A bevy of hit ballads is infusing the format – but is that a good thing for a format built on tempo?
Selena Gomez's latest hit, "Slow Down," is another in mainstream top 40 radio's ever-replenishing arsenal of uptempo pop/dance hits, but its chorus, in which Gomez implores, "Baby, slow down the song," reflects the format's current atypical reliance on ballads.
On this week's Nielsen BDS-based Pop Songs radio airplay chart, Miley Cyrus' former Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 "Wrecking Ball" bullets at No. 3. Katy Perry's "Unconditionally" bounds 14-11, the Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather" lifts 18-17 and Passenger's "Let Her Go" rides 30-25. Meanwhile, Britney Spears' "Perfume" looks likely to debut on the chart next week.
A common trait among the songs? Their lack of tempo, an anomaly at a format known for its trademark beats. And, while most songs on current top 40 playlists still boast an abundance of BPMs – Avicii's EDM hit "Wake Me Up!" leads Pop Songs for a third week, while fellow club cuts by Lady Gaga, Zedd and Pitbull dot the top 20 – an influx of ballads goes against top 40's grain. The titles are the latest such unhurried hits this year, following, among others, P!nk's "Just Give Me a Reason," Rihanna's "Stay" and Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man."
Any format will always welcome hit songs, but is it cause for concern when top-testing titles potentially dilute the brand?
"We would always prefer to have fewer downtempo songs than there are currently," WBBM (B96) Chicago assistant PD/music director Erik Bradley says. "We like B96 to maintain a level of fast tempo. It's our heritage and meets our audience's overall expectations. I don't necessarily mind playing slower music, but there needs to be a proper balance."
Bradley says, however, that the right ballads have their place, helping explain why hits by the likes of core top 40 acts like Cyrus and Perry have gained acceptance quickly. "If we're going to slow down, we'd like it to be for a legitimate smash or for an artist that is critically important to the format."
RCA executive VP Joe Riccitelli experienced such a mind-set when promoting Labrinth's soulful ballad "Beneath Your Beautiful." Despite it topping the Official Charts Co.'s Singles chart in the United Kingdom in fall 2012, the song stopped at No. 26 on Pop Songs in August. It peaked at No. 13 on Digital Songs (with 92,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) the week of Aug. 10 but never reached the all-format Radio Songs chart. "We certainly ran into tempo issues with Labrinth," he says. "It was a proven hit that PDs really had a tough time wrapping their heads around."
RCA is having a much easier time with "Wrecking Ball." The song reached the Pop Songs top 10 in just four weeks, marking Cyrus' fastest flight to the region. Spears' high profile could similarly help "Perfume."
Still, Riccitelli says that even slow-building slow songs have an upside. "Ballads develop more steadily, but that can be a good thing. It gives a song a better chance to build a research story."
Capitol senior VP of promotion Dennis Reese adds that an accepted ballad can live long after its top 40 chart run, segueing to possible years of adult contemporary airplay (and future sales). "Ballads tend to have a long life span at radio and become some of the biggest hits for those artists."
Columbia VP of promotion Jon Borris helped steer the Neighbourhood's former 11-week Alternative Songs No. 1 "Sweater Weather" into the Pop Songs chart's top half, despite its measured tempo. Borris poses the question of whether timing matters, with the format long considered favoring faster hits in the summer as potential pool party songs of choice. "I don't think that 'Sweater Weather' moved along any faster as summer turned to fall. It matriculated at top 40 due to performance."
Ultimately, Gomez's current hit, a dance track that references the merits of a leisurely pace, serves as a microcosm of what's best about top 40. Slow or fast, what's most important is song quality.
"Top 40 is where you hear the hottest hits, whether it's an uptempo banger from Flo Rida or a record like 'Wrecking Ball,'" WPLW (Pulse 102) Raleigh, N.C., assistant PD/music director Mike "Mad Dawg" Biddle says. "Our station, in particular, has carved out an uptempo sound. However, we've stepped away from that periodically because sometimes a song is just that big.
"Our listeners tell us if they want to hear a ballad or something uptempo that they can twerk to."