Programmers playing the song, which exudes a darkness in both its moody, rock-leaning sound and its lyrics, say that even as it's a departure from the gloss and tempo of much of today's top 40, as well as 1D's catalog, "Sign" is an obvious fit for the format. In fact, some say, it's off to a good start in large part because of its distinctive feel.
"What a dynamic pivot. Mash The Beatles with Oasis and you've got Harry's song," says Kid Kelly, SiriusXM's vp of music programming, which includes the pop-formatted Hits 1 channel. "Atypical? Perhaps. Forward-thinking? Absolutely. As far as the texture, outlier-styled songs have never frightened me, as it's that uniqueness that I gravitate toward in hopes of providing maximum variety to our listeners."
Phil Guerini, vp music strategy Disney Channels Worldwide and gm Radio Disney Networks, also asserts that "Sign of the Times" is atypical for the sound of many pop stations. "I not only think it can be a hit, but hope that it's a massive one, in as much as it encourages other artists, labels and programmers to expand what is considered viable at mainstream radio today."
Notably, Kelly, Guerini and other programmers played "Sign" in its original 5-minute, 40-second-long version Friday; "We're all in or we're not at all," Kelly says. Columbia subsequently serviced a 4-minute, 8-second-long edit Saturday.
"There's no question Harry wanted to make a statement and set himself apart from his past work," says Chris Patyk, KEGY San Diego program director. Per that past, One Direction has tallied 13 Pop Songs entries, including three top 10s: its No. 3-peaking 2012 debut "What Makes You Beautiful"; "Story of My Life," which hit No. 4 in 2014; and the No. 6 hit "Drag Me Down" in 2015. And, only one of those 13 songs started higher than the No. 29 bow for "Sign" ("Steal My Girl," No. 27, 2014). "The response so far from our listeners is that they like ["Sign"] because it is different. A few weren't One Direction fans to begin with and like the song."
Looking ahead, Patyk says, "Ultimately, the listeners are our jury and, right now, there's definite interest."
"Sign" is a "great example of how music curators and music consumers don't put boundaries on what a hit record is supposed to sound like," muses Michael Martin, KMVQ San Francisco PD. "The only people putting music in lanes is the industry. Harry has come out of the solo gate with a rich, intricate and heartfelt smash. It's bigger than any one format lane; it's a cultural moment, which is what pop radio is supposed to capture."