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Did We Miss The Elvis Break?

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In the early ‘90s, with hip-hop ascendant and top 40 radio in shambles, it was often suggested that hip-hop was the new pop music. This theory, frequently proffered by hip-hop stations that wanted to report to the top 40 chart, held that those who still saw top 40 as a mainstream variety format had missed a permanent 1956-style break with the past. The next generation of listeners wouldn’t be any more interested in mainstream pop music than Elvis Presley fans were in Doris Day records.

I root for a healthy R&B/hip-hop format as much as anybody. But for now, it’s hard to deny that hip-hop hasn’t been the only music that matters to any self-respecting 15-year-old for a while. The prophecy of hip-hop as the new pop didn’t play out as written, and when a massive mother/daughter coalition formed around more mainstream music around the time of Kelly Clarkson, many people stopped looking for a break with the past, which had always been pegged to an Elvis/Beatles/Doors-style provocation.

But a break with the past has taken place nonetheless. It may have started a decade or so ago. And if you didn’t notice, maybe you were enjoying it too much. Consider the following:

Top 40, mostly current- and recurrent-based, has its broadest coalition in the past 30 years and perhaps the last 50. After years of struggle to attract even a 26-year-old listener, it’s not unusual to see a successful top 40 station’s appeal sustain to at least age 45.

Country, once a 35-plus format believed to thrive only when parents hated today’s pop music, has become an all-ages format as well, also based mostly in recent music. The youth movement has caused grumbling at the upper end of the coalition, and spurred more industry talk about a potential ‘90s-based splinter, especially when group owner Cumulus announced that it would syndicate such a format. But when Cumulus’ WKHX (Kicks 101) Atlanta needed to make a change against a more contemporary rival, it went to an all-currents and recurrent country format.

Hot Adult Contemporary, once predicated on “the ‘80s, ‘90s, and today,” has become primarily currents and recurrents, and is more successful than it has been in years.

Mainstream Adult Contemporary hasn’t gone quite that far, and the format’s much-discussed modernization has had inconsistent results. But not that long after the format dropped its trademark ‘70s music, the ‘80s quickly went from center lane to spice as many stations became surprisingly bright and current. In San Diego, there is now an AC station [KYXY] playing songs at a Top 40-like pace of 90 times a week.

Alternative rock nearly disappeared as a major radio format. Then it rebounded as a ‘90s-based format with a smattering of currents. Now the format is experiencing its own break. Pearl Jam and Nirvana used to be unquestionably stronger than any of the available new music. Now, they’re on the verge of not even fitting with today’s more pop-flavored music.

Hip-hop/R&B is, ironically, the one format that has become less current over the last decade. There are many possible explanations for its ratings travails, but whether the less current stance is reflective of or causing the malaise, there’s no doubt that available recent music is an issue.

On the other hand, urban adult contemporary, once based in the ’70s and ‘80s, is newer than ever. And a new generation of radio programmers talks about music from those eras as if it as well might be the music before rock and roll.

Gold-based formats – classic rock and what used to be oldies, now “classic hits” – have hardly disappeared. The longtime oldies station is No. 1 in Los Angeles this month and its New York counterpart is customarily top three. But 45-year-old listeners may as easily be listening to their high-schoolers’ music as their high-school music.

And those stations once built around yesterday-and-today are inexorably getting dragged toward today. At those adult contemporary stations once built around the ‘70s, there is a core audience that likes what it’s always liked, and a secondary audience that has less old music in common with the format’s core than ever. Today’s hits unify all ages, while the music you grew up with is less likely to matter to the high-school class before or after yours.

New Music, No Longer An Exception

For years, top 40 and R&B/hip-hop were the only real headquarters for new music. In recent years, country and top 40 have become those tentpoles, while other once-gold-based formats have moved closer to top 40. The result is that formats based on recent music are no longer the exception. It looks different sociologically, but the yesterday/today break in music preference is perhaps more pronounced than it ever was.

This Elvis break involved artists who galvanized, rather than polarized, audiences – often briefly and in succession. Beyoncé, Maroon 5, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, Pink, the Black Eyed Peas, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Miley Cyrus have all gotten to be Elvis – a few of them twice – but none for very long. Few of those artists pitted teens against parents and were all the bigger for it as a result. Like Elvis, TV was often involved, but nobody cropped Miley’s gyrations from the hips up, and a year later it hardly seems like anybody was provoked, even briefly, by them.

The movement toward “now” involves a lot of music that sounds like older music, but it hasn’t created much of a halo effect for older music. I can hear the echoes of ‘60s R&B jazz in Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” but 16-year-olds are not rushing to discover Phil Upchurch or the Ramsey

Lewis Trio as a result. No surprise, since most of us who remember Bette Midler remaking “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in the ‘70s didn’t delve into the Andrew Sisters catalog as a result.

The break isn’t perfectly symmetrical. Somebody will read the above paragraph and cite all the 18-year-olds listening to classic rock. The break wasn’t perfectly symmetrical in 1956 either. The MOR holdover hits from artists like Doris Day and Patti Page continued for years. Nat King Cole managed hits until his death in the mid-‘60s and Frank Sinatra until the late ‘60s. Teens who like classic rock are a significant group, but there are fewer of them than middle-aged top 40 fans, and to some extent, the lack of generational upheaval is making it possible to occasionally enjoy what would have once been dismissed as your dad’s music.

And that doesn’t mean there’s no sociological component. Canada’s National Post recently reported how a baby boom was clogging schools in some places despite a declining birth rate. Although parents were opting for fewer children per capita, they were having them across a wider age span. Thus the phenomenon of being newly taken with your kids’ music is spread across a 25-year age range.

Hip-hop plays a role, too, although not the one expected of it. And not the same one from format to format. A hip-hop backlash among pop listeners was often credited for the Garth Brooks-era country boom of the ‘90s. Hip-hop-flavored country is credited for its rise now. At pop radio, there is a mere handful of songs from the ‘90s that endure with today’s listeners, and even Adult Contemporary fans are now heavily interested in music from the last 10 years. Hip-hop didn’t wipe out the demand for pop music, but it did provide a clean demarcation between yesterday and today.

Are Today’s Hits Too “Rude”?

Some readers will feel that there can’t be a musical break without rebellion. I’ve always liked veteran critic Dave Marsh’s theory that the history of rock was as much about reconciliation anyway. But if you insist, there has been a little industry concern about whether this summer’s crop of hits (“Fancy,” “Problem,” “Turn Down for What”) is as mass-appeal as those of the last few years. You could also note that Magic!’s “Rude,” the current No. 1 at top 40, is literally anti-parent. Or at least anti-potential-in-law.

There’s also EDM. For now, it’s the only thing that “the kids” seem to have to themselves. It is often talked about in the same way that hip-hop was in the early ‘90s, a phenomenon that takes place far beyond what’s on radio. Yet, now EDM’s toehold at top 40 starts in the top 5 (with Calvin Harris’ “Summer”) and extends to many of the secondary slots at top 40. Nobody at top 40 is quite sure that it has the same adult-appeal as other genres, but they’re still diving in enthusiastically. And so is Hot AC to some extent.

After years of overindulging in musical trends, top 40 radio tends to correct itself as soon as it sees them coming now. Remember when Lumineers, Phillip Phillips, and Mumford & Sons all

had hits at the same time? When there were three piano ballads all in power rotation at top 40 at once? Those trends were both in the last 18 months, but they barely apply now. These days, you can barely get the trend story written before the next trend starts.

If EDM, or some other extreme music, were to somehow diminish the adult appeal of top 40, there would still be country, or top 40’s other current-leaning derivatives. It would still likely be a while before listeners retreated from now into “then.” They’d have to stop caring about staying young and having something to discuss with their kids, for starters. There would still be a likely shared appetite for “now.” There would just be less excitement about it.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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