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Looking at Top 40 Radio’s Decade of Change, Through the Lens of Kelly Clarkson’s Career

It was noteworthy last week when Clarkson dropped "Heartbeat Song," the first single from her forthcoming album, and got far more support, especially in large markets, from adult top 40 radio…

It was Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004. Mainstream top 40 radio was a mix of hip-hop, “extreme” alternative crossovers and, for pop balance, teen punk. WHTZ (Z100) New York, which had just launched an urban sister station, WWPR (Power 105), was trying to make its way back to the mainstream, although sometimes that meant 50 Cent‘s “P.I.M.P.” and Matchbox Twenty‘s “Bright Lights” in close proximity, without anything good in the middle.

A year or so earlier, Kelly Clarkson‘s “Miss Independent” had been one of the few legit uptempo pop hits. By December, Clarkson was back on the radio with “Breakaway,” which, as of that day, was just a soundtrack single. The waltz-tempo song, which took a while to prove itself as a real hit, didn’t do much for the fun factor of the format, but it further established the first American Idol winner as a an act with more than one radio smash.

That afternoon, “Breakway” hadn’t peaked yet. I had just pulled into the grocery store parking lot and there was a surprise on Z100: another new Clarkson single. And that was how I heard “Since U Been Gone” for the first time. 

It’s not a stretch to call that a turning point for mainstream top 40, and for Z100 itself. Over the course of Breakaway, Clarkson became top 40’s showcase artist. The sway of American Idol in creating a more pop-centric culture was repeatedly cited. With time, the ability of producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke to create pop hits that were as cool as what other formats can offer turned out to be just as important. 

As of this writing, it’s been a week since the release of “Heartbeat Song,” the lead-off single from Clarkson’s Piece By Piece. Seven days of airplay has taken the song to No. 39 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart. What that number disguises is where the airplay is coming from. In the first week, Z100 played “Heartbeat Song” only once. KIIS Los Angeles hasn’t played it at all, according to Nielsen BDS Radio. Neither has KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas. Only two Mainstream Top 40 stations in the top 10 markets, WKSC (Kiss 103.5) Chicago and WXKS (Kiss 108) Boston, gave “Heartbeat Song” any significant first week airplay. So did Sirius XM Hits1. 

iHeartMedia gave Clarkson the first day saturation airplay it rolls out for major artist releases, but at its adult top 40 stations, not mainstream top 40. Some iHeart adult top 40s gave the song up to 58 spins in the first week. In fact, airplay over the same period brought “Heartbeat Song” in at No. 21 on the Adult Top 40 chart. “Her audience has grown, [and] aged with her,” says CHWV (97.3 The Wave) St. John, N.B., PD Scott Clements, in a Twitter exchange on the subject. “That audience is in the wheelhouse of Hot AC today. Glad to add that song out of the box.”

But being a veteran artist doesn’t always equate to an uphill battle at top 40. In recent years, top 40 has seemed like a format where almost any artist was only one great song away from a comeback. “Moves Like Jagger” made Maroon 5 stars at top 40 radio again, and a recent visitor to No. 1. Fall Out Boy‘s “Centuries” is just outside the top 15. Gwen Stefani‘s “Baby Don’t Lie” received a Clear Channel mainstream top 40 premiere event, though failed ti become a major hit. Enrique Iglesias, already an unlikely comeback candidate at the time of “I Like It,” managed yet another with “Bailando” last year.

It’s important to point out that there is nothing wrong with being No. 39 after a week’s airplay — or being a core artist for adult top 40, whose stations lead mainstream outlets in some markets. Songs with huge iHeart premieres can go on to be Mark Ronson‘s “Uptown Funk” or Christina Aguilera‘s “Your Body.” Early PD enthusiasm is hardly the final story, and there’s no intended judgment here on whether “Heartbeat Song” is a long-term hit. 

However “Heartbeat Song” develops, mainstream top 40’s immediate reaction is telling. No artist is guaranteed a hit every time out, as Katy Perry‘s recent track record has shown. Clarkson has had to prove herself on a song-by-song basis since 2007’s My December squandered some of her capital with both programmers and, seemingly, her own label. Still, there are larger implications when a key artist — amidst the format’s current good fortunes — comes back with an kickoff single that reminiscent of her musical breakthrough, and still receives a cautious reaction.

The category’s not dead — it’s full. Spunky uptempo power-pop by female artists isn’t quite the juggernaut that it was in the years immediately after “Since U Been Gone,” when even Paris Hilton briefly got on board. But the female power-pop spotlights that do exist now belong to other artists, both core (Taylor Swift) and recently minted (Meghan Trainor). In fact, it was after Clarkson stumbled with My December that P!nk’s top 40 resurgence showed just how quickly that hole could be filled.

There is some trepidation about mainstream pop. Few markets supported two top 40 stations when “Since U Been Gone” broke through. These days, most markets have two and, in most cases, the second top 40 tends to lean more rhythmic, which has definitely been reflected in top 40’s recent resistance to pop/rock. “I’m certain if the record had an EDM feel, it would have got more love,” tweets reader Brian Woodward.

Clarkson now has history as an “adult” artist. Fergie and Gwen Stefani were returning to mainstream top 40 after long absences between projects. In that same time, Clarkson had released singles like “Catch My Breath” and “People Like Us” that turned out to be bigger hits for adult top 40 and even mainstream AC. It wasn’t unprecedented for some mainstream PDs to hand her music off to the adult sister station.

The top 40 revival is long-running enough for the format to “graduate” an artist. Historically, a turnover in core artists has tracked with either a downturn or rebound in top 40’s fortunes. This time, a format that usually puts together five good years at a stretch has been going strong for ten. Not everybody is positive about the state of top 40 music in any given week, but the traditional signs of a format decline – other formats clearly have hotter music; top 40 isn’t creating its own music; stations are fleeing the format, even if they have no competition – aren’t there. In other words, it’s the first time in recent memory that a format’s hot streak has had a chance to outlast the artist who helped create it.