It’s a problem that surfaces even at happy times in a format cycle: the fear of “disposable music.” Sure, it’s uptempo. Sure, people are enjoying the format now. But isn’t it going to blow up and leave us with nothing to play?
In the early ’90s, when country radio was at the height of its popularity, the worst thing a PD could call a song was a “ditty.” Some of those fun, uptempo, quasi-novelties, like “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Watermelon Crawl” or “I Try to Think About Elvis” were too big to deny at the time. But a lesser song tagged as a "ditty" could be rejected by PDs, almost for being too radio-friendly.
In the late ’90s, amidst the top 40 comeback, the disposable music issue came up again, particularly after the Jewel and Melissa Etheridge singer/songwriter hits of the first few years gave way to the less ambitious dance pop of Amber and Gina G. Then teen pop kicked in, and for a few years anyway, the format had both rhythmic pop hits and core artists.
At Country Radio Seminar this year, the fear of disposable music again arose, as part of a larger discussion of whether being “the new top 40,” a term that was heard a lot at CRS, was a worthy aspiration. Didn’t being the new top 40 mean overindulging in one style—in this case, the format’s glut of scruffy quasi-rockers like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Eric Church? Don’t booms lead to busts? Had country learned nothing from losing its early-’90s momentum?
They’re legitimate concerns, albeit offset slightly by a nice balance of all types of new music on display at CRS. Country benefitted in the early ’90s from having both “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” But when PDs decide that they’re going to throttle the amount of disposable music at a format, what they often end up with is forgettable music.
When top 40 PDs decided disco was dead, they reached for Robbie Dupree, Air Supply and the anonymous “soft rock” one-hit-wonders that represent the musical low point of the format. Bell Biv Devoe’s “Do Me” gave way during the early-’90s top 40 doldrums to Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking.”
At late-’90s/early-’00s country radio, the crossover gimmickry of Shania Twain gave way to the harmless neutrality of Tim McGraw’s “Something Like That” or Chad Brock’s “Yes”—nominally uptempo, but not so engaging. You can almost track the resurgence of country radio to the return of the ditty. Every now and then, something like Aaron Tippin’s “Kiss This” would give radio a jolt of old-school energy. But it was “Redneck Woman” and “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” the latter bitterly resisted by country PDs at the time, that served as the format’s defibrillators.
Today, when you scroll down the BDSRadio most-played songs at country radio, they’re not exactly all defined by seriousness of purpose. “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” “Some Beach” and “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” were all power gold for a while; now they’re nestled outside the top 100, but you can still find “Good Directions,” “Big Green Tractor,” “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “As Good As I Once Was,” “Hillbilly Bone” and “I Love This Bar.”
So is disposable music still disposable if people want to hear it five or 10 years later? For that matter, what does it mean when “quality” music doesn’t endure? The rhythmic pop of the ’90s has never managed to get traction on the radio. That goes for the early-’90s songs from the format’s years of decline, and the mid- to late-’90s comeback hits. But plenty of the singer/songwriter music from the early years of top 40’s resurgence has disappeared as well. You’ll encounter “Give Me One Reason” more often than “Informer.” But ask AC PDs if they feel like they have a lot of quality ’90s music to work with.
At top 40, the disposable music issue hasn’t had as much teeth in recent years. “Turbo-pop” began its life with core artists attached—P!nk, Usher, the Black Eyed Peas. Then it gave way to singer/songwriter music again. Singer/songwriter music is never attacked as disposable, even when there’s not much ambition attached to it. Before that term was deployed to deride songs like “Indian Outlaw,” being a "ditty" in the best sense meant being simple and catchy. Like, say, “Ho Hey,” a song whose long-term fate on the radio has little to do with how much people enjoy it now. Ultimately, the audience makes the decision on what to keep—and they rarely make it instantly.