Top 40 radio sounds better than it has in years: Carly Rae Jepsen, Bieber, Adele, fun.
Are we in a golden era of pop music?
Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen the tide turn from the hip-hop/urban cycle that had dominated pop radio for several years to a hybrid of pop/hip-hop. Now, we’re in the full flush of a pure pop resurgence. Beats were king for a very long time, now melody is pushing through again and the two are nestled comfortably together on the Hot 100 in the most diverse roster of artists and sounds to co-exist on the chart in decades.
Plus, there’s an influx of new artists pouring into pop, which is crucial for any movement to expand: Two weeks ago, we saw a harmonic convergence that hasn’t occurred in 35 years: As Billboard noted, fun., Gotye, and Carly Rae Jepson logged consecutive No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, marking the first time since 1977 that baby acts have succeeded themselves in the top spot with their first charting single. Furthermore, these songs, all straight-ahead pop songs with melodies that you can sing to, are sticky with each spending multiple weeks at No. 1.
Throw in One Direction and The Wanted, plus Justin Bieber’s coming into his own as a pop artist so you have the all-important teen/tween idol factor covered; the continuation of success by strong R&B and rap-leaning artists like Nicki Minaj and Usher, and the ongoing integration of dance into Top 40 via artists like David Guetta (and his revolving line-up of guests) and there’s something for everyone.
How did the shift occur? First off, it happened simply because pop has always moved in trends. This current pop cycle won’t last forever: something more exciting will come in and replace it. I credit two artists with starting this round: Adele and Bruno Mars provided Top 40 radio with singles whose sound wasn’t in fashion with what was clogging playlists yet were too good to be denied. And props also go to Katy Perry and Rihanna for continually feeding the pop monster with non-stop hits. They have totally owned pop radio for the last two years and seldom been out of the Top 10.
So let’s rewind a bit and turn back the clock to the end of 2010: Mars’ massive “Just The Way You Are,” a soulful ballad with a chugging R&B beat (you can hear the shift starting there) was headed straight to No. 1 as Adele’s stomping (and also very rhythmic) “Rolling In the Deep” was hitting the airwaves, making inroads on a chart that had recently had little tolerance for straight-ahead singers.
If there had been no “Rollin in the Deep,” which debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 exactly 18 months ago, I’m fairly convinced there would have been no “Somebody That I Used To Know” at No. 1. The biggest crossover hit in the last 25 years was a total game changer when it came to pop radio because it gave radio stations the freedom to expand their playlists. “People never stopped liking pop records. [Top 40 program directors] stopped thinking pop records fit,” says Sean Ross. Ross was radio editor at Billboard during part of my time there and now writes the insightful “Ross on Radio” column for Radio-Info.com. He knows more about trends in radio than anyone else I know, so I asked him why he thought this was happening. “After Adele, playing something seemingly exotic no longer felt like jeopardizing one’s job,” he says.
And from there, it gave artists the courage to try different things. Ross notes Taylor Swift’s “Eyes Open” from “The Hunger Games” and Katy Perry’s current shapeshifting single “Wide Awake,” which is already in the Top 10. Though “Eyes Open” peaked at No. 19, and its predecessor, the gorgeous “Safe & Sound” by Swift featuring the Civil Wars, stalled at No. 30 (and were driven more by downloads than airplay), they still made inroads and their radio spins helped give Swift’s career some additional heft.
Ross also points out that the connection between TV licensing and Top 40 radio has never been stronger: Exhibit A, of course, being fun.’s “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monae, which leapt straight from a Chevy commercial onto the upper reaches of the pop charts. Cast members of both “Glee” and “Smash” covered Adele’s “Rumour Has It” before it hit radio, plus the song logged several other placements, making it familiar to many before it ever went to radio.
Furthermore, while part of Top 40’s charm is its ability to produce one-hit wonders, it feels like many of the songs in this current era will age well: Most of Adele’s hits sound timeless, and “Somebody That I Used To Know” still sounds inventive and like nothing else around it with virtually no burnout factor. To be sure, the electroclash of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” already screams summer of 2011, but, sometimes, sounding dated isn’t a bad thing.
While it's tempting to ask how many of these artists will we still be hearing from five years from now, that's not the point of Top 40. The genre, now more so than it has ever been, is about the song, not the artist. That's what makes the strings of hits that artists like Rihanna and Katy Perry have been able to cobble together all the more impressive. By its very nature, pop music has a fleeting, of-the-moment, ephemeral quality that captures a certain moment.
Where do we go from here? I’d like to make a bold prediction: I bet six months from now, we see the totally abused and overused “featured artist” phenomenon greatly wane. Rappers are the ones who really started the culture for it by adding their friends and label mates on to tracks, often as a way to introduce new acts (Fun fact: Lil Wayne just logged his 100th (!!!) tune on the R&B chart not only because of his own success but because he’s been featured on so many songs by other artists). The trend caught hold and many pop acts started doing it because they wanted to work with certain rappers or they wanted their records to stand a better shot while Top 40 was so urban-leaning. It still has its place, but hopefully artists will be featured on a song because of creative and artistic decisions instead of solely marketing ones.
But in the meantime, for my fellow pop fans, join me as we hop in the car, put down the windows and hear Minaj’s “Starships” (a song that I love no matter what anyone else thinks) roll into “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which segues into “Call Me Maybe” and then Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” and let’s sing along at the top of our lungs.
What do you think?
Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda