Moving Ahead? Or Going Backwards?

Retro Pop/R&B Trend Means Every Day Is Throwback Thursday

Going Backward To Go Forward?

Earlier this year, while commenting on a mini-boom in R&B-to-pop crossovers, I cited the retro flavor of many of the songs involved. Ironic updates on '60s R&B and '70s disco had been a part of the triple-A world for a few years, and represented internationally for a decade. Now acts like Aloe Blacc and "Happy's" Pharrell Williams were finally taking advantage of it as well.

The intervening six weeks have underscored the trend. Of the songs mentioned, "Happy," an unlikely throwback to mid-'60s Ramsey Lewis Trio-type jazz/R&B, is a phenomenal worldwide No. 1. John Legend's "All Of Me," a lush ballad of the sort that could have been made any time in the past 30 years, is top three. Blacc's Elton John-meets-Bill Withers tribute, "The Man," is top 10. Meanwhile, Kid Ink f/Chris Brown's "Show Me," one of the songs defining the sparse uptempo sound of Hip-Hop/R&B radio today, has peaked in the top 25. 

I'm happy to have R&B crossovers back on the pop chart however they get there. As a new core sound of top 40, retro covers multiple styles over a forty year span (from the mid-'60s to Justin Timberlake's early '00s "Like I Love You" in the case of Ed Sheeran's new "Sing"). There's plenty of variety under the throwback tent and it's a refreshing break from the other current clichés of top 40: the pensive EDM song interrupted by techno builds and drops; the acoustic anthem that erupts in "whoa-oh-oh's."

But one can't help noting that even now that R&B radio has a handful of undeniable uptempo hits, something lacking for a while, that only the throwbacks are making their way across. Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" isn't retro soul, but it started on the pop and rhythmic top 40 side. So did Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." Meanwhile, Ty Dolla $ign's "Paranoid" faced more pop resistance than "Show Me" did.

There's irony in the rush to retro. Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," the song that started the trio of Williams-helmed throwbacks, was a reference to the Chic records that were themselves the target of the 1979 disco backlash. When Chic's "I Want Your Love," the song most clearly channeled by "Get Lucky" was a current, disco records were being blown up at Chicago White Sox games.  Now it's the derivation of R&B that pop audiences (or pop PDs) find most accessible.

During the nostalgia boom of the early '70s, there was a stretch in late '72/early '73 that was rich in '40s- and '50s-flavored hits: Elton John's "Crocodile Rock"; Bette Midler's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"; Hurricane Smith's "Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?" But the '40s did not become a long-term core sound. 

Now, pop radio suffers from "hit lag," where the lengthier set-up time for songs means that influences take longer to play themselves out at pop radio. A year after "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines," retro disco and R&B are represented at top 40 by MKTO's "Classic" and Karmin's "I Want It All." DJ Cassidy's "Make The World Go Round," just landed on my desk this week, and there will certainly be a '70s-disco-flavored contender for "Summer Song of 2015" as well.

There's no reason to begrudge Williams his throwback triple-play. "Get Lucky," "Blurred Lines," and "Happy" all earned their place on the radio. But if our most talented writer/producers are looking back, somebody has to move music ahead. Justin Timberlake's retro excursions of the past year are pleasant enough. But when "SexyBack" propelled him into superstardom, it was the shock-of-the-new. Top 40 has little of that at the moment.

Every time I'm ready to declare "too much retro" -- not just an issue for R&B but throughout pop music -- there's another song I like (in this case, Ray LaMontagne's '60s-pop flavored "Supernova") which allows me to bond with an artist who clearly listened to the same records I did. But pop music benefits from looking forward as well. And after a relative doldrums, it would be too bad if any new excitement at R&B radio weren't acknowledged by pop radio.