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Letting Her Finish: Taylor Swift Completes Country’s Pop-Chart Comeback

taylorswift Letting Her Finish: Taylor Swift Completes Country’s Pop Chart ComebackIn his 1990s heyday, Garth Brooks refused to release even his biggest songs, from “Friends in Low Places” to “Shameless,” as singles. Sure, it pumped up his album sales. And mostly, he was following the Nashville convention at the time, wherein country hits were generally released only as noncommercial 45’s for jukeboxes.

But Brooks was no ordinary country act; he was the bestselling ’90s act of any genre, period. If anyone could have sold truckloads of singles like a pop act, it would have been him. No, Brooks eschewed them, in part, to prove a point: in interviews, he acknowledged that singles would have made him eligible for Billboard’s Hot 100, and Brooks was proud that the bulk of his blockbuster sales came from the country radio audience alone.

It wasn’t just the blue-vs.-red Culture Wars that bred such balkanism. In a more practical sense, Nashville stars were bruised by their still-fresh memories of the Urban Cowboy fad of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Eddie Rabbitt and Juice Newton scored huge crossover Top 40 hits before, abruptly (blame MTV and Michael Jackson), the pop audience fled in droves. For the rest of the ’80s, country stars like Alabama and the Judds sold albums on the strength of county radio alone.

A proud country star, Brooks danced with the audience that brung him. (Well, except for that Chris Gaines thing, but that’s a topic for another day.) But as the ’90s veered toward the ’00s, bit by bit, country acts were seduced to the pop side of the dial again.

So think of this week’s charts as the culmination of a two-decade pendulum swing. For the first time since probably “Islands in the Stream,” the most-played song on American radio is a country tune — sung by America’s new sweetheart, who, usurping rappers aside, just put her first MTV Video Music Award on the mantle.


That most-played song is, of course, Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 (and topped Hot Country Songs) back in August. Notwithstanding the nearly two-week-old Kanye Incident, it seems a bit strange to talk about this song in its 22nd week on the chart. While “Belong” moves back into the Top Five in the wake of her VMA win and the acceptance-speech brouhaha, it’s no threat to incessant chart-topper “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas (now No. 1 for a 13th week). Barring any more sympathy-stoking interruptions by boorish rap stars, there’s little to no chance of the song moving into the Hot 100 penthouse.

But on the radio this week, Swift has the Peas beat, which is rather remarkable. As Billboard notes, since the magazine switched to computer-monitored airplay in 1990 (one year before the big Soundscan switch of 1991), no country song has ever topped Hot 100 Airplay, the all-genre radio list used to compile the big chart. “Belong” achieves this in a photo finish: its cumulative radio audience this week reaches 117 million, edging out the Peas’ “Gotta” by some 25,000 “impressions,” a margin of about 0.02%.

Country radio is factored into Hot 100 Airplay — but remember, “Belong” peaked on the Country chart almost two months ago. So the only way to explain Swift’s rise on the all-genre airplay list is Top 40 radio (with a big assist from Adult Contemporary).

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s turned on their local hits station in the last year. Even on urban stations like my local Z100, Swift’s bright and shiny, teen-pop-oriented ditties have been garnering massive airtime. From last year’s crossover hits “Our Song” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” to this year’s saturation-play smash “Love Story,” Swift has been building steadily to this triumph.

Topping the radio list is a more stunning feat, however, when you consider all the Nashville-centered acts that, for nearly 20 years, didn’t pull it off: not just big-selling hat acts like Brooks, Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney (unsurprising, given how little pop airplay those guys get), but pop-friendlier women like LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. Even when these ladies scored their biggest pop hits, they never commanded the all-genre radio chart, not even for a week.

Since 1990, the list of country hits reaching the Hot 100’s Top Five has been so small, it’s like that “Famous Jewish Sports Legends” pamphlet joked about in Airplane! In each case, either singles sales were the driving factor (on the rare occasion when a country act, unlike Brooks, released a commercial single at all), or pop airplay was huge but out of sync with country radio:


“Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus was a pop-culture phenomenon in the summer of 1992, and the cassingle ultimately went platinum, sending the song to No. 4 on the Hot 100 — the first country crossover of the ’90s. But the twangy line-dance ditty, essentially shunned by Top 40 radio, never got higher on Hot 100 Airplay list than number 38.

“How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes peaked at No. 2 on the big chart in the closing months of 1997 and was, famously, the longest-lived Hot 100 hit of all time, riding the chart for a record-breaking 69 weeks (a mark only recently beaten by Jason Mraz’s now 75-week-old “I’m Yours”). “Live” was also the biggest-selling country single of the ’90s, going triple-platinum during its 16-month run. That is, if you can even consider it a “country hit” — the wedding staple had a strange airplay story: Country radio essentially boycotted Rimes’s version of the song in favor of a competing version by Nashville favorite Trisha Yearwood. With one hand tied behind its back, Rimes’s “Live” relied on Top 40 and A/C radio, peaking in third place on Hot 100 Airplay.

“You’re Still the One” and “From This Moment On” by Shania Twain were her two biggest hits in a string of country-to-pop crossovers, ultimately peaking at Nos. 2 and 4, respectively, in the summer and fall of 1998. “Still,” a massive radio classic, was released as a single and ultimately went platinum, but it crossed over to Top 40 nearly half a year after topping the Country chart, meaning it was relying entirely on pop radio by the time it peaked on the Hot 100; it never ranked better than third on the all-airplay list. “Moment” synced its country and pop spins more closely, but it never reached the top 10 on the airplay list.

“Breathe” by Faith Hill was Billboard’s No. 1 pop single for all of 2000, despite only reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100 in a year-long chart run. It remains one of only two country songs in Rock Era history to be the pop song of the year (1959’s “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton is the other). A gold-selling single, “Breathe” was ubiquitous on Top 40 and A/C radio and probably would have topped the all-airplay list if it hadn’t been for (no kidding) Sisqó’s “Thong Song,” which held Hill at second place on the radio chart in the spring of 2000.

“Amazed” by Lonestar actually topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in the winter of 2000, the first No. 1 by a country act since Rogers and Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” in 1983. (No country hit has topped the Hot 100 since.) But it wouldn’t have done so without a belated pop-radio remix that downplayed the ballad’s pedal steel and fiddle. Thanks to that mix and a belated single release, the song achieved pole position on the big chart, six months after the song’s epic eight-week run atop the Country list. On the all-airplay list, it rose no higher than fifth place.

“Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks won the Grammy for Record of the Year for 2006, the only country song to win that honor. In the wake of that win, the song belatedly made No. 4 on the Hot 100 in the winter of 2007. Like Rimes’s “How Do I Live,” the Chicks’ torchy diatribe (a response to the Nashville-led boycott of their music in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq War) was largely ignored by country programmers, resulting in a No. 36 Country peak. As such, “Not Ready” wasn’t really played at radio much at all, either at their home format or Top 40. The song never made the Hot 100 Airplay list at all and shouldn’t have made the Top Five; but unlike all of the above songs, it was released in the iTunes era, and a one-week burst of digital sales after the Grammy win sent it shooting into the winners’ circle for a single week.


A quintessential post-digital act, Swift, too, has been a big iTunes beneficiary. The August peak of “You Belong with Me” was fueled in large part by the digital song’s staggering sales (1.9 million downloads to date). But unlike most of the above songs, Swift has enjoyed across-the-board airplay to match her strong sales, with much of that airplay coming at Top 40 radio not long after Swift has peaked at country. That’s the secret — Twain and Hill probably would’ve topped the all-airplay list in their day, too, if their pop hits hadn’t crossed over so long after peaking at country. For Swift, her songs’ peaks at the two formats have been essentially simultaneous.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that what all of the above hits have in common — excepting Billy Ray Cyrus’s hit but definitely including all of Swift’s — is that they don’t really sound much like country. Is it much of a “crossover” achievement for a song with pop bones and almost no Opry-style instrumentation to saturate pop radio?

Maybe not, but when Garth Brooks was scoring all those country-only smashes more than a decade ago, he openly emulated his middle-of-the-road pop heroes like James Taylor and Billy Joel. For nearly two decades now, country has been morphing into pop music for white people who like stories. It’s only fitting that blue-state America’s Top 40 programmers finally caught on.


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

• MTV’s awards show hasn’t just been kind to Taylor Swift — the VMAs are the chart theme of the week, benefiting a range of acts who performed on the show. Let’s start with Jay-Z, who occupies two spots in the Top Five after a commanding, VMA-closing performance.

It’s history repeating: one year ago at this time, a triumphant VMA performance by a returning rapper paired with a singing diva gave that guy a Top Five smash to match his second, earlier hit still occupying the winners’ circle. In 2008, that was T.I., already riding high with “Whatever You Like” last September when his Rihanna duet, “Live Your Life,” stole the show at the VMAs and vaulted to the top of the Hot 100.

This year, Jay-Z was already on the rise with his Rihanna- and Kanye West‒backed “Run This Town,” but his performance of “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys sends that song hurtling up the charts, too — up 45 places to No. 5. Actually, Jigga has TV to thank for boosting both of his chart hits. One day after the VMAs, he teamed with Rihanna and a squirmy, apologetic Kanye in a performance of “Run This Town” that closed the debut of The Jay Leno Show. “Empire” was the week’s top-selling digital download, after more than tripling in sales; but the six-week-old “Run” is up in sales as well, by a very solid 15%.


• Yet another big MTV beneficiary: Lady Gaga, whose blood-soaked performance of “Paparazzi” on the VMAs sends the song hurtling into the Top 10, just three weeks after debuting on the Hot 100. How does she do it? I don’t mean wear those rindonkulous outfits — I mean, how does she get the fourth single from a year-old album to fly up the chart like her album just dropped yesterday?

In the years before Soundscan and especially iTunes, superstars scored third, fourth and fifth smashes from blockbuster albums as a matter of course, as their labels easily cajoled radio programmers into playing the latest track from a proven act/album. But in the iTunes era, it’s hard to excite either programmers or the public beyond a single or two. Now that any song from an album can be purchased from the moment it drops, picking a third or fourth single from your album isn’t an event anymore — the public was able to buy it a la carte months ago.

Somehow, Gaga has been bucking this trend all year, getting people stoked to buy and request third single “LoveGame” and fourth single “Paparazzi” at the very moment Interscope starts working the singles to radio. Again, how do she, and they, do it? It’s probably a combination of Gaga’s theatricality and her all-around newness: her whacked-out TV performances earn gobs of gawking, day-after coverage and water-cooler buzz; and believe it or not, a lot of people are still learning who she is. Even with four Top 10 hits, her album The Fame has sold only 1.4 million copies, the kind of number a hit act would roll on one single a decade ago.


• Back to country blondes with crossover potential: Carrie Underwood’s knocking on the door of the Country Top 10, rising to No. 11 with “Cowboy Casanova,” the first single from her forthcoming third album. Already Nashville’s most successful female act of the ’00s, Underwood is such a known quantity to radio programmers that her new hit has reached this level in only its third week. I’ve talked about the slowness of country radio before, but that rise seriously bucks the trend: in this week’s Country Top 10, the average number of total chart weeks is more than 21. Next week, Underwood will reach the winners’ circle in four.

On the Hot 100, “Casanova” is only up to No. 49, thanks largely to country airplay, but that’s about to change. The song will make a big leap on next week’s chart, as iTunes is already reporting the song as their No. 2 seller at press time. Expect a rise into the Top 10 and maybe even the Top Five, which would instantly make “Casanova” Underwood’s second-highest pop hit, outgunning her No. 8–peaking smash “Before He Cheats.” (Her highest-peaking pop hit was her American Idol coronation song “Inside Your Heaven,” which spent a week at No. 1.)


• And let’s close with one last beneficiary of MTV hype: Muse, who not only have the No. 1 Alternative song but also their first American Top 40 hit after their much-publicized VMA showcase. “Uprising,” their glammy bid for U.S. stardom, more than triples in digital sales to 53,000 downloads. That total causes the single to re-enter the Hot 100 all the way up at No. 37, six weeks after it spent a single week on the big chart at No. 81. The song evicted Kings of Leon from the top of the Alternative list last week and is now in its second bulleted week on top, holding off fast-rising comeback hits from Alice in Chains and Weezer.


Top 10s
(Billboard issue date October 3, 2009; based on data collected September 14-20)
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, 15 weeks)
2. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 8 weeks)
3. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 2, 12 weeks)
4. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 6, 22 weeks)
5. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 50, 2 weeks)
6. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 3, 6 weeks)
7. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (LW No. 18, 4 weeks)
8. Drake feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem, “Forever” (CHART DEBUT)
9. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 5, 34 weeks)
10. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 7, 6 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs
1. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” (LW No. 23, 205,000 downloads)
2. Drake feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem, “Forever” (CHART DEBUT, 176,000 downloads)
3. Lady Gaga, “Paparazzi” (LW No. 12, 164,000 downloads)
4. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” (LW No. 2, 163,000 downloads)
5. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 162,000 downloads)
6. The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling” (LW No. 1, 153,000 downloads)
7. Jay Sean feat. Lil Wayne, “Down” (LW No. 3, 137,000 downloads)
8. Jason DeRulo, “Whatcha Say” (LW No. 5, 132,000 downloads)
9. Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me” (LW No. 11, 106,000 downloads)
10. Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” (LW No. 6, 93,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
1. Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” (LW No. 1, 21 weeks)
2. Mario feat. Gucci Mane & Sean Garrett, “Break Up” (LW No. 2, 20 weeks)
3. Drake feat. Trey Songz, “Successful” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks)
4. Gucci Mane feat. Plies, “Wasted” (LW No. 9, 15 weeks)
5. Jay-Z feat. Rihanna & Kanye West, “Run This Town” (LW No. 4, 9 weeks)
6. Pleasure P, “Under” (LW No. 9, 13 weeks)
7. Mary Mary feat. Kierra “KiKi” Sheard, “God in Me” (LW No. 5, 44 weeks)
8. Keyshia Cole feat. Monica, “Trust” (LW No. 10, 22 weeks)
9. Fabolous feat. The-Dream, “Throw It in the Bag” (LW No. 6, 19 weeks)
10. Beyoncé, “Ego” (LW No. 11, 19 weeks)

Hot Country Songs
1. Justin Moore, “Small Town U.S.A.” (LW No. 3, 33 weeks)
2. Toby Keith, “American Ride” (LW No. 4, 12 weeks)
3. Jason Aldean, “Big Green Tractor” (LW No. 1, 19 weeks)
4. George Strait, “Living for the Night” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks)
5. Keith Urban, “Only You Can Love Me This Way” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks)
6. Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” (LW No. 7, 32 weeks)
7. Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future” (LW No. 10, 13 weeks)
8. Blake Shelton, “I’ll Just Hold On” (LW No. 8, 31 weeks)
9. Zac Brown Band, “Toes” (LW No. 11, 13 weeks)
10. Eric Church, “Love Your Love the Most” (LW No. 12, 32 weeks)

Hot Alternative Tracks
1. Muse, “Uprising” (LW No. 1, 7 weeks)
2. Alice in Chains, “Check My Brain” (LW No. 3, 6 weeks)
3. Weezer, “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” (LW No. 5, 5 weeks)
4. Kings of Leon, “Notion” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks)
5. Rise Against, “Savior” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks)
6. Chevelle, “Jars” (LW No. 9, 13 weeks)
7. Paramore, “Ignorance” (LW No. 10, 11 weeks)
8. Silversun Pickups, “Panic Switch” (LW No. 6, 28 weeks)
9. Pearl Jam, “The Fixer” (LW No. 7, 9 weeks)
10. Breaking Benjamin, “I Will Not Bow” (LW No. 13, 6 weeks)

 

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