Why "Turbo-Pop" Isn't Going Away

Throughout my various looks at the stylistic fluctuations of pop music and top 40 radio, I’ve tried not to proclaim the death of “turbo-pop,” the kinetic, ’90s techno-influenced pop/dance music that has dominated the charts during the last three years. After a year of fun., Phillip Phillips and the Lumineers, the top 10 is still home to will.i.am, Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia, with Krewella, Afrojack, Pitbull, another will.i.am and, yes, Demi Lovato on the way. 

Rhythmic pop has been the top 40 programmer’s comfort zone for most of the last 25 years. Many of the second top 40 stations in a market that sprung up in the last three years were constructed specifically around it. Pop PDs will grab Krewella immediately, but put Imagine Dragons and Of Monsters and Men through a yearlong gauntlet where they have to wait for every other “rock” record to run their course. So rhythmic pop won't be easily dismissed. But there's more.

Music styles don’t come and go cleanly. Much of that is a function of how long it takes for a song to make it from home demo or songwriting appointment to its impact date at radio. It’s rarely less than nine months and can often be two or three years. Hot producers can parlay a hit or two into several years of assignments for other artists. So it’s not unusual for today’s radio records to sound like what was on the radio a year or two ago. Call it “hit lag.”

Hit lag is why there are piano ballads in ascent now from Bruno Mars, P!nk and Rihanna, 18 months after Adele’s “Someone Like You” finally quieted any notion that Portable People Meter ratings measurement punished ballads. Mars helped break down the barriers himself with “It Will Rain,” although it’s worth noting that just six months earlier, Rihanna had faced resistance to “California King Bed,” while P!nk’s “Glitter in the Air” was never actively worked to top 40.

And hit lag can last a lot longer. Cher Lloyd’s “With Ur Love” is already 18 months old in the United Kingdom. It was immediately compared to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” which was released in 2007 and went to radio in 2008. Coldplay surprised everybody two years ago by channeling Taio Cruz’s then-year-old “Dynamite,” but Maroon 5’s “Daylight” recalls the decade-old “Clocks” and all the surging midtempo piano records it spawned. And Olly Murs’ “Troublemaker” feels like Maroon 5’s “This Love,” recorded in 2001 and a hit in 2004.

Phillips’ “Home” invoked the Mumford & Sons alternative hits that were more than 2 years old. Taylor Swift’s “22” has echoes of P!nk’s 2010 “Raise Your Glass,” which was probably the whole point of teaming with Max Martin and Shellback, who helped write and produce it. To be fair, Taylor’s same team just gave us two fresh-sounding hits that other artists will be channeling for the next few years.

“Retro soul” was already a few years old when Amy Winehouse added her edgier spin. After Duffy and Gabriella Cilmi, you might have thought the category was saturated, but six years later, there’s enough music for a format called “classic soul and today’s hipster irony.” Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” filters classic R&B as well, but there have also been similarly “grown and sexy” hits at urban AC in the last five or six years by Jaheim, Robin Thicke and others that most top 40 PDs never even heard.

Hit lag is further distorted by the time it takes certain records to break through, especially rock and triple A crossovers. Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team” was a 2010 U.K. hit. The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” had an 18-month journey to top 40 that doesn’t count all the years that the act was performing it around Denver before being signed. You can say that these recent acoustic crossovers are “of their moment,” but there’s always acoustic singer/songwriter music out there, even if top 40 won’t play it. And hit lag means that there will be Mumford-influenced hits in the pipelines for a while.

It’s probably better that styles don’t entirely go away, given the importance of cross-pollination in hit music's evolution. Disco “died” in 1979, but the rock music that reasserted itself for the next few years was often danceable. That summer, critics chose “My Sharona” as an anti-disco rallying cry. But Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones helped put black music back on pop radio a few years later by channeling that song into “Beat It.” Much of the joy of pop music is its cumulative nature and in knowing that we’ll be hearing dubstep echoes in the hits of 2015.