By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
I’m glad people change their minds occasionally about the music they like. It’s part of why this column exists. It is also, to some extent, why I have a job, since my work in the research business hinges on understanding shifts in music preference over time.
Usually, the change in preference involves the exiling of music. Songs that develop normally get their 3-5 years at Mainstream Top 40 and then begin working their way through Adult Top 40, AC, and then Classic Hits. That pattern has been disrupted somewhat as the three contemporary pop formats move closer to each other, but not before 25 previous years’ worth of music entered the pipeline.
A few songs never go away. Usher’s “Yeah!” is getting 10 spins on WKTU New York this week, practically a current, and six on KIIS Los Angeles. Without ever disappearing from Mainstream CHR, it has now traveled to Urban AC, and even to a handful of Adult Hits and Mainstream AC stations. (And it would test for most of them).
But the natural order of things is that one day you look up at the radio and realize you hadn’t heard “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” for a while. That Usher song hasn’t disappeared from the radio, but that once unavoidable song is now more of an Adult Top 40 record now. In fact, it’s noticeable that one of the calling cards of KVIL Dallas in its new Top 40 incarnation seems to be late ‘00s/early ’10 “turbo-pop.” And if I ever complained about everything sounding like “Raise Your Glass” or “Only Girl In The World,” I apologize, because it sounds really good now when there’s so little tempo in today’s hit music.
Because the Usher song got Mainstream AC play when it was new, it has already finessed that transition. So now the question becomes when it moves to Adult Hits? Or Classic Hits? And will it stay on Hot AC and Mainstream AC until it does? For those with an interest in such things—and anybody who programs for adults needs to have at least a professional interest—it’s curious to see which songs lose their playability with the passage of time and regain it as a new audience moves into the AC, Classic Rock, or Classic Hits demo.
The unpredictability is in knowing what smaller subset of hit music will come back. Some of today’s enduring ‘80s songs seemed like trifles at the time—“Your Love” by the Outfield; “The Promise” by When In Rome. But “The Promise” turned out to have more of a shelf-life than any of those New Order songs it vaguely invoked at the time. And if “Your Love” really was the Police, rather than just sounding like them, it would be the fourth most-played Police song now, according to Nielsen BDSRadio.
In the time before they return to the radio, songs like “Your Love” and “The Promise” usually become punchlines before they become playable. It’s easy to direct mild derision at those acts who never achieved full-fledged hitmaking careers. But a lot of the music that returns to the radio eventually goes through a period of rehabilitation. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is usually top 50 at the Classic Hits format, obscuring how entirely reviled they were until the mid-‘90s when WKTU New York helped bring that song back to the radio.
The lesson from watching songs cycle in and out of playability is that very little is beyond being rehabilitated at radio permanently. No artist was more mocked than Barry Manilow. And yet, the moment came about five years ago when both AC WLYF (Lite 101.5) Miami and newly launched WFEZ (Easy 93.1) played him within a few minutes of each other.
A few years ago, it was remarkable enough to me that “Mickey” by Toni Basil was receiving double-digit airplay at WREW Cincinnati, the then-Rewind 94.9, (and a few spins elsewhere) that I devoted a column to it. For some people, “Mickey” was a lightning rod for what they didn’t like about ‘80s pop, even if I considered it the essence of “good time oldies” (and even if enough people agreed with me to make it a No. 1 record and a platinum single).
In the intervening years, I started to see “Mickey” surface as playable more frequently in research for AC and Classic Hits stations. Even then, there was often a discussion with the PD about whether they really wanted to play it; I was always conscious of not indulging myself at listeners’ expense. But there are nearly 200 spins on “Mickey” this week, including 12x at Jack FM Dallas, 9x at B101 Providence, 6x at KJR Seattle. The most recent station I work with to test it is playing it 6x a week, and they’re not even close to the top in spin count. “Mickey” isn’t back everywhere. But its rehabilitation continues.
So, to some extent, does the rehabilitation of the entire teen idols category. As songs cycle in to gold formats, teen acts have often been the one category that never comes back. All-‘70s stations didn’t play the Osmonds or Shaun Cassidy, while the Bay City Rollers barely, and briefly, flirted with playability for “Saturday Night.” When the first all-‘80s stations appeared, a few things were notably missing. One was “Mickey.” The other was New Kids on the Block. Because they destroyed the Top 40 format, right?
And yet, the New Kids’ “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” got 64 spins last week, including 9x at B101 and 8x at WPLJ New York. There is at least one market where it has appeared on both AC stations at one point. Delving further into the teen pop of that era, Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” got 86 spins (including 11x at Sunny 105.9 Orlando). Debbie Gibson’s hits get a handful—29 spins for “Shake Your Love” and 19 for “Only In My Dreams.”
“You Got It (The Right Stuff)” also got eight spins on WPLJ New York last week. WPLJ and rival WKTU have spent most of the last year in a “throwback” war that is hardly restricted to former teen idols, but hasn’t excluded them either. WKTU is playing four ‘N Sync titles and six by Backstreet Boys. WPLJ is playing three ‘N Sync and four Backstreet titles.
As noted recently, the pop ‘90s aren’t back on the radio in the same proportion as the biggest alternative or R&B/hip-hop songs of that era. But most of the biggest teen idol titles now have some sort of footprint:
Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (249 spins last week)
Backstreet Boys, “As Long As You Love Me” (221 spins)
‘N Sync, “Bye Bye Bye” (207)
Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (116)
Tiffany, “I Think We’re Alone Now” (86)
‘N Sync, “Tearing Up My Heart” (83)
New Kids on the Block, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” (64)
Hanson, “MMMBop” (59)
‘N Sync, “It’s Gonna Be Me” (58)
Backstreet Boys, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (58)
‘N Sync, “I Want You Back” (54)
Backstreet Boys, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (52)
Backstreet Boys, “Larger Than Life” (49)
‘N Sync, “Girlfriend” (46)
Backstreet Boys, “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely” (36)
Debbie Gibson, “Shake Your Love” (29)
New Kids on the Block, “Step By Step” (28)
Backstreet Boys, “Get Down (You’re The One For Me)” (20—all from Quebec and Ottawa’s Francophone stations)
New Kids on the Block, “Hangin’ Tough” (18)
Some of this is probably because our attitudes toward teen idols have changed in general. Acts like Shaun Cassidy and the Osmonds were spectacularly denied the chance by top 40 radio to grow up, no matter what music they released. But when Justin Timberlake managed a Michael Jackson-like second career, it broke the jinx for Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Joe Jonas, and Selena Gomez. So if Timberlake, why not ‘N Sync? And if ‘N Sync, why not Backstreet? And why not New Kids?
Also, we reached the point where the listeners who grew up with those acts would not be denied. When we review music tests at Edison Research, I sit with a mostly female group of colleagues, including one who saw New Kids several times. There is still as much affection as camp whenever teen acts are mentioned. Yesterday, “All Or Nothing” by O-Town was in a music test. “Are the playing that?” asked one co-worker, brightening. And it was the success of various reunion tours that seemed to propel those records back on to WKTU several years ago. (I remember mostly weekends, at first.)
Finally, there’s Christmas. When saints and sinners are reconciled, and Andy Williams becomes a regular presence, teen idols are welcome, too. “Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays” by ‘N Sync got 866 spins last week. Debbie Gibson’s “Sleigh Ride” got 476 plays.
Songs and artists cycle out of playability a second time as well. The disco titles that made a spectacular, post-backlash comeback at AC radio a decade ago are fading to various degrees, now that AC has stopped playing the ‘70s and even Classic Hits is becoming more ‘80s-driven. Manilow Mania has long ended on South Florida radio. He’s represented on WFEZ by “Jingle Bells” and WLYF by “Jingle Bells” and one other holiday song. But some of the titles here will likely continue to cycle up before tapering off.