Ross On Radio: Did "Ho Hey" Get The Heave-Ho?

How Rihanna and Pink Thwarted The Folk Movement

It was only a few months ago when mainstream top 40 surprisingly began accommodating folksy, acoustic hits from Phillip Phillips, Ed Sheeran, the Lumineers and even Mumford & Sons—the band that found rock radio acceptance by setting up camp as far from the pop mainstream as possible. This on a top 40 format that had only grudgingly provided a “rock slot” or two among the rhythmic pop, which was usually filled by a teen punk record.

The folked-up top 40 was widely characterized as a vote for “authenticity” and an organic reaction to an overabundance of “turbo-pop,” too many 115 BPM entreaties to put your hands in the air. But as summer arrives, eight of the 10 songs with the greatest spin increase at radio are all rhythmic pop, (follow-ups from Sheeran and Phillips continue to grow steadily). Not long ago, you could hear two ballads in a row on WHTZ (Z100) New York. Now, you’re more likely to hear Krewella and Avicii two songs apart.

So what happened to the new Lumin-era? Whether you enjoyed top 40’s new acoustics or regarded them as a relapse into its recurring doldrums, we probably haven’t heard our last banjo. As is often the case, it’s more a function of PDs and product than shifting tastes. But there are hurdles.

There are still only so many non-rhythm slots at top 40. And they’re not specifically earmarked for acoustic songs. When “Ho Hey” and “The A Team” ran their course, it was “It’s Time” and “Little Talks” that finally got their chance, followed only now by Capital Cities’ well-established alternative hit “Safe & Sound.” Those slots are also going to the new Imagine Dragons, the remixed Florida Georgia Line and Fall Out Boy, which reliably got the “rock” slot at top 40 back when there was only one or two at a time. The next acoustic hit must negotiate a clogged pipeline.

The big acts muscled in. Some of the acoustic slots are going to the piano ballads by P!nk, Bruno Mars and Rihanna. Those acts had first dibs at top 40, especially with songs that met the same need as the folk titles. Of course, triple A acts like Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne helped warm up neo-soul before the likes of Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown showed interest. At least Robin Thicke was already working that territory on the urban AC side.

Spontaneous combustion takes forever. Anna Kendrick’s “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone)” is the most successful folk-flavored title at top 40 at the moment. As part of “Pitch Perfect,” it was a naturally occurring phenomenon in fall/winter, thus seemingly guaranteeing that it would take months to make its way at radio—and only with much of its folkiness mixed out. There are a lot more ways for an unlikely hit to get on the docket now. Getting it on radio’s fast track is much harder.

Even triple A is less folky. Metered ratings measurement has prodded some triple A stations in a more pop direction, with a few embracing P!nk and Mars. Other slots are going to songs that are shared with alternative radio. And two prominent acoustic slots have now gone to Phillip Phillips. Adele too has helped pave the way for mainstream pop that just happens to be by an acclaimed artist. There was a time when Serena Ryder’s “Stompa” would have signaled a divorce with triple A. Now it’s No. 1. And when triple A does break the next Lumineers, they will then have to make their way through a hot AC format that’s also less inclined to indulge acoustic whimsy.

But remember that the acoustic boom of 2011 followed the equally unlikely acoustic boom of 2008-2009, when the kids surprised us with their equally mellow Colbie Caillat and Owl City. It took four decades for ¬early-’70s-style singer/songwriter music to become teen music again, but we know it can happen.

Which brings us to “Let Her Go” by Passenger. At press time, it’s in double-digit spins at only three U.S. stations, hot ACs WBMX (Mix 104.1) Boston and KLLC (Alice 97.3) San Francisco and triple A WRLT Nashville. But it has also been a mainstream pop smash worldwide, including Australia, Germany and now the United Kingdom, where it’s currently No. 2 in airplay. 

Which brings us to “Let Her Go” by Passenger. At press time, it’s in double-digit spins at only two U.S. stations, hot AC KLLC (Alice 97.3) San Francisco and triple A WRLT Nashville. But it has also been a mainstream pop smash worldwide, including Australia, Germany and now the United Kingdom, where it’s currently No. 2 in airplay. With the same sort of left-field charisma as last fall’s acoustic hits, it’s not hard to figure what will happen when it does get on the radio here. But when is always an issue