Selena Gomez’s latest hit, “Slow Down,” is yet another in mainstream top 40’s ever-replenishing arsenal of uptempo pop/dance hits, but its chorus, in which Gomez implores, “Baby, slow down the song,” reflects the format’s current — and atypical — reliance on ballads.
On this week’s Nielsen BDS-based Mainstream Top 40 radio airplay chart, Miley Cyrus’ former Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Wrecking Ball” bullets at No. 3, Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” bounds 14-11, the Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” lifts 18-17, and Passenger’s “Let Her Go” rides 30-25. Meanwhile, Britney Spears’ “Perfume” looks likely to debut on the chart next week.
A common trait among the songs? Their slow tempos, an anomaly at a format known for its trademark snappy beats. And while most songs on current top 40 playlists still boast high BPMs — Avicii’s EDM hit “Wake Me Up!” leads Mainstream Top 40 for a third week, while fellow club cuts by Lady Gaga, Zedd and Pitbull dot the top 20 — a recent influx of ballads goes against top 40’s grain. The songs are the latest such unhurried hits this year, following, among others, Rihanna’s “Stay” and Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man.”
Any format will always welcome hits-but is it cause for concern when top titles potentially dilute the brand?
“We would prefer to have fewer downtempo songs than there are currently,” WBBM (B96) Chicago assistant PD/music director Erik Bradley says. “We like B96 to maintain a level of fast tempo. It’s our heritage and meets our audience’s overall expectations.”
Bradley says, however, that the right ballads have their place, helping explain why hits by core top 40 acts like Perry have gained acceptance quickly. “If we’re going to slow down, we like it to be for a legitimate smash or for an artist that’s critically important to the format.”
RCA executive VP Joe Riccitelli confronted this mind-set when promoting Labrinth’s soulful ballad “Beneath Your Beautiful.” Despite it topping the Official Charts Co.’s Singles chart in the United Kingdom in fall 2012, the song stopped at No. 26 on Mainstream Top 40 in August. It peaked at No. 13 on Hot Digital Songs (with 92,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan) the week of Aug. 10 but never reached the Hot 100 Airplay chart. “We certainly ran into tempo issues with Labrinth,” he says. “It was a proven hit that PDs really had a tough time wrapping their heads around.”
RCA is having a much easier time with “Wrecking Ball.” The song reached the Mainstream Top 40 top 10 in just four weeks, marking Cyrus’ fastest flight up the chart. Spears’ high profile could similarly help “Perfume.”
Still, Riccitelli says that slow-building slow songs do have an upside. “Ballads develop more steadily, but that can be a good thing. It gives a song a better chance to build a research story.”
Capitol senior VP of promotion Dennis Reese adds that a hit ballad can live long after its top 40 chart run, segueing to possible years of adult contemporary airplay. “Ballads tend to have a long lifespan at radio and become some of the biggest hits for those artists.”
Could the infusion of ballads be seasonal, with top 40 favoring faster hits in the summer as potential pool party songs? Columbia VP of promotion Jon Borris, who helped steer the Neighbourhood’s former 11-week Alternative No. 1 “Sweater Weather” into the Mainstream Top 40 chart’s top half despite its measured tempo, says no — at least for his fall-focused hit. “I don’t think ‘Sweater Weather’ moved along faster as summer turned to fall. It hit top 40 due to performance.”
Ultimately, Gomez’s current hit, a dance track that celebrates the merits of a leisurely pace, serves as a microcosm of what’s best about top 40: Slow or fast, what’s most important is song quality.
“Top 40 is where you hear the hottest hits, whether it’s an uptempo banger from Flo Rida or ‘Wrecking Ball,'” WPLW (Pulse 102) Raleigh, N.C., assistant PD/music director Mike “Mad Dawg” Biddle says. “Our station has an uptempo sound. However, we’ve stepped away from that periodically because sometimes a song is just that big. Our listeners tell us if they want to hear a ballad or something uptempo they can twerk to.”