Adele Brings A Ballad Back To The Hot 100 Summit
Remember when you said in a recent "Ask Billboard" column that a ballad likely wouldn't hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 anytime soon?
I think that with "Someone Like You" reaching the top, Adele has proven that an artist can still rule the chart with a true ballad.
Uh-oh, I did say that. (My girlfriend Michelle helpfully advises me not to worry, however, as, she notes, I should be able to draw from vast experience in not being correct).
Yes, as Adele's "Someone Like You" leaps 19-1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a lengthy drought ends for ballads atop the chart. The song, which bounds to the top spot following her buzzworthy performance at the MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 28, marks the first unquestionably slow song to crown the Hot 100 since Rihanna's "Take a Bow" blasted 53-1 the week of May 24, 2008.
How long ago was that?
Three years, three months and three weeks ago.
Or, 49 No. 1s ago.
That week, in fact, the Hot 100 welcomed two now well-worn eventual No. 1s: Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," the Hot Shot Debut at No. 15, and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," a new entry at No. 76.
As you point out, in the May 27 "Ask Billboard" weekly mailbag, reader José Carlos Santos of Mexicali, Baja, México, wrote that "this time of electro/dance and Europop-influenced songs" had helped prevent a ballad from perching atop the Hot 100 for three years that week.
In my banter back, I wondered if Rihanna herself could end the streak of solely-uptempo Hot 100 toppers with "California King Bed." The song, however, stopped at No. 37 last month.
But, before any reader or girlfriend taunts me too badly, I also wrote, "Perhaps Adele or Lady Gaga's latest singles can bring ballads back to the top of the Hot 100."
(Please remind me to play Powerball this weekend).
As for Gaga, "Another potential No. 1 candidate?," I added, "Should it be released to radio, a rock-tinged midtempo ballad already familiar to many following its on-tour previews and Haley Reinhart's 'American Idol' cover: Lady Gaga's 'You and I'." I may yet be proven correct twice over, as the song, since released a single, roars 16-6 this week, also aided by her VMAs appearance.
So, what took so long for a ballad to return to the Hot 100's summit?
Why such a slow ride back to No. 1 for slow songs?
In that "Ask Billboard" column, I agreed that dance/pop, dubbed "turbo-pop" by Radio-info.com's Sean Ross (formerly of Billboard's editorial department), has clearly entrenched itself as the dominant sound at pop radio. From Taio Cruz, David Guetta and Usher to Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Britney Spears, mainstream top 40 now almost exclusively serves up songs that have a good beat and that you can dance to.
"Historically, when pop finds a style that works, it sticks with it, hence the heavy reliance on faster songs at the format in recent months," I theorized. "And, maybe the Facebook/Twitter/cell phone era has made life so fast-paced that we've become conditioned to expect speediness even in our music?"
(The seeming demise of the ballad could also help demystify the widespread shock that followed Pia Toscano's departure from "American Idol" this season far earlier than had been expected; the belter had largely ignored "Idol" judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson's calls to mix in tempo in the weeks preceding her ousting).
Ballads had commonly topped Billboard charts for much of the rock era, from the Five Satins' "In the Still of the Nite" in 1956 to Boyz II Men's cover of the classic love song in 1993. From the mid-'90s on, however, as grunge, hip-hop and rap took greater holds in contemporary hit music, ballads' journeys to the Hot 100's summit became less frequent.
Such a trend is not lost on radio programmers.
"A ballad is always a touchy area for me," admits Sirius XM VP/music programming and Hits 1 program director Kid Kelly, "especially during the summer months, when school is out and tempo matters even more.
"A song has to be an absolute killer of epic proportions to get my attention," he says, adding that "there is no shortage of great R&B and 'adult hip-hop' crossover songs" that are essentially "used as 'today's ballads'."
Technology also appears to be an accomplice in squashing ballads' potential impact. Kelly additionally attributes the recent dearth of Hot 100-topping slow songs to the advent of Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM). Whereas Arbitron for decades compiled radio station ratings from diaries filled out by selected listeners (a process that left room for inaccuracy), the PPM device electronically records what Arbitron-assignees hear in real time.
Worried that pop fans want to dance, not slow dance, programmers, now backed by more exact science, favor tempo almost exclusively even more, Kelly says.
"I'd speculate that in a PPM world, the potential punch-out of an unknown ballad is probably far greater than the potential benefit."
WFLZ (93.3 FLZ)/Tampa, Fla., PD Tommy Chuck reinforces Kelly's assertion that pop radio could die a slow death, literally, if it overdoses on ballads.
"Uptempo songs have helped top 40 stations land some incredible ratings over the last few years," he says. Prior to Adele's new leader, "We'd seen some downtempo songs peek their head up but none had been so mass-appeal that they made it all the way to the top," says Chuck, citing Christina Perri's "Jar of Hearts" as an example. (The song reached No. 17 on the Hot 100 in March and has sold 2.6 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan).
"Top 40 is at its best when we have a variety of hit songs to choose from. Great slow songs will always get a look. However, the audience has the final say," Chuck says.
"Whatever listeners are most into, that's what you'll hear most."
KHOP (@95-1)/Modesto, Calif., PD MoJoe Roberts adds Shontelle's "Impossible" (No. 13 peak) and Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" (No. 2) as "very successful ballads in recent years that stopped short of the No. 1 position." He points to Lil Wayne's "How to Love" (No. 5) and the Band Perry's "If I Die Young" (No. 14) as more recent such examples.
"I'd like to think that pop radio hasn't blacklisted ballads as a rule," says Roberts. "But, it's no secret that the format has a love affair with tempo."
Zapoleon Media Strategies founder Guy Zapoleon concurs that PPM is "making it tougher for ballads to have the success they had in previous years," postulating that the methodology is one of two main factors for ballads' chart roadblock.
The other? "More rhythm and R&B-based radio stations have joined the ('turbo-pop'-charged) mainstream top 40 format.
"These stations play their top hits many more times a week than more conservative, mainstream-focused top 40 stations," the consultant and former pop PD explains. "The top 40s that play a variety of genres in addition to pop and rhythm/R&B, including rock/alternative, AC and country crossovers, play their top titles much less.
"As several ballad hits in the past have come from that deep menu of genres, they don't often receive enough collective spins from the stations playing them to become No. 1 hits like the more widely-played uptempo pop and rhythm/R&B songs do," Zapoleon has found.
In turn, record labels have reacted accordingly when releasing singles.
Three weeks ago, with the coronation of "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," Katy Perry joined Michael Jackson as the only artists to plate five Hot 100 No. 1s from a single album. While Jackson's quintet of leaders included two ballads ("I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Man in the Mirror"), Perry never missed a dance beat, matching the historic milestone with five uptempo or, at least, midtempo, smashes from "Teenage Dream."
Whereas, as noted in "Ask Billboard" May 27, Perry "performed a stirring version of ballad 'Not Like the Movies' at the Grammy Awards in February, Capitol Records decided to instead release 'E.T.' as the next track from 'Teenage Dream,' even after three uptempo singles" from the set.
Of course, it's hard to argue with that strategy. Of Perry's nine singles as a lead artist, all except her one ballad release have reached the Hot 100's top 10. Only the intimate "Thinking of You" fell shy, peaking at No. 29 in 2009.
"I think PPM has helped make it tough to get ballads through the pipe," says Greg Thompson, EMI Music EVP/marketing and promotion.
While Perry and the majority of acts now promoted to pop radio rely on fuller production and dance-tinged sonic elements, Adele is clearly a different breed of artist. Top 40 radio helped fuel the singer/songwriter's pop culture boom when it adopted and quickly sent "Rolling in the Deep" to No. 1 on Billboard's Nielsen BDS-based Pop Songs radio airplay chart. (It crowned the Hot 100 for seven weeks).
As Adele's star rose, parent album "21" has become a mainstay in the Billboard 200's top five dating to its February arrival. The set has moved 3.3 million copies in the U.S. to-date, according to SoundScan, making it the year's best-selling album. At 5.1 million downloads, "Deep" is likewise 2011's best-selling song.
By the time "Someone Like You" was released as a pop radio single, then, it boasted perhaps the best ammunition in recent memory to enable the return of a downtempo song to the Hot 100's uppermost rank. Add in the impact of the VMAs, which scored the highest ratings of their 27-year history, and perhaps Adele's takeover of the Hot 100 with a ballad isn't quite so shocking after all.
"We're always going to have party records, but 'Someone Like You' defies genre and speaks to everyone. That's the beauty of the song," says Columbia Records senior VP/promotion Lee Leipsner.
"Adele doesn't make that many promotional appearances; she lets the music do the talking. Thankfully, that strategy has worked."
Leipsner credits Pop Songs panelists WXXL (XL1067)/Orlando, Fla., and KHKS (106.1 Kiss FM)/Dallas for starting the format's support of 'Like,' seemingly the unlikeliest of top 40 hits.
"(WXXL PD) Michael Bryan had seen Adele singing 'Like' on the BRIT Awards in February. In June, once I confirmed that it was the next single, he immediately texted the station's music director, Jana Sutter, instructing her to add it that day.
"In Dallas, (KHKS PD) Patrick Davis couldn't wait to add the song, either. Despite one of the hottest summers in the city's history, he wasn't afraid to slow down the tempo for this song.
"Kiss is a consistently top-rated station. What a huge statement he made in adding it so quickly."
Having followed Adele's development from the release of her debut album "19" in 2008, Leipsner is gratified to see radio, and the public, appreciate her music on such a wide level. "She will be up with the Columbia greats like Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. She'll have a box set someday. She's in that class."
Having taken a ballad to the top of the Hot 100 at long last, Adele's ascent to the chart's highest spot serves to support Leipsner's high praise.
"There's a purity and honesty to Adele's music that creates an emotional connection," he says. "At the VMAs, it was her, a spotlight and a piano. That's all she needed.
"People need that realness in music, and she provides that.
"She's changed the musical landscape."