An analysis of why slow songs ruled top 40 in the late '80s but don't, for the most part, now. Plus, Hall & Oates' top 10 hits and Tom Wopat, 'Luke Duke' himself, stops by
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WHY AREN'T POWER BALLADS SO POWERFUL ANYMORE?
Two weeks ago, Chart Beat analyzed the recent bevy of ballads at top 40 radio. Program directors agreed that while they prefer an uptempo song pace, there will likely always be a place for select hit ballads, especially those by such star acts as Miley Cyrus ("Wrecking Ball"), Katy Perry ("Unconditionally") and Rihanna, who's charted two this year ("Stay," "What Now").
The column evoked this response by reader Mark Blankenship:
"In 1989, there were more ballads atop the Billboard Hot 100 than now. It seems like the quoted PDs take the need for beats as a given, but it hasn't always been so."
Indeed, a look back at 1989 reveals a whopping 15 ballads that rose to the top of the Hot 100:
"When I'm With You," Sheriff
"Lost in Your Eyes," Debbie Gibson
"The Living Years," Mike + the Mechanics
"Eternal Flame, the Bangles
"I'll Be There for You," Bon Jovi
"Wind Beneath My Wings," Bette Midler
"I'll Be Loving You (Forever)," New Kids on the Block
"If You Don't Know Me By Now," Simply Red
"Toy Soldiers," Martika
"Right Here Waiting," Richard Marx
"Don't Wanna Lose You," Gloria Estefan
"Girl I'm Gonna Miss You," Milli Vanilli
"Listen to Your Heart," Roxette
"When I See You Smile," Bad English
"Another Day in Paradise," Phil Collins
By comparison, here is a recap of the all-out, unquestionable No. 1 Hot 100 ballads each year from 2008 to present:
2008: 1 ("Take a Bow," Rihanna)
2011: 1 ("Someone Like You," Adele)
2013: 3 ("When I Was Your Man," Bruno Mars; "Just Give Me a Reason," P!nk featuring Nate Ruess; "Wrecking Ball," Miley Cyrus)
So, while this year marks a notable uptick in the number of downtempo Hot 100 leaders, ballads have long been out of the favor they once enjoyed at pop radio. What's changed so that top 40 has become almost exclusively a format of fast-paced hits? Following an e-roundtable with Billboard's top 40 gurus Sean Ross (also of Edison Research) and Rich Appel (aka, "The CHRonicler") and Billboard director of charts Silvio Pietroluongo, these seem like five key reasons why top 40 has since picked up the pace.
– Research has helped spur a narrower focus on uptempo hits, top 40's trademark. Similarly, Ross notes, by the early '90s, top 40 was researched so tightly that little other than rhythmic pop could break through.
– Portable People Meter ratings measurement, too. As it's become accepted that Nielsen Audio's (formerly Arbriton's) newer, more accurate ratings measurement method, which replaced the decades-old practice of listeners recalling their listening habits by diary, favors tempo, PDs are careful to avoid potential tune-out by overloading on ballads.
– Artists/writers copy what's hot. If other ballads aren't on the radio, ballads won't be as influential. Still, current down-tempo hits follow those by P!nk, Mars and Rihanna. And, since upcoming waves of hits are being written now, perhaps we're ripe for "Wrecking Ball" clones next.
– The influence of hip-hop. Today's artists grew up with rap and hip-hop beats, making ballads less a part of their musical upbringings.
– Dance/pop, aka, "turbo-pop," and EDM have become top 40's core sound, squeezing out rock. And, rock power ballads have traditionally been a solid source of top 40 hits. The little rock that crosses over now is uptempo, from stomp-and-clap folk (the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Phillip Phillips) to synthesizer-infused pop/rock (Bastille, Capital Cities, Lorde).
Essentially, while top 40 always was and still is the format that culls the top, most mainstream hits of all genres, it may be more than ever, as branding and technology evolve, its own sound, one defined by pop/dance elements and slick production.
As Warrant sang in its 1989 lighters-in-the-air ballad "Heaven," "heaven isn't too far away." But, 24 years later, the sound of that song, outside of a few high-profile exceptions, certainly seems to be far away from top 40.