget, stations reporting the modern/alternative format number in the dozens, versus the thousands reporting the urban or A/C formats. (Even the biggest Foo Fighters or Linkin Park hit needs either iTunes sales or crossover Top 40 play to do well on the Hot 100.)

My point in deconstructing all this is to designate “Fireflies” as a truly rare bird, a huge boy-pop hit without a home format. When a song by a solo female scales the Hot 100, that’s notable but less surprising — Top 40 is the most female-centric of radio formats, and so their gender there is a help; if they’re Beyoncé or Mariah, they have urban radio helping out, too. Most male acts live on either rock or urban radio, where they dominate. But Adam Young somehow has scored a Hot 100 chart-topper with little to no assistance from the big “guy” formats, and without American Idol.

It leaves us with one inescapable conclusion, whether we think the Postal Service wuz robbed or that “Such Great Heights” sucked and “Fireflies” is worse. People really just like this song. Hey, occasionally, it happens.

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

• By leaping all the way from No. 7 to the top, “Fireflies” frustrates a slew of big hits that have been patiently waiting for a turn at No. 1 for weeks now. Some failures are not too surprising. We predicted long ago that Cyrus’ “Party” and Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” probably wouldn’t have the juice, in the end, to go all the way (the former has sold massively but caught up late on airplay; the latter is a big radio hit with more modest digital sales).

But the guy really gnashing his teeth this week has to be newcomer Jason DeRulo, whose “Whatcha Say” is bulleted at No. 2 for a second week; if not for Owl City, it would have taken over the top slot. Last week’s chart-topper, Jay Sean’s “Down,” drops past “Whatcha Say,” clearing a path that DeRulo should have waltzed down. Like Maura and I were saying a few weeks ago, “Whatcha” has had the kind of momentum that usually makes a No. 1 hit — but now, I suspect, timing is working against it. “Fireflies” is just hitting its stride at iTunes, and its airplay is only going to keep growing. Meanwhile, “Whatcha” is still growing nicely at radio (6th this week, up from 7th), and it’s been selling better than “Down” all this time but not remotely as well as “Fireflies.” With a new Taylor Swift song poised to crash onto the chart next week and Owl City not letting up, DeRulo’s destined to peak at No. 2.

Just gotta throw this in: With its prominent sample of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” the No. 2–ranked “Whatcha Say,” back-to-back with the Postal Service–manqué sound of Owl City’s chart-topper, makes for the most O.C.-tastic Top Two in chart history. See you at the Bait Shop!

• I’m not sure if this is any kind of record, but this week’s R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 is 80% controlled by just four acts, between lead and featured credits. Two of the acts are actually leads on both of their respective hits: Maxwell (on No. 1 “Pretty Wings” and No. 6 “Bad Habits”) and Jay-Z (No. 4 “Empire State of Mind” and No. 8 “Run This Town”). The other two omnipresences are Gucci Mane and Drake, who score one lead and one featured credit each. (I am particularly bemused by Drake’s supporting role on Trey Songz’s confidently titled “I Invented Sex.”)

If the aging hit “Successful” by Drake featuring Trey Songz and Lil Wayne hadn’t fallen out of the Top 10 this week, and all eight of the above hits had remained in there, we would’ve had a winners’ circle 90% controlled by six acts, with Trey and Weezy scoring a second hit each. Memo to hit R&B acts: Plz find some new people to sing your hooks and rap your bridges? Kthxbai.

• As longtime “100 & Single” readers know, I have been wishing for more than a year now that a song would debut on the Hot 100’s lowest rung and then shoot to No. 1 the following week, thereby setting for all time the “biggest leap to No. 1” record. There’s a debut at No. 100 on the chart this week, Rihanna’s comeback single “Russian Roulette”; but sadly, thanks to the song not being available digitally yet, it’s going to take two weeks to make its inevitable leap up the chart.

I want to remove this chart “achievement” from discussion, because it’s a random and somewhat silly record that’s always based on a technicality, not an actual measure of popularity. When the Beatles set the record back in 1964, as “Can’t Buy Me Love” shot from No. 26 to the top, it was due to pent-up demand for their first official Capitol Records 45 after their big American breakthrough; delivery of that massive backlog of singles sent the song flying to No. 1. (True, that could be regarded as a measure of the Beatles’ megapopularity, but I still say it was a fluke; I think we can agree that the just-fine “Can’t” is hardly remembered as one of the Fabs’ greatest hits from the year that gave us “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”)

In this decade, more than a half-dozen times, the record has been reset — just in the past 15 months, by singles from T.I., Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson — due to mismatches between an initial week of early airplay and a second-week freak burst of singles sales. Current record-holder Clarkson has done it twice, first with 2002’s Idol coronation song “A Moment Like This” and again this past February with the 97-to-1 leap by “My Life Would Suck Without You.” That leaves just three Hot 100 positions from which a song could leap to the penthouse before the record is permanently retired.

Part of what’s silly about this is that the only difference between a mega-leap to No. 1 and an also-rare debut at No. 1 is whether a song was able to scrape the bottom of the Hot 100 before pole-vaulting. Three weeks ago, if Spears’ current smash “3” had managed to eke out enough initial airplay to make a debut at No. 100, the following week it would have set the biggest-leap record; instead, because its first-week airplay ranked it just below No. 100 (on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under” chart), it became the first song to debut at No. 1 in three years, a nice but also fairly meaningless record.

“Russian Roulette” is set to drop at iTunes next week, and it will likely be a top-seller. But because those sales won’t count until the Hot 100 announced two Thursdays from now, the song stands little chance of setting the record (next week, it’ll probably meander up a few spots past No. 97, the point from which Clarkson’s record-setter made its leap; the week after that, even if it goes to No. 1, no record). Guess we’ll have to wait ’til 2010 to put this one to bed.


Top 10s
(Billboard issue date November 7, 2009; based on data collected October 19–25)

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. 7, 10 weeks)
2. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 2, 11 weeks)
3. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 1, 17 weeks)
4. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 3, 11 weeks)
5. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 13 weeks)
6. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (LW No. 6, 9 weeks)
7. The Black Eyed Peas, “Meet Me Halfway” (LW No. 9, 6 weeks)
8. Britney Spears, “3” (LW No. 5, 3 weeks)
9. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 8, 20 weeks)
10. Beyoncé, “Sweet Dreams” (LW No. 11, 14 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs
1. Owl City, “Fireflies” (LW No. 2, 196,000 downloads)
2. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 3, 143,000 downloads)
3. The Black Eyed Peas, “Meet Me Halfway” (LW No. 5, 141,000 downloads)
4. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 4, 137,000 downloads)
5. Britney Spears, “3” (LW No. 1, 125,000 downloads)
6. Iyaz, “Replay” (LW No. 9, 114,000 downloads)
7. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 6, 108,000 downloads)
8. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 11, 95,000 downloads)
9. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (LW No. 8, 95,000 downloads)
10. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 7, 92,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 1, 26 weeks)
2. Drake feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem, “Forever” (LW No. 2, 9 weeks)
3. Gucci Mane feat. Plies, “Wasted” (LW No. 3, 20 weeks)
4. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 8, 8 weeks)
5. Usher, “Papers” (LW No. 12, 4 weeks)
6. Maxwell, “Bad Habits” (LW No. 9, 20 weeks)
7. Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett, “Break Up” (LW No. 5, 25 weeks)
8. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks)
9. R. Kelly feat. Keri Hilson, “Number One” (LW No. 11, 15 weeks)
10. Trey Songz feat. Drake, “I Invented Sex” (LW No. 13, 11 weeks)

Hot Country Songs
1. Zac Brown Band, “Toes” (LW No. 2, 18 weeks)
2. Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (LW No. 4, 18 weeks)
3. Keith Urban, “Only You Can Love Me This Way” (LW No. 1, 17 weeks)
4. Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” (LW No. 3, 37 weeks)
5. Carrie Underwood, “Cowboy Casanova” (LW No. 5, 8 weeks)
6. Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (LW No. 7, 11 weeks)
7. Toby Keith, “American Ride” (LW No. 6, 17 weeks)
8. Luke Bryan, “Do I” (LW No. 8, 27 weeks)
9. Kenny Chesney feat. Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive” (LW No. 9, 14 weeks)
10. Taylor Swift, “Fifteen” (LW No. 11, 9 weeks)

Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Muse, “Uprising” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks)
2. Weezer, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” (LW No. 2, 10 weeks)
3. Foo Fighters, “Wheels” (LW No. 3, 5 weeks)
4. Rise Against, “Savior” (LW No. 4, 19 weeks)
5. Chevelle, “Jars” (LW No. 6, 18 weeks)
6. Three Days Grace, “Break” (LW No. 9, 8 weeks)
7. Breaking Benjamin, “I Will Not Bow” (LW No. 8, 11 weeks)
8. 30 Seconds to Mars, “Kings and Queens” (LW No. 11, 3 weeks)
9. Alice in Chains, “Check My Brain” (LW No. 5, 11 weeks)
10. AFI, “Medicate” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks)

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