Monday, April 7, 2008

Breaking Records Isn't What It Used To Be

There has been much brouhaha over the fact that both Mariah Carey and Madonna broke records last week.

Mariah Carey now has 18 #1 singles. Back in the day, before digital media took over the world, it actually took work to get a number one single. I know, I know, it’s hard to get a number one single now—any non-superstar would loudly argue against my point. I understand, I do, but before a number one song had to be out for several weeks, gaining on the chart, becoming a massive hit. A number one song, even for just one week, is a hit; it’s earned that spot. But nowadays songs just appear at number one, and it’s unfair. All Mariah Carey had to do was act like herself (“Mimi”, since that’s her post-“comeback” persona and not the crazy loon who pushed an ice cream cart on TRL), and therein the songs kept rollin’. “Touch My Body” is catchy enough, and it’s certainly not her worst single, but it’s not particularly memorable or great. I disagree with critics who say it’s a ripoff of “Always Be My Baby” (seriously?), although radio stations need to branch out into their Mariah Carey hit catalog and play something other than songs that originated from her Tommy Mottola period. “Touch My Body” is helped by the video, featuring geek man-boy Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock fantasizing how luscious touching Mariah’s body can be, but it hasn’t been out long enough to attain the notoriety that a number one song should carry, especially one that breaks Elvis’ record. Of course, an artist that has so many hit singles obviously has a few less memorable ones than others, but it seemed that there was no suspense regarding whether or not she would actually break the record; it was a foregone conclusion. Results rigged, anyone?

As for Madonna, at least her very deep catalog is accessed somewhat more on radio than Mariah Carey’s. I haven’t even heard all of “4 Minutes to Save the World”, which is quite a feat, yet it took me a few to realize that horrible snippet of Justin Timberlake was Madonna’s new song. Oh, the disappointment. Again, it hit the top ten already? The song’s been out for two weeks, maybe three. Songs should earn their high status, because it proves they are hits. In reality, both “Touch My Body” and “4 Minutes to Save the World” are going to be midlevel and minor (to put it nicely) hits, respectively. By July, you’ll have forgotten them already, and when you hear them at the end-of-the-year countdowns you’ll have a vague if misbegotten memory of the songs coming out last year. Nowadays songs flash out quickly, peaking early and then dying. Those aren’t hits, but they’re always described as one. A real hit has staying power. Current hits include anything that Chris Brown has sang on (including the bloated “No Air”), “Love Song” (which is actually a retort to her record company—now that song makes sense), and of course, “Low”, which is heading downward but still hasn’t gotten old. And that song’s been out since November/December.

As someone who’s always followed airplay and chart positions as a hobby, I’ve never understood how exactly they figure out a song’s ranking. Requests favor novelty songs (“The Bad Touch” “Because I Got High”) and teen and tween favorites (Backstreet Boys/Avril Lavigne/Jonas Brothers), but overall they have their small moment in the sun and wear out their welcome quickly. Bands like Matchbox Twenty and Maroon 5 do extremely well on Top 40 stations as well as ones that cater to older demographics, but you will never hear a Rob Thomas-penned tune on 9 at 9. Sales has something to do with it, but those figures are changed yearly as factors like iTunes gained traction and older forms of counting became obsolete. Every December when I make my predictions and listen to all the end-of-the-year roundups, I’m inevitably scratching my head at how one song ended up in the fifties when it clearly should be twenty points higher and how a top ten song managed to squeeze in when it clearly wasn’t that big a hit. Whatever…it at least makes the countdowns good betting material.


Emily said...

Good God I hate Mariah Carey.

Although I do think that the new Madonna song is the perfect work out song.

John said...

It's weird how things can be cyclical. People claimed that Tapes and CDs would be the death of the single (and with it, the B-Side) as a release format, but iTunes has made the purchase of individual songs not only possible, but preferred. It seems that people today don't want to buy full albums anymore, because they might end up with one or two songs that they don't like (ignoring the equal chance that they'll find ones they DO like, but wouldn't have expected to.)

My favorite part of this post has to be this: "As someone who’s always followed airplay and chart positions as a hobby..." That's why we love ya, Steph!

P.S.: Speaking of music, if you're interested in some very "long tail" new songs coming out these days you should preview the new Phenomenauts Album "For All Mankind" on iTunes, and visit the Architects' myspace page to hear tracks from their upcoming album (