Could top 40 become too wimpy again? And how would we know?
Previous down cycles for the format were never hard to identify. There was less tempo. There was an abundance of AC-flavored ballads. Other hit records might be nominally uptempo but devoid of excitement. There was usually a backlash against R&B or hip-hop, even though it was easy to look at the urban and rhythmic charts (or alternative) and know that they had the cooler records.
At least a few PDs have been girding for a new wimp cycle for a while. When the first of the quirky pop crossovers made their way over from alternative and triple A, WBLI Long Island, N.Y., PD Jeremy Rice began sending group e-mails asking if top 40 was going from reactive records to reactionary ones. He sent another one in March when WBLI added "We Are Young," "Rumour Has It" and "What Makes You Beautiful," declaring that "the music shift in top 40 has finally happened."
Until recently, with listeners happily strapped into the 120 bpm "turbo-pop" that dominated the format, and PDs repeatedly declaring that "PPM loves tempo," a softer top 40 hardly seemed like a realistic concern. Most of the radio people on Rice's threads were more worried about an extreme cycle. And at that moment, it was hard to view, say, "Rumour Has It" as anything other than a welcome relief. It was up. It was gutsy. It just wasn't Nicki Minaj.
Today, no top 40 observer would deny the format has evolved. Not only is there no true urban crossover above No. 25, but even rhythmic pop is thinning out. There are only four truly uptempo songs in the top 10-"Die Young," "Locked Out of Heaven," "Let Me Love You" and "Don't Wake Me Up." And the latter two use the "Guetta vs. Coldplay" construct of minor chord and/or acoustic verses, enlivened by more aggressive techno choruses.
That said, there was only one ballad in the top 10 as of Nov. 16, Justin Bieber's "As Long As You Love Me," and its dubstep power chords mean that it's no "Because You Loved Me." In fact, the defining songs at top 40 now are those midtempo hits ("One More Night," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "Too Close") that are sufficiently bouncy and so densely produced that they almost read as uptempo, a trend that goes back at least to "Rolling in the Deep." It's one more way in which top 40 has taken on a greater resemblance to country.
Besides songs that are hard and soft at the same time, there are also ballads that confuse matters; a trend that began with Owl City's "Fireflies." Not since Joni Mitchell and James Taylor soothed the misunderstood 14-year-old girls of 1971 has there been so much acoustic music with a teen following. Triaging between a hip and unhip ballad requires more context than ever about how a song started and where an artist is on his or her career path, because the two songs can sound nearly identical.
The hipness of a song can even change weekly. In its first week, "Skyfall" was a major-market event record. Ten days later, it was a stately four-minute-plus homage to Shirley Bassey's James Bond themes that wouldn't even have been worked, were it not by the format's leading image artist. Ten days ago, with the release of the movie and a sales rebound, it became a pop culture reaction record again.
That said, only WRVW (the River) Nashville has yet acknowledged how the musical alchemy of "Skyfall" might have changed. No label person charged with working that or any ballad would tell you that top 40 music is too slow. No record rep who is mired in the six-month process of shepherding an alternative crossover to top 40 would consider the format to be more pop/rock-leaning, just because the crossover process is no longer nine months. And there's no intent here to make their jobs any harder. Hit records, regardless of genre, deserve their place on the radio.
But a programmer's job is to play all the hits, and they have fewer outside regulators. These days, AC is an importer, not an exporter. R&B/hip-hop has less sway. Alternative is contributing mellowness, not rock energy. Top 40's current roll is hardly threatened by extremes. The danger instead is a place where "middle" becomes "muddle."
Next week: guarding against a wimpier top 40 format.