The national star-making machinery only begins to take you seriously when you command the field more than once. Just like, say, GOP presidential candidates, pop acts can’t chart one strong number and assume dominance is permanently theirs. They’ve got to come back on top, week after week, survey after survey. (Even then, as Michelle, Rick, Herman and Newt learned the hard way, stardom is fleeting.)
So it goes for electro-pop duo LMFAO, who kick off 2012 at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 with “Sexy And I Know It,” their improbable second chart-topper.
At least, it seemed improbable a few weeks ago. Six months ago, they looked huge: The shufflin’ smash “Party Rock Anthem”—a six-week No. 1 smash in July and August, and the year’s No. 2 single—dominated the summer of 2011 and introduced an infectious dance. But then, so did “Macarena” in 1996. The only differences between Los Del Rio then and LMFAO now is about 30 years of age, six inches of hair-height, some barely concealed expletives and, now, a followup hit.
“Sexy And I Know It” was parked at No. 2 for seven long weeks in November and December, kept out of the penthouse by Rihanna’s blockbuster “We Found Love.” If LMFAO’s followup hit had to lose out to something, it might as well be “Found.” The Calvin Harris-produced club romancer spent eight weeks atop the Hot 100, more than any 2011 hit; it even beat Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the top song of the year but only a seven-week No. 1.
But “Sexy” proved tenacious, actually growing in digital sales as the weeks went on and Rihanna’s smash began to wane. Like a caucus candidate surging when it counted, LMFAO found themselves atop the Digital Songs chart just in time for the annual iTunes holiday-week bonanza.
(A followup to my last column, which considered whether Katy Perry could, British-style, ride the U.S. iTunes Christmas surge to the top of the Hot 100. Her “The One That Got Away” couldn’t quite close the deal with song-buyers; its 157% sales surge, boosted by a B.o.B remix, was smaller than LMFAO’s and only got the song as high as No. 3 on the big chart. So not only did her gambit fail, but she reportedly spent the week deciding to separate from her British spouse. Talk about Merry Old England letting you down.)
This holiday season, the annual Apple-fueled song sales boost came a little early, thanks to Christmas falling on a Sunday. With thousands of new i-device owners running to their computers on the last day of the Billboard tracking week, “Sexy And I Know It” racked up an eye-popping 395,000 downloads, the fourth-largest one-week total for any song in 2011. Accordingly, LMFAO finally marched to the top of the Hot 100 as their sales dominance overcame Ri’s continued control of the nation’s radio stations. (“Found” still leads all songs in airplay; “Sexy” is the third-most-played song at radio.)
So! LMFAO have gone from a goofy novelty act that began 2011 without a single American Top 40 appearance, to validated pop-radio eminences entering 2012 with a pair of No. 1 smashes. Stardom confirmed?
LMFAO, “Sexy And I Know It”
“Sexy And I Know It” is a catchy song, and some critics even think it’s better than “Party Rock Anthem.” But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here saying “Sexy” wouldn’t have been a No. 1 hit without the Top 40 radio undeniability of its predecessor. I’d argue it wouldn’t even have made the Top 40.
Looking back on decades of hit acts that exploded into consciousness with a pair of chart-toppers, you see that generally, the leadoff track is the stronger one. That’s regardless of the stature of the act—the Beatles’ “She Loves You” doesn’t top the U.S. charts in ’64 without “I Want to Hold Your Hand” coming before it, nor does Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” get there in ’88 without “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
I went back through Hot 100 history to study other acts that went from nowheresville to a pair of No. 1s. Specifically, I’m considering acts that had never reached the U.S. Top 40 (a few low-charting Hot 100 appearances don’t count), then suddenly rang the bell twice. It’s a list of about two dozen artists, and rather than just list them, let’s group them into three career buckets, based on their respective trajectories after their chart-topping twofers. Then let’s try and predict where LMFAO will wind up.
SUPERSTARS IN THE MAKING:
The Beatles (1964): “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You”
The Jackson 5 (1970): “I Want You Back,” “ABC”
Lionel Richie (1981-82): “Endless Love,” “Truly”
Wham!/George Michael (1984-85): “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper”
Paula Abdul (1989): “Straight Up,” “Forever Your Girl”
Mariah Carey (1990): “Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time”
Puff Daddy (1997): “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” “I’ll Be Missing You”
Christina Aguilera (1999-2000): “Genie in a Bottle,” “What a Girl Wants”
Lady Gaga (2009): “Just Dance,” “Poker Face”
In the above nine cases, the pair of out-of-nowhere chart-toppers was a mere throat-clearing for a long, or at least longish, chart career. This is the largest category of acts, suggesting that two immediate chart-toppers confers instant stardom. (Indeed, several other superstar acts come close to qualifying—including the Supremes, the Byrds, Whitney Houston, Bon Jovi and Beyoncé—if not for a pesky mid-charting Top 40 hit that preceded their streaks of dominance.)
In several of the above cases, the act wasn’t even done with their No. 1 streak, let alone their hit-making career. Mariah Carey, as a heavily promoted Sony Music debutante, strung together a record five career-opening chart-toppers from 1990-91 (the above pair, plus “Someday,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry” and “Emotions”). The Jackson 5 put together a foursome (“The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There”), Wham! a trio (“Everything She Wants”), Paula Abdul a trio (“Cold Hearted”). The Beatles didn’t have a direct streak of No. 1s, exactly—after their “Hand” breakthrough, a backlog of their songs littered the Hot 100 in lower positions—but they did succeed themselves in the No. 1 spot, twice; “Hand” gave way to “She Loves You,” which gave way to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” No other act has ever replaced itself in the penthouse twice directly like that.
Even some of the less starry acts qualify here. Abdul scored a total of six No. 1s in 1990-91 and remains a household name—thanks to American Idol, a gig she wouldn’t have gotten without that string of chart-toppers. Puff Daddy is more omnipresence than radio superstar, but people recognize his name, whatever it might be this year; a big part of the reason is his chart-crushing 1997.
Odds LMFAO will wind up in this career category: SLIM. Pretty much all nine of the acts above had deep albums filled with radio-ready, often classic pop songs. If Sorry for Party Rocking turns out to be chockablock with radio gold, I’ll eat my words, but something tells me “Champagne Showers” is a possible Top 20 hit, not another No. 1.
Tears For Fears, “Shout”
HOT STREAK TO POP PURGATORY:
The Monkees (1966-67): “Last Train to Clarkesville,” “I’m a Believer”
KC and the Sunshine Band (1975): “Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way (I Like It)”
Andy Gibb (1977-78): “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water”
Tears for Fears (1985): “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout”
For each of the four acts in this middle category, a pair of breakthrough chart-toppers launched solid careers that waned but didn’t fully die off. Their big hits didn’t make them permanent superstars, but they certainly gave them the boost they needed.
For three of the four acts, the pair of hits weren’t even their last chart-toppers. Prefab TV stars turned surprisingly durable artists the Monkees still had “Daydream Believer” ahead of them. Harry Wayne “KC” Casey’s Miami disco collective had three more chart-toppers to come after ’75 (“(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “I’m Your Boogie Man,” “Please Don’t Go”). And Andy Gibb, after scoring two ’77-’78 megahits, followed up with the No. 1 song of 1978, “Shadow Dancing,” The only outlier, Tears for Fears, didn’t do badly at all—”Head Over Heels” made No. 3 right after “Shout,” and four years later “Sowing the Seeds of Love” made it to No. 2.
So what killed the momentum? After about four or five years of regular hits, all four acts essentially turned lukewarm—able to keep recording profitably and tour, but never to return to the Top 10 (or, rarely: KC did score one fluke Top 10 hit in 1983, which did little to revive the Sunshine Band’s chart career).
All four acts were genuinely talented in some way but had a deus ex machina working against them—they all broke through smack in the middle of their respective decades, at the height of a certain pop genre that was soon to fade. Blame the downfall of ’70s disco for Gibb’s and the Sunshine Band’s respective falls from grace. The Monkees met a similar fate of a ’60s trend ending, as their TV show got canceled and British Invasion-style pop gave way to psychedelia and harder rock. Tears for Fears weren’t helped by founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith falling out, but the end of the synth-oriented ’80s didn’t help, either.
Odds LMFAO will wind up in this career category: One in three. The key for LMFAO is whether they have a secret, mad pop-genius figure lurking within, or behind, the group. For the Monkees and Gibb, it was an outside force—manager-producer-impresario Don Kirshner in the former case, Andy’s older brothers in the Bee Gees in the latter case. The Sunshine Band had the commanding Casey leading and arranging them, and TFF were powered by the meticulous Orzabal. For LMFAO, it all depends on whether the producer-DJ-vocalists (and cousins) Redfoo and SkyBlu have a touch of will.i.am or Dr. Luke in them.
Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy”
FLASHES IN THE PAN
Men at Work (1982-83): “Who Can It Be Now?” “Down Under”
Mr. Mister (1985-86): “Broken Wings,” “Kyrie”
Rick Astley (1988): “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Together Forever”
Fine Young Cannibals (1989): “She Drives Me Crazy,” “Good Thing”
Wilson Phillips (1990): “Hold On,” “Release Me”
Ashanti (2002): “Always on Time” (Ja Rule feat. Ashanti), “Foolish”
Each of the above six acts was hot for about a year or two after its pair of chart-toppers. By year three, they either dropped flop follow-ups or, in the case of the Cannibals, disappeared from pop music altogether.
Man, the ’80s—has any decade produced a greater array of candy-colored, short-lived pseudo-stars? Let’s add 1990’s Wilson Phillips to that list of ’80s short-termers, since they broke through a year before Nirvana came along and Changed Everything.
(If we wanted, we could make the ’80s list even longer by including Starship—the version of the band that had to drop the “Jefferson” from its name and immediately scored three No. 1’s in that schlocky incarnation—but since Grace Slick continued with the group, it’s hard to call their 1985 explosion a breakthrough by newbies.)
In any case, the larger point is this: If you think our pop stars are short-lived now, remember that the Reagan years were full of MTV-fueled acts that saw dizzying heights before plummeting due to ever-changing cultural whims. Men at Work, Mr. Mister and Rick Astley all managed followup Top 10 hits but were locked out less than 18 months later. Wilson Phillips actually mined their quintuple-platinum debut album for another Top Five (“Impulsive,” probably their best hit) and another No. 1 (“You’re in Love”) before releasing a surprisingly weak followup and calling it quits.
The seeming outlier here is 2002 It Girl Ashanti, who perhaps shouldn’t count because her first No. 1 was actually a supporting role on a Ja Rule chart-topper. But her career trajectory—total radio omnipresence, two No. 1 albums in 2002-03, radio indifference after 2004—looks an awful lot like the ’80s short-termers.
The only thing separating these half-dozen acts from the moderately more successful acts in the Pop Purgatory category seems to be versatility, or a lack thereof. All six did one sound really well—Mr. Mister’s shimmery inspirational pop, Astley’s caffeinated ersatz-soul, Wilson Phillips’ gooey anthems—and not much else. If even KC and the Sunshine Band could score with a ballad, surely Men at Work could have found another register to keep their career going.
Odds LMFAO will wind up in this career category: Two in three. The LMFAO boys have scored two hits which, Astley-style, are definitely cut from the same cloth. To be fair, so were the Beatles’ first two hits, and the Jacksons’—but boy, did those acts evolve from there. The current Hot 100 is awash in club beats, which is only going to encourage Redfoo and SkyBlu to keep going to that well. But if they’ve got, I dunno, a catchy acoustic number or a delicate ballad in them, I’d get that teed up within the next year if they want to still be hanging around the Top 10 in 2013.