So far, Jordin Sparks is making Taylor Hicks look like Jay-Z. In December last year, Hicks had the dubious distinction of landing the weakest debut week on the Billboard albums chart by an "Idol" winner at that point when his self-titled album — which had stood as the lowest-selling debut by an "Idol" winner so far with less than 700,000 copies moved — bowed at #2 on sales of 298,000.
But Sparks, the youngest winner in the history of the show, bested that dubious distinction this week when her own eponymous debut squeaked in at #10 on the Billboard 200 on sales of just over 119,000. Sparks appeared to have everything going for her: a winning smile; a powerful, versatile voice; strong stage presence; a host of hot producers lined up for her album (Stargate, Underdogs, Bloodshy & Avant); and a label deal with Jive, which has a track record of breaking young R&B/pop superstars, including Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. So what went wrong?
MTV "Idol" expert Jim Cantiello, for one, is mystified. "I don't really know what happened," he said. "The thing with 'Idol' is that, with the exception of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, once the season was over, nobody really cared about the winner anymore. I wonder if Jordin had released an album [right after the show] if it would have done triple what it did?" Given what he said was the audience's animosity toward beatboxing runner-up Blake Lewis, Cantiello saw Sparks as the "lesser of two evils," a position that didn't exactly set her up for worldwide pop domination.
Cantiello, who readily admits to not being a Sparks supporter, said, however, that he doesn't think the singer's soft opening signals the end of the "Idol" era. "I think it's a Jordin Sparks thing, not an 'American Idol' thing," he said. "I'm not sure Jordin ever appealed beyond the young-girl contingent, and we know they're a fickle group." He also suspects that in the five-month lag between her win and the album's release, that fickle group of girls might have moved on to new pop crushes like Hannah Montana and Zac Efron.
It's hard to point to one distinct reason why Sparks failed to explode out of the gate, but there are several factors that may have contributed to the soft launch.
One could be a growing sign that the musical bloom is indeed finally starting to come off the rose of the show that has been a ratings juggernaut since its debut five years ago. Though ratings are still sky high for the program, the distraction of such clearly untalented finalists such as the past season's Sanjaya Malakar might be a sign that the program is increasingly looked at as a form of escapist entertainment, not a tip sheet on the next great American singer. It could also be that, as in past years, perhaps the winner is not the person who wears the crown at the end of the show, but someone standing in the shadows. That was certainly the case with now-faded runner-up Clay Aiken and 2006 fourth-place finisher Chris Daughtry, who proved that winning isn't everything with the multiplatinum sales of the debut album from his band, Daughtry.
Another factor could be buzz. Prior to its release, despite the powerhouse group of songwriters and producers onboard, news leaks about Sparks' album elicited less chatter than that surrounding second-place finisher Blake Lewis' December 4 debut, Audio Day Dream. And Sparks' first single, "Tattoo," has also been slow to catch fire. Now, after seven weeks of release, "Tattoo" is finally beginning to make some chart noise and proving to be a steady climber at radio as well, according to Billboard magazine chart manager and analyst Keith Caulfield.
"The single is a hit at top 40 at #12, and it's sold 300,000 downloads, so clearly people like it," Caulfield said. "You'd think with a hit single the album would do pretty well and that doesn't mean it won't pick up, but it does seem odd that it hasn't compared to other previous winners who seemed less marketable." Even with the solid single sales, Caulfield said it didn't appear that those purchases are translating into album sales, which might have something to do with the tween demographic Sparks is going after. "Someone like Taylor Hicks started bigger because he appeals to a demographic that still enjoys purchasing the whole album and wants the 'Taylor Hicks experience,' " he said. "But in Jordin's case, people want the single, and maybe they might warm up to the album eventually."
Sparks' strong digital presence and weak album sales could also be a function of how much the music world has changed since Kelly Clarkson paved the path five years ago, according to Billboard director of charts and senior analyst Geoff Mayfield. "When Kelly came out, digital tracks were not happening yet. Now you have a wider universe where people can buy individual songs, which has reduced the necessity to buy an 'Idol' artist's album," Mayfield said. "Now people who voted for her and want to buy in can do it with a 99 cent purchase instead of buying a $9.99 album."
To put it in perspective, Sparks' chart debut was crushed by the seven-week-old Josh Groban holiday album Noël, which sold 405,000 copies, mostly attributed to an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" last week. But Sparks was also clobbered by Alicia Keys' As I Am, which moved nearly 350,000 copies in its second week, as well as the #3 album, Garth Brooks' The Ultimate Hits and the first new studio album from the Eagles in 20 years, Long Road Out of Eden, which is only available at Wal-Mart.
With a lack of major holiday releases from the likes of Mariah Carey, Madonna and Eminem in stores, shoppers appear to be scrambling to find stocking stuffers from established artists, rather than taking chances on an $18 "who knows how it is?" offering from a reality-show winner. This, despite mostly favorable reviews of Jordin Sparks in a number of major magazines and a lack of other big releases last week to grab the spotlight. A spokesperson for Sparks' label did not return calls for comment for this story, and spokespeople for major record retailers Virgin Megastore and Barnes & Noble declined to comment on the album's sales in their stores.
"I can't imagine there are a lot of people out there who are not at least aware of who Jordin is," Caulfield said. "She has just as good a chance of selling well as anyone, and you can never underestimate what 'Idol' winners, or runners-up, can do. A lot of times [though,] 'Idol' makes for great entertainment on TV, and you root for the contestants and then that's the end of it. The real trick is taking that enormous popularity on the show and translating it into being a music star." In which case, he said, there's hope for Sparks in the long run.
Caulfield pointed to season-three winner Fantasia, whose Free Yourself album debuted at a not-impressive #8, but which stuck around for many months after and spawned a series of solid R&B chart hits. "They weren't top 40 hits, but they were big hits [on the R&B charts]. Now, Jordin is focused on the top 40 with a style that will make it harder for her to compete. But I'm sure [her label is] in it for the long haul and they'll keep working it. ... The thing is, sometimes an 'Idol' is crowned and that moment is perfect, but it may not always connect later and be what the public wants to hear." Mayfield added that it's also possible the label simply picked the wrong first single ("This Is My Now") and that the next one, or the one after that, might be the song that propels Sparks to the top.
Prior to her album's release, Sparks admitted to MTV News that she was nervous about its prospects. "I really hope that it does well, I hope that people like it, and they embrace it. ... I hope I make people proud." She added that Underwood and Clarkson had "set the bar so high — I really want to try and achieve [their successes], so hopefully I'll be able to."
And in an interview Entertainment Weekly conducted the week before the sales figures were released, Sparks admitted to EW that she was "nervous" about the album's chances. "No one's told me what to expect," she said at the American Music Awards, where Daughtry and Underwood were big winners. "I hope it does really well ... but I can also expect the worst, that it won't sell at all."