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Ask Billboard: Why Aren’t Power Ballads So Powerful Anymore?

An analysis of why slow songs ruled top 40 in the late '80s but don't, for the most part, now. Plus, Hall & Oates' top 10 hits and Tom Wopat, "Luke Duke" himself, stops by.

As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S. Or, Tweet questions to Gary Trust: @gthot20

WHY AREN’T POWER BALLADS SO POWERFUL ANYMORE?

Two weeks ago, Chart Beat analyzed the recent bevy of ballads at top 40 radio. Program directors agreed that while they prefer an uptempo song pace, there will likely always be a place for select hit ballads, especially those by such star acts as Miley Cyrus (“Wrecking Ball”), Katy Perry (“Unconditionally”) and Rihanna, who’s charted two this year (“Stay,” “What Now”).

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The column evoked this response by reader Mark Blankenship:

“In 1989, there were more ballads atop the Billboard Hot 100 than now. It seems like the quoted PDs take the need for beats as a given, but it hasn’t always been so.”

Indeed, a look back at 1989 reveals a whopping 15 ballads that rose to the top of the Hot 100:

“When I’m With You,” Sheriff
“Lost in Your Eyes,” Debbie Gibson
“The Living Years,” Mike + the Mechanics
“Eternal Flame, the Bangles

“I’ll Be There for You,” Bon Jovi
“Wind Beneath My Wings,” Bette Midler
“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” New Kids on the Block
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” Simply Red
“Toy Soldiers,” Martika
“Right Here Waiting,” Richard Marx
“Don’t Wanna Lose You,” Gloria Estefan
“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” Milli Vanilli
“Listen to Your Heart,” Roxette
“When I See You Smile,” Bad English
“Another Day in Paradise,” Phil Collins

By comparison, here is a recap of the all-out, unquestionable No. 1 Hot 100 ballads each year from 2008 to present:

2008: 1 (“Take a Bow,” Rihanna)
2009: 0
2010: 0
2011: 1 (“Someone Like You,” Adele)
2012: 0
2013: 3 (“When I Was Your Man,” Bruno Mars; “Just Give Me a Reason,” P!nk featuring Nate Ruess; “Wrecking Ball,” Miley Cyrus)

So, while this year marks a notable uptick in the number of downtempo Hot 100 leaders, ballads have long been out of the favor they once enjoyed at pop radio. What’s changed so that top 40 has become almost exclusively a format of fast-paced hits? Following an e-roundtable with Billboard’s top 40 gurus Sean Ross (also of Edison Research) and Rich Appel (aka, “The CHRonicler”) and Billboard director of charts Silvio Pietroluongo, these seem like five key reasons why top 40 has since picked up the pace.

– Research has helped spur a narrower focus on uptempo hits, top 40’s trademark. Similarly, Ross notes, by the early ’90s, top 40 was researched so tightly that little other than rhythmic pop could break through.

– Portable People Meter ratings measurement, too. As it’s become accepted that Nielsen Audio’s (formerly Arbriton’s) newer, more accurate ratings measurement method, which replaced the decades-old practice of listeners recalling their listening habits by diary, favors tempo, PDs are careful to avoid potential tune-out by overloading on ballads.

– Artists/writers copy what’s hot. If other ballads aren’t on the radio, ballads won’t be as influential. Still, current down-tempo hits follow those by P!nk, Mars and Rihanna. And, since upcoming waves of hits are being written now, perhaps we’re ripe for “Wrecking Ball” clones next.

– The influence of hip-hop. Today’s artists grew up with rap and hip-hop beats, making ballads less a part of their musical upbringings.

– Dance/pop, aka, “turbo-pop,” and EDM have become top 40’s core sound, squeezing out rock. And, rock power ballads have traditionally been a solid source of top 40 hits. The little rock that crosses over now is uptempo, from stomp-and-clap folk (the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Phillip Phillips) to synthesizer-infused pop/rock (Bastille, Capital Cities, Lorde).

Essentially, while top 40 always was and still is the format that culls the top, most mainstream hits of all genres, it may be more than ever, as branding and technology evolve, its own sound, one defined by pop/dance elements and slick production.

As Warrant sang in its 1989 lighters-in-the-air ballad “Heaven,” “heaven isn’t too far away.” But, 24 years later, the sound of that song, outside of a few high-profile exceptions, certainly seems to be far away from top 40.

As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S. Or, Tweet questions to Gary Trust: @gthot20

HALL (& OATES) OF FAME

Hi Gary,

Wasn’t Lady Gaga superb in her sketches on “Saturday Night Live”?! She has to be one of the best musicians to have hosted the show in current times. I loved her relaxed, comic version of “Applause,” with her gorgeous backing dancers, not to mention all the brilliance of her “Gypsy” performance.

Regarding my last “Ask Billboard” email about artists with top 10 hits that peaked at each top-tier position of the Hot 100, a group that Drake has now joined, I’ll add a mention another act that’s come close to peaking at each top 10 spot. Did I say “close”? How ’bout “So Close”? … If Daryl Hall and John Oates had peaked at No. 10 instead of No. 11 with “So Close” in 1990, they would’ve preceded Madonna in becoming the third artist in that category, as they’ve peaked at ranks 1-9.

A consolation is that Hall and Oates did indeed score a No. 10 hit, um, on the Hot 100’s Bubbling Under chart in 1980, and with an appropriate title: “Who Said the World Was Fair.”

It’s all about being Radio (and chart) Gaga,

Pablo Nelson
Oakland, California

Thanks Pablo!

First, I agree, I thought that Gaga was great on “SNL” two weekends ago (and “Gypsy” sounds like a future “ARTPOP” single to me). She poked fun at herself in the hilarious covers sketch (I can’t hear “Cups” by Anna Kendrick anymore without thinking of Kenan Thompson’s Rick Ross version …) with her is-it-a-Madonna-cover-or-not “Born This Way”; showed off a Marisa Tomei impersonation that would fool Vinny and woo George Costanza; and owned her character with depth and nuance as wistful future Gaga. (And, I think I’m kind of crushing on her nerdy Apple Store employee …)

Overall, she seemed to bring a special energy to the show, no doubt informed by her appearance being the fulfillment of a longtime dream by a determined New York City girl. Free feedback if Lorne Michaels or any other TV exec is reading this: I would watch “The Lady Gaga Show,” whatever shape that would take, as you consider future projects.

As for Hall and Oates, owners of 16 Hot 100 top 10s, including six No. 1s, I always loved “So Close,” which was bit more guitar-driven than many of their earlier hits. One of the reasons? Jon Bon Jovi sports a co-writing credit on it. In addition to its No. 11 peak, they also peaked at No. 12 with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The Righteous Brothers remake reached the rank exactly 33 years ago today (Nov. 29, 1980).

Meanwhile, Billboard reports today that Hall and Oates are planning to record new music together. “Never say never,” Oates says. “Daryl and I are actually thinking about doing a single. We don’t really see a need to do an album.”

The duo is also, finally, up for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“This puts the cherry on top,” Oates says.

As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S. Or, Tweet questions to Gary Trust: @gthot20

ROYAL RULERS

Hi Gary,

With the recent christening of Prince George of Cambridge, the 65th birthday of Prince Charles, and, of course, Lorde’s “Royals” spending a ninth week at No. 1, how about we look at other pop royalty that has topped the Hot 100?

“Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler (1962)
“I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” Herman’s Hermits (1965)
“Dancing Queen,” ABBA (1977)
“Sir Duke,” Stevie Wonder (1977)

“Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run),” Billy Ocean (1984)

In addition, No. 1 hits have been notched by Carole King, Queen and Prince.

And, perhaps the most poignant regal song to crown the Hot 100 has been Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997,” his tribute to his friend, the late Princess Diana.

Best,

Blair Buchta 
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Thanks Blair,

When it comes to this topic, you rule.

As for Lorde (aka, “Queen Bee”), here’s her latest achievement at rock radio: She enters the Alternative Songs top 10 with “Team” (15-9), the follow-up to “Royals.” Lorde is the first solo female to take her first two Alternative Songs entries into the top 10 since Alanis Morissette crowned the chart on her first two tries in 1995 with “You Oughta Know” (five weeks at No. 1) and “Hand in My Pocket” (one).

Meanwhile, recent leader “Roar” by Katy Perry essentially borrows the lyrics of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” And, her new perfume is called “Killer Queen.” How interesting that Queen has actually influenced both Perry and Lady Gaga: the latter’s name was, of course, inspired by the band’s 1984 No. 16 Hot 100 hit “Radio Ga-Ga.”

(Plus, going back to Gaga’s “SNL” gig, let’s not forget that in the future, we’re under the leadership of “Empress Beyonce.”)

Let’s not forget two more Dukes – my favorites – Bo and Luke! John Schneider and Tom Wopat portrayed cousins Bo and Luke Duke on CBS’ “The Dukes of Hazzard” from 1979 through 1985, along with a pair of reunion movies on the network in 1997 and 2000. (I also may or may not have attended a “DukesFest” fan convention in Sperryville, Virginia, in 2003 …)

Both actors also enjoyed considerable success on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in the ’80s. Schneider tallied four No. 1s in 1984-85, while Wopat racked seven top 40 hits on the list in 1986-88. They also sang on the fun, kitschy 1981 series soundtrack album that included contributions from Catherine Bach (“Daisy”), Sorrell Booke (“Boss Hogg”) and James Best (whose “Rosco” offered a tribute to his dog/patrol car partner “Flash,” who always joined him “in hot pursuit!”)

In a visit to Billboard’s New York offices earlier this year, Wopat discussed his new album of standards, “I’ve Got Your Number,” as well as (since I may or may not have prodded him incessantly for details …) memories of “Dukes”:

As for any more “Dukes” incarnations? Wopat laughed off the suggestion.

“I’m Uncle Jesse’s age now.”