Observations On The State Of Top 40

Some observations on the current state of top 40:

PPM hates hits? While piano ballads by Rihanna, Bruno Mars and P!nk comprise the top three songs at mainstream top 40, and Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” is No. 5, it hasn’t been long since the experts were declaring with a straight face that Arbitron’s Personal People Meter measurement loved tempo and punished ballads. You might think that particular mind-set ended with Adele’s “Someone Like You,” but even that song was being kept from No. 1 at the time. The industry has become more skeptical about PPM truisms, but this should be encouragement to discard them altogether.

Listeners love ballads (but c’mon): A few columns back, I wrote that even if my musical tastes were likely atypical of average listeners, my at-work needs—hearing a reasonable amount of unobtrusive tempo—were probably typical. That prompted an email from Mishara Music’s Marc Ratner asking if it was listeners or only PDs who cared about tempo, especially given the ballad’s ability to galvanize in a way amply demonstrated above. 

I’m glad the ballad blockade is over, and agree that ballads are often the songs that listeners hold most dear. But given top 40’s history of overcompensating, let me also point out that it has gotten hard for me to listen to top 40 or adult top 40 and sit through two piano ballads played in the same 15 minutes, as happens. It’s also very hard to monitor two different top 40 stations in a row for the same reason. At work, ballads are the songs with which listeners are most engaged. But sometimes the need is energy without too much engagement. 

Did the surge work? There is also a lot of sameness in top 40’s uptempo product these days. Pop/rock and dance/rhythmic records have both appropriated the “surge”: loping minor-key verses into expansive choruses, sometimes punctuated by techno power chords, sometimes by chanting. It was refreshing around the time of “Clocks,” but now it’s as common (and oppressive) as Doobie Brothers/Michael McDonald clones in the early ’80s. When “Don’t You Worry Child” was new, my Top 40 Update colleague Rich Appel thought it sounded like “Viva la Vida.” It took a little longer to figure out what those plucked keyboard notes on the bridge sounded like to me, but it was the banjo break in a Mumford & Sons song. And I’m not the only one who’s picked up on it.  

We will wait: Icona Pop’s “I Love It” has finally shot into the top 10 with a gain of more than 950 spins. Since it sounded obvious to me last May, when the Washington Post first identified it as a left-field candidate for the song of summer 2012, I’m wondering if radio can now pick up its pace on Labrinth & Emeli Sandé’s proven international hit “Beneath Your Beautiful,” a different type of record, but no less obvious. And while I don’t believe that Justin Bieber was single-handedly responsible for the success of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” I would welcome any help he might give Serena Ryder’s “Stompa,” which is already a hit of similar magnitude for anybody who follows Canadian top 40. 

Karma police: With Avril Lavigne’s “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” Radiohead has now been name-checked in two different pop hits, which is one more pop hit than the band itself has had. In that regard, it has become the pop counterpart to George Jones, an icon who have been consistently name-checked on country hits for 20 years, but who was heard on the format, in small doses, only after his death last week. 

Change of heart: I was disappointed initially by Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie,” a nice-enough lead-off single that sounded like a half-dozen “grown and sexy” urban AC hits that never went anywhere near top 40. So why is it so refreshing to hear Chris Brown working similar territory on “Fine China”? I might have resented “Suit & Tie” not having the world-changing ambition of “SexyBack.” Then again, it’s easy how to forget how much Brown’s “Forever” changed things around the same time—a pop/dance record that let R&B artists have parallel careers. Meanwhile, Robin Thicke, who has been making similar records for years, is making his own bid for a pop hit and, to his credit, it doesn’t sound like “Fine China” or “Suit & Tie.” 

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