Two songs with a similar “turbo-folk” vibe. Two very different time frames scaling the Mainstream Top 40 chart.
One Direction’s “Story of My Life” is the “One Direction song for people who don’t like One Direction.” It’s No. 20 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart—which is often where One Direction songs get into trouble—but it’s gotten there in five weeks since its release, and with more positive radio feedback than usual.
OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” was an international hit in late spring/early summer. It debuted on the Adult Top 40 chart six months ago. “Counting Stars” finally cracked Mainstream Top 40 six weeks ago, although it has moved quickly into the top 10 since then.
Both of the Ones have to fight for acceptance at top 40 each time out. The difference is that One Direction, for all of top 40’s skepticism, is established as a top 40 act. It doesn’t have to develop somewhere else and wait for a “rock” slot to open up.
“Counting Stars” isn’t the only amusing/bemusing example of top 40 timing out there. A Great Big World’s “Say Something” was pigeonholed as an adult top 40 song until “The Voice” and Christina Aguilera. The feel of the remixed version is similar, and Aguilera is hardly a top 40 automatic herself. But it’s now on mainstream’s radar.
So what would mainstream top 40 sound like if such songs as “Counting Stars” or “Say Something” (or “Let Her Go”) broke on the same timetable as other hit records? It would sound like WKRQ (Q102) Cincinnati.
Long before the sea change that moved the adult top 40 format closer to its mainstream counterpart, Q102 and WWMX (Mix 106.5) Baltimore were the stations that bent the boundaries of the format. Both were willing to play rhythmic and even adult-appeal hip-hop titles at a time when the format still leaned to the modern AC side.
Q102 and Mix 106.5 never completed the transition to mainstream top 40 that many expected. And if the thing that separates mainstream and adult at this moment is the secondary songs on each format, Q102 is definitely more in sync with the adult chart.
The interesting thing about Q102 though, having added it to one of my streaming “pre-sets” recently, is that most of the songs that set it apart from mainstream top 40 are songs that I expect to reach the format eventually. Like “Counting Stars,” songs like “Love Don’t Die” by the Fray or “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors are a sonic fit at mainstream already—they just aren’t there yet.
Q102 has operated on the cusp of mainstream and adult top 40, its chart reporting status varying, for the last 20 years. When rival WKFS (Kiss 107) launched successfully in the late ’90s by leaning more rhythmic, something that had an impact on the entire format, Q102 was one of a number of stations that went more adult, rather than trying to compete with Kiss forownership of DMX and Mya records.
In the late ’90s/early ’00s, leaning pop was a disadvantage. But in the just-released Nielsen Audio November monthly, Q102 was fourth in the market, up 6.3-6.4. Kiss was seventh, 4.9-4.7. And then one has to ask, If Q102’s version of the hits is resonating more locally, is the format missing the hits (or at least some of them) nationally?
At this time last year, top 40 seemed to be more in sync with where Q102 is now. Then the triple A crossovers tapered off, especially as mainstream top 40 acts from Rihanna to Bruno Mars to One Direction began offering up songs with similar acoustic elements. Texturally, mainstream and adult top 40 remain relatively similar. Which just makes the timing on certain songs that have to work their way over from adult top 40 or alternative that much more arbitrary.
Here's Q102 at 6 p.m. on Nov. 26:
Katy Perry, “Roar”
The Fray, “Love Don’t Die”
OneRepublic, “Counting Stars”
American Authors, “Best Day of My Life”
Eminem feat. Rihanna, “The Monster”
The Neighbourhood, “Sweater Weather”
Maroon 5, “Lucky Strike”
John Newman, “Love Me Again”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Imagine Dragons, “Demons”
Jason Derulo, “Marry Me”