Should an artist follow musical trends or ignore them? For years, the industry premium has been on artists who could reinvent themselves quickly enough to reflect current pop tastes without visibly riding the tail end of a bandwagon. From Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," career milestones often stem from respected artists somehow reconciling what they do with what's on the radio.
There's never been any shame in acknowledging what's around you. Rock history was made by the sideways glances among the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones taking place between Rubber Soul and Their Satanic Majesties Request. There's also a battle-of-the-opening-riffs that gives us both the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and the Beatles' "Day Tripper" six months later.
In those cases, acknowledging one's musical surroundings helped move the ball forward, but it can just as often lead to piling on. The disco boom of the late '70s gave us both "Goodnight Tonight" by Wings (immediately embarrassing) and "I Was Made for Loving You" by Kiss (still sounds great today). Cher's roller-disco "Take Me Home" seemed like a trifle in 1979, but it set up a career song two decades later with "Believe."
If Diana Ross hadn't worked with the then-red-hot Chic team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, there would have been no "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out." Debbie Harry did the same shortly afterward and squandered Blondie's "The Tide Is High"/"Rapture" momentum on "Backfired." But when Madonna usurped Harry's genre-bending style-icon franchise a few years later, Rodgers was at the helm as well.
That disco era bandwagon jumping was echoed again in recent years when the rise of "turbo-pop" brought forth practitioners both logical (P!nk) and less so (Maroon 5). Usher's successes with will.i.am and, later, David Guetta spurred a career resurgence for Chris Brown, and continues to pay off for artists like Ne-Yo, Nelly, and, most improbably, Ludacris. This despite the recent Usher and Brown singles that suggested the formula was yielding diminishing returns.
It's also hard to take your cues from the radio at a time when what it's playing is changing so radically. In England, Ed Sheeran followed "The A Team" with the hip-hop-inflected single "You Need Me, I Don't Need You." Seemingly perfect for top 40, it was the least enduring of his British hits. Sheeran has since scored in the United Kingdom with several more stately ballads. In the U.S., the unlikely success of "The A Team" has made it easier for other acoustic records to find a home at top 40.
Carly Rae Jepsen's 2008 Canadian debut was bouncy and acoustic pop. Last year, she logically followed her musical trajectory past "Call Me Maybe" to an album of aggressively produced turbo-pop. It arrived at the very moment that her old sound would have been a better fit. But Serena Ryder has just traded her triple-A introspection for the uncharacteristically poppy "Stompa" and has a massive Canadian hit.
Some artists just can't win. Usher's "Scream" and "Numb" were greeted as "more of the above," but top 40 left the unique sound of "Climax" to R&B radio. Christina Aguilera dabbled with electronic dance music long before EDM stopped requiring an explanation. After a decade of experimentation that made top 40 groan, she became the Christina of old again on "Your Body" and was rewarded for it only momentarily.
The best possible solution is the hit record that sounds like nothing else on the radio, or in one's own catalog. Justin Timberlake unleashed "SexyBack" amid a series of pleasant-enough retro-disco exercises from Aguilera ("Ain't No Other Man"), Beyoncé ("Déjà Vu") and Jessica Simpson ("A Public Affair"). "SexyBack," seemingly a noisy self-indulgence at first, became pop's blueprint for seven years.
Timberlake's new "Suit and Tie" sounds better on the radio with each listen, but it's more of a piece with those other throwbacks. If Robin Thicke had released "Suit And Tie," which would have been very much in character, it would have faced resistance crossing from urban AC to urban -- much less top 40. And it's not unlike trendsetting Lady Gaga choosing an odd time to look backwards with "Born This Way." But it's hard to take on responsibility for reinventing pop music with each kickoff single.
Trends are, of course, difficult to parse. As turbo-pop gives way to new acoustics at radio, "Scream and Shout" is still a smash. So are two Ke$ha songs that could have been on her 2009 debut. Ludacris went turbo because hip-hop has faded at top 40 since "Stand Up," the then-unique hit that he and Kanye West fashioned a decade ago. But Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop," with its echoes of West's "Gold Digger," is clearly filling a hip-hop void.
Timberlake didn't decide to go all Mumford on us -- at least on his first single, but it seems safe to say that, in the next year, at least two unlikely current hit-makers will add banjo to a single. One of them will be "I Was Made For Loving You"; the other will be "Goodnight Tonight."