Britney, Kid Rock, and other acts hunt for hits as the biz braces for a post-Sept. 11 comeback.

By Evan Serpick
October 26, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Though weeks had passed since the attacks, Ryan Mill, program director of Pittsburgh’s WBZZ, wasn’t sure if listeners were ready for Smash Mouth’s ”Pacific Coast Party.” ”It’s upbeat, short, and sounds like a beach song,” he says. ”I thought people were gonna be like, ‘How can you play this stuff?’ But they can’t get enough.” Soon, WBZZ was giving the song 14 to 20 spins a week.

It seems there are only so many times Americans can hear Lee Greenwood’s ”God Bless the USA.” Record sales dropped 5 percent the week after Sept. 11, but the music industry is now creeping back to normalcy. Early signs suggest radio listenership is up. Stations have even resumed playing Drowning Pool’s ”Bodies,” which includes the chant ”Let the bodies hit the floor.” ”A lot of people found out that their concerns [about the music] turned out to be unfounded,” says Sean Ross of Airplay Monitor.

Still, the real test of whether our tastes have changed comes in the next few weeks. Major acts are angling for a place on the charts. Here’s a tip sheet on the Billboard battles ahead.

ROUND 1 JACKO ATTACK

Michael Jackson’s Invincible finally hits stores Oct. 30, but prospects for a would-be comeback are murky. Hype is an MJ specialty: The album’s first single and video, ”You Rock My World,” attracted lots of attention, as did his preattack tribute concerts in Manhattan. But will curiosity lead to open wallets? ”Michael loves to project this larger-than-life image,” says Billboard charts director Geoff Mayfield, ”and it may be that kind of thing doesn’t play as well because people have a different set of priorities now.”

”You Rock” peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart and has since slumped. And the video — Jackson’s first entry on MTV’s pop-centric TRL — topped out at No. 7. For Invincible to sell as well as 1995’s HIStory (7 million copies), the glove will have to come off.

ROUND 2 THE BRIT IS COMING

MJ won’t have much time to hog the spotlight: On Nov. 6, Britney Spears unleashes Britney, a blockbuster-in-waiting that scared major rivals from the release date, including Material Mentor Madonna’s GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2, now due Nov. 13. On paper, Spears looks like a lock. Her last disc, Oops…I Did It Again, broke the record for first-week sales by a female artist (1.3 million copies) and is still on Billboard’s album chart after 74 weeks.

But reaction to Britney’s first single, ”I’m a Slave 4 U,” has been mixed: The song opened at a lackluster No. 68. ”Britney can get away with a bad song because people are so intrigued by her,” argues Mill, whose station receives more requests for ”Slave” than for almost any other song. ”She’s this generation’s Madonna. People just want to know what she’s up to.” A massive debut is all but guaranteed; Dave Alder, a senior VP at Virgin Entertainment Group, predicts ”800,000 to 900,000” for the opening week. But topping Oops’ record will be tougher than cozying up to a snake.

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