Why This?

(Above: Kris Kristofferson, singer, songwriter, actor, and more handsome than anybody.)

It seems like an easy way to calculate the year’s top hits based on chart performance: give 100 points to the #1 song each week, 99 to #2, 98 to #3, and so on all the way down to the #100 song, which gets only one point. Over the course of a year, the song with the most points is the top song of the year. It’s generally a fine system that balances chart peak with longevity, but it’s one that can get badly fubar’d by a record with an extremely long chart life. I do not know for certain whether that kind of fubaring is what happened to Billboard magazine when calculating their top hits of 1973, but something weird certainly did.

1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”/Tony Orlando & Dawn
2. “Why Me”/Kris Kristofferson
3. “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”/Jim Croce
4. “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack
5. “Let’s Get It On”/Marvin Gaye
6. “My Love”/Paul McCartney & Wings
7. “Crocodile Rock”/Elton John
8. “Will It Go Round in Circles”/Billy Preston
9. “You’re So Vain”/Carly Simon
10. “Touch Me in the Morning”/Diana Ross

One of those things is not like the others.

“Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson first made the Hot 100 on April 7, 1973, at #100 and moved as follows: 99-91-79-73-69-65-60-59-59-53, before turning back to #54 on June 23. But the next week, it moved back up to #50, and finally cracked the Top 40 on July 7, 1973, reaching #37 in its 14th week on the chart. It went to #35 the next week, then fell to #42 and then #50. But on August 4, it started back up—its second reversal of fortune—reaching #44 before falling to #52 and ping-ponging back up to #45. The next week (August 25),”Why Me” returned to the Top 40 at #32 in its 21st week on the Hot 100. After that, it moved 31-26-23-31, and then an extraordinary stretch of 23-21-23-21-21 before going to #19 and finally to #16 for the week of November 10, the highest position it would reach, in its 32nd week on the Hot 100.

“Why Me” remained on the chart for six more weeks, moving off its #16 peak to #17, then 21-31-34-38 before exiting the Top 40 on December 22 (dropping to #52). It was finally gone from the chart on December 29, 1973. The song spent 38 weeks—nine-and-a-half months–on the Hot 100, with 19 weeks in the Top 40. And made what—five or six reversals, starting back up after it had started to move down?

“Why Me” shows up at ARSA on a single April survey, but the rest of its citations fall from July through December. It seems to have been a middling hit nearly everywhere, hitting the Top 10 only in Charlotte, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chattanooga, where it was #1 at the end of July, about the same time it spent its single week atop the Billboard country chart. WLS didn’t chart it at all, and its great Chicago rival WCFL doesn’t seem to have charted it, either. But its remarkably long run, and the way Billboard credited the song for that run, made it the #2 hit of the year.

Which is obviously nuts. If “Why Me” was never more than the 16th most popular song in any given week, how can it be said to have been more popular overall than “Killing Me Softly,” which spent five weeks at #1, or “My Love,” which did a month?

In his Pop Annual series, Joel Whitburn solves this problem rather neatly. He ranks songs by chart position—all of the #1s go first, ranked by weeks at the top, then weeks in the top 10, weeks in the top 40, and total weeks on the Hot 100, followed by all of the #2s ranked the same way, and so on. This erases the distorting effects of extreme longevity, and if it occasionally privileges a faddish record that shoots to the top and then disappears, that seems like a fair price to pay in exchange for something like “Why Me” never being #2 for the year again. By Whitburn’s method, “Why Me” is the #127 song of 1973, which seems about right. And by Whitburn’s method, seven of Billboard‘s 1973 Top 10 still place in the Top 10.

A more interesting issue might be this: What was it that made “Why Me” resonate (but only to a point) with a (limited) number of people, so that it stayed in the air, never the most popular song but always a popular song, for the whole last half of 1973? Your speculations are welcome in the comments.

2 responses

  1. Oh, that song. Now I remember it.

  2. […] (The original post drew a spirited conversation from several readers who couldn’t believe this song — which they didn’t remember hearing on the radio in ’73 — placed this high on the year-end charts. I can’t explain it, but my man Jim Bartlett took a shot at doing so here.) […]

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