Diminishing Returns

Hits That Aren't: 'Glee' Songs Zoom Up And Down The Charts

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The battle royale on the charts this week was supposed to be the one that pitted Susan Boyle's Christmas-themed album The Gift against Taylor Swift's Speak Now. But the more interesting face-off happened on the singles chart, between two versions of the same song: "Teenage Dream" vs. "Teenage Dream."

The version you've heard on the radio since late summer, co-written and sung by Katy Perry, comes in at number 13. But this week, the higher chart position — number 8 — was held by a version performed by Darren Criss and credited to Glee Cast.

The clip of the show in which Criss's character sings Perry's hit to Chris Colfer's Kurt has been watched more than three and a half million times on YouTube. On the web-friendly "Ultimate Chart" — which counts streaming audio and video sources as well as radio plays and sales — it's the number two song of the week. According to Billboard magazine, not only is the song the second highest charting single ever released in connection with the show, it also sold more digital copies than any other song last week (Billboard Hot 100 placement is determined by a combination of sales and radio plays).

Though Glee's success as a cultural force can't be argued, all the record-breaking has prompted news outlets to treat the show as if it's some kind of a hit factory. And sure, if you're just counting appearances on the chart, the weekly production of songs that dot the singles chart can seem like a smooth-running assembly line. But appearances on the charts doesn't make a song a hit any more than photos in US Weekly make the Real Housewives of Whereeversville cultural power-brokers. The songs from Glee aren't hits. They're souvenirs.

That conclusion might sound harsh, but statistics bear it out.

First, a few facts in the show's favor: We've talked before about the record-setting number of songs that Glee has placed on the Billboard Hot 100; last month the Glee cast passed the Beatles to become the non-solo act with the greatest number of songs on the chart in history. With four new songs charting this week, that tally is up to 93 songs, topped now by a only one performer: Elvis Presley.

But — partly because the songs on Glee are all covers — the way we listen to the show's versions differs from their source material. According to a count by Nielsen SoundScan, of the dozens of songs from Glee that have marched up the sales chart in 2010, not a single one makes the list of the top 200 songs of the year. And that's because, with remarkably few exceptions ("Like A Prayer" and "Bad Romance" are two), Glee's "hits" remain on the chart for just a single week.

Glee versions of songs don't become catalog favorites for two reasons: 1) the originals are already catalog favorites, and 2) snipped free from the show's plot, they don't stand on their own for a broad audience.

Songs from Glee are clearly making some kind of impact; it's just an impact based on a desire to extend affection for the show beyond the weekly hour. Sales and YouTube streams make the collected output of the show significant, but when it comes to the kind of communal listening experience that defines a hit, Glee whiffs. According to Nielsen BDS, which tracks radio plays, Perry's version of "Teenage Dream" was played on the radio 241,000 times across the United States last week — 15 weeks after its release. Glee's version garnered just 58 spins.

What's remarkable about the show's run up the charts is the fact of the run itself; that somehow the show's viewers, at least a sizable portion of them, have decided that enjoying the songs on the show in the moment that they're broadcast or streamed isn't enough. They've decided that extending that enjoyment by paying 99 cents for a track is a good value, even though the week-after-week Hot 100 churn shows how quickly affection for one episode is overtaken by the next. Glee songs are a low-cost way to concretize the fleeting experience of watching the program, like personal merit badges earned by watching, and liking, the show.

Then again, this week's Billboard album chart winner presents a counter-argument. When Susan Boyle burst onto the scene last year following her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent, she seemed like an archetype of the kind of "souvenir" performer that American Idol have made popular. That people wanted to watch Boyle's revelatory performance over and over again on YouTube wasn't a surprise. That they wanted to buy a re-recorded version of it wasn't either. But Boyle and her handlers managed to translate the emotion conveyed in that performance into the globe's most popular album of 2009. One year later, it's still a little hard to believe that all that could be made out of a single night of television.

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