Ask Billboard: How 'Hot' Are Taylor Swift's Songs?
Musician Taylor Swift receives an award onstage at the 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on January 31, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. WireImage

Ask Billboard is updated every Friday. As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, sales and airplay, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.

WELL-SPOKEN

Hello Gary,

My comments have to do with Taylor Swift.

In this era of instant and high Billboard Hot 100 debuts, Swift has broken quite a few chart records, including having the highest debuts over three consecutive weeks. She's earned such Hot 100 headlines because of total weekly downloads for her stream of newly-available titles.

Most of her high-debuting titles this year, however, have fallen sharply in their second chart weeks. Does that sound like chart dominance to you? Chart dominance, to me, is what the Beatles accomplished, and the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, Elton John and others. Multiple songs at No. 1, along with many other titles in the top 10, most with lengthy stays.

Swift's "Speak Now" may have sold more than a million copies in one week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but its tracks have made merely cameos on the Hot 100.

Does that really equal "popular"?

Take care,

Tom Gazdayka
Mountain View, California

Hi Tom,

Your thoughts echo those made below several stories on Billboard.com regarding Swift's Hot 100 activity, as well as the similar chart arcs made by the "Glee" cast.

What we're seeing on the Hot 100 now reflects the instantaneous world of digital downloads. For much of the Hot 100's 52-year history, the record company model was to release one single at a time and build its airplay. A song would then gradually scale the chart as both sales and radio play increased.

Since digital sales began contributing to the Hot 100 in 2005, songs clearly chart differently. It's no longer uncommon for titles to launch in the top 10 and plummet the following week. For "Speak Now" and Swift's previous album, "Fearless," the Big Machine label released preview tracks in the weeks leading up to the release of each set. Fans salivating for a taste of each collection sent those songs into the chart's upper reaches based on robust sales alone.

Thus, the key difference, as you point out, is that unlike in the Hot 100's earlier decades, it's now routine for titles to grace the upper portion of the chart without receiving significant radio exposure. Does that mean we should not consider them hits?

In my opinion, a Hot 100 hit is a Hot 100 hit.

The chart has undergone changes throughout its existence, with perhaps the most radical being the Dec. 5, 1998, change to allow non-commercial singles to appear (since labels were releasing fewer radio smashes as cassette and CD singles in hopes of boosting album sales). At that point, what had been a "singles" chart for 40 years transitioned to a "songs" chart.

That's what the Hot 100 remains 12 years later: a list of the top-selling and most-played songs in the U.S., regardless of how much each title's sales/airplay ratio accounts for its overall chart points.

So, the chart success of artists like Swift reflects how passionately fans are responding to her music. I don't think that we should discount her placing 11 songs on this week's Hot 100 (a record among female artists) just because all but radio focus track "Mine" charted based mostly on sales. Those 11 songs sold a combined 525,000 downloads last week, according to SoundScan. Under any chart methodology, that's an impressive sum.

Of course, your point is valid about acts such as the Beatles having totaled 20 No. 1s and 617 weeks on the Hot 100. Swift has tallied 39 Hot 100 hits. With several having charted based on digital spikes, her total chart weeks stand at 401. That amount trails those of three other women who have also made 39 Hot 100 visits: Janet Jackson (711), Whitney Houston (675) and Mary J. Blige (630).

Similarly, the "Glee" cast has collected 89 Hot 100 hits, the chart's third-highest total. The troupe's 114 total chart weeks, however, vastly trail Elvis Presley's 994 (108 chart entries) and James Brown's 681 (91 visits).

Ultimately, the test of artists' popularity over time is the lasting impact of their work. We'll be better able to gauge the cultural stamp of Swift's career in comparison to other star acts if songs such as "Love Story" and "Mine" remain ubiquitous for years to come.

And remember, had the digital era existed when Presley, the Beatles and all stars prior to the 2000s enjoyed their greatest success, and had the Hot 100 included album cuts in those years, big-name acts would've totaled countless more Hot 100 hits.

Changes in methodology over various eras greatly factor into any historical comparison. In sports, Roger Maris' breaking of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961 (61 to 60) remains debated, since Maris' season was 162 games long and Ruth's 60-home run season in 1927 was 154. As a journalistic entity, Billboard's role is to present the facts and analyze accordingly. Often times, gray areas arise, making chart commentary worthy of long Ask Billboard answers like these.

Such friendly arguments also make pop music history, and the charts, so much fun to follow and dissect.

'R' YOU SURE?

Hi Gary,

Thank you for answering our questions each week.

I have a question about the debut of Ke$ha's "We R Who We R" at No. 1 on both Digital Songs and the Hot 100. I can understand its ranking on the former chart, which is simply a pure sales ranking, but not on the latter.

Two weeks ago, Taylor Swift's "Back to December" debuted at No. 1 on Digital Songs and No. 6 on the Hot 100.

This week, Kesha's track also enters at No. 1 on Digital but, unlike Swift, at No. 1 on the Hot 100, even though Far*East Movement's "Like a G6," featuring Cataracs & Dev, is way ahead on Radio Songs (No. 4), while No. 2 on Digital.

I know that "We R Who We R" is receiving decent early airplay, as it bows on Radio Songs at No. 49, but why were Ke$ha's Hot 100 fortunes greater than Swift's, despite both logging No. 1 arrivals?

Thank you so much!

Derek Lane
San Jose, California

Hi Derek,

While the chart rankings - Ke$ha at No. 1 in sales and No. 49 in airplay and Far*East Movement at Nos. 2 and 4, respectively - may lead one to conclude that the latter song should rank higher on the Hot 100, the monster first-week sales of Ke$ha's song were enough to propel it to the top spot on the big chart.

"Like a G6" outperformed "We R Who We R" on radio airplay - 110.1 million to 24.3 million - but trailed significantly in sales - 280,000 to 178,000. According to the Hot 100's methodology, the sales impact of "We R Who We R" was enough to offset the airplay lead of "Like a G6."

Despite its No. 1 Digital Songs start, Swift's "Back to December" was not able to reach the Hot 100's top rung two weeks ago, as the gap between its sales and those of runner-up "Like a G6" was not as wide - 242,000 vs. 223,000 - as that between "We R Who We R" and "Like a G6" this week. Also key, "Back to December" played to a relatively small audience for such a sales smash in its opening frame - 9,000, according to Nielsen BDS - so its airplay was not enough to send it to No. 1 when the Hot 100 was tabulated two weeks ago.

ELECTRIC YOUTH

Hello Gary,

Just a thought: why have Fox and/or the "American Idol" executives not thought of presenting a show for relatively older talented people? A sort of second-chance "American Idol."

A lot of times, life itself - work, kids, financial concerns - halts the dreams we have. I think it would be a great idea to give people aged 30 and up a chance to find out the answer to the question that remains on our hopeful minds: "Are we good enough?!"

There is, after all, the modeling-centered TV show "She's Got the Look," a search for female models 35 and older.

So, why not give us older talent a chance to prove that dreams don't end with youth? Why not give everyone a chance, regardless of age, to be the next ... American Idol?

Sincerely,

Richard Stoots
Norfolk, Virginia

Hi Richard,

I think it's a great premise. After all, then-48-year-old Susan Boyle claimed the No. 1 Billboard 200 album for six consecutive weeks after her breakthrough last year on "Britain's Got Talent."

It's such a great idea, in fact, that Fox is one step ahead.

I posed your question to Billboard senior editor - and our "American Idol" analyst when the series airs new episodes - Ann Donahue. Here is her response:

"Fox has such a show premiering next year: Simon Cowell's 'X Factor'! There will be no age limits. Plus, people will be able to audition in groups instead of only as solo acts.

"That's precisely the reason that Fox has probably never removed the age limit on 'Idol.' The network knew that Cowell would pitch a fit, because 'X Factor' is his property."

"X Factor" is scheduled to debut on Fox next fall.

PAISLEY POWER

Hi Gary!

I've seen Brad Paisley consistently conquer Billboard's country charts. Could you please let me know the sales of his albums?

Thanks,

Radin Amin
Kuching, Malaysia

Hi Radin,

With 15 No. 1s on Billboard's Country Songs chart and five leaders on Country Albums, Paisley is clearly one of the format's cornerstones.

Here is a look at the U.S. sales of his studio albums, according to SoundScan:

2,434,000, "Time Well Wasted," 2005
2,418,000, "Mud on the Tires," 2003
1,389,000, "5th Gear," 2007
1,093,000, "Part II," 2001
1,053,000, "Who Needs Pictures," 1999
667,000, "American Saturday Night," 2009
277,000, "Brad Paisley Christmas," 2006
272,000, "Play," 2008

Paisley's career U.S. album sales total 9,652,000.

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance Wednesday (Nov. 3) when Paisley taped a "Live on Letterman" webisode at New York's Ed Sullivan Theater (the inside of which looks much smaller and cozier in person).

As you can see and hear in the cbs.com hour-long concert - complete with a guest appearance from Paul Schaffer - Paisley's talents cover a wide range, from touching ballads to all-out rock guitar solos, as well as his trademark clever lyrics, including his crowd-favorite ode to "Alcohol" that's long been "helpin' white people dance."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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