Ross On RadioInsight: From Kelly To Justin, And Gwen

Are The Acts Who Saved Top 40 Getting A Fair Shot?

In the early ‘00s, when Mainstream Top 40 was waiting out its last format doldrums, upstaged by Hip-Hop and Linkin Park, any act with a legitimate uptempo pop hit could grab the format spotlight pretty quickly. It was a big deal if more than one of these artists had hits simultaneously–CHR lived from hit to hit, the indigent friend trying to figure out whose couch or cash they hadn’t tapped out yet.

There was Kelly Clarkson, reluctantly acknowledged for “A Moment Like This,” but embraced for “Miss Independent.” And when Clarkson returned on the next project with “Since U Been Gone,” she supplied not just a steady flow of hits, but a format turning point.

There was Justin Timberlake, defying expectations with one surprisingly strong single after another, until there was “Rock Your Body.”

There was Pink, emerging from an early ‘00s field of Destiny’s Child sound-alikes with multiple legitimate hits—“Get The Party Started,” “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” “Just Like A Pill”—but quickly running into “Trouble” on her follow-up project.

There was Gwen Stefani, who also opened her first solo album with an off-putting single, “What You Waiting For.” But next came “Rich Girl” and “Hollaback Girl.” And at a time when Clarkson’s hits were also exploding in 2005, CHR finally seemed to have enough anchor stores for a mall. For better or worse, those were also the songs where CHR became an exporter, not an importer, of hits—creating its own poppified R&B and hip-hop.

All of those breakthrough moments are more than a decade ago now, but all those artists are still releasing product to mainstream top 40 today. And the very different receptions they get are telling.

Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song” prompted noticeably more enthusiasm from Adult Top 40 than Mainstream CHR. At the time, I commented that it was odd to see an artist who’d played such a key role in CHR’s resurgence not getting even the initial benefit of the doubt.

I wondered if that day was coming for Pink, earlier this year when “Today’s The Day” surfaced and was acknowledged, only fleetingly and only by Hot AC. But that song wasn’t a true referendum. “Just Like Fire” was, and at this writing, it is about to crack the top 15 and is just inside the top 10 fastest-growing songs. Its true potential is unknown thus far, but CHR is still giving Pink the chance to have a hit.

Then there was Stefani’s solo project. It began with a single that didn’t make the album (“Baby Don’t Lie”) followed by another song (“Spark the Fire”) that was never fully worked. When “This Is What The Truth Feels Like” finally surfaced, “Used to Love You” and “Make Me Like You” clawed their way to No. 20 and 23 respectively at Mainstream CHR. The third single, “Misery,” is going to Hot AC only for now.

What was interesting about Stefani’s project is the animosity it seemed to engender from some PDs and rival label people. It sometimes seemed as if the industry was annoyed at Stefani for even expecting to have hits at this point in her career. Stefani is more than a decade younger, but it wasn’t unlike the derision Madonna generates for even releasing new product these days.

Any artist with a decade of hits faces two challenges at CHR. One is losing the groove—no longer being able to make contemporary sounding records. That’s easier to avoid in today’s producer-driven world, but producers can lose the groove too. The other is when radio’s resistance has solidified to the point where it wouldn’t matter if you walked in to radio with “Uptown Funk” or “Happy”–or “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Madonna, famous for years for not losing the groove, has long reached that point.

I thought Justin Timberlake might be losing the groove. After redefining what hit music sounded like with “SexyBack,” he came back from a long hiatus more concerned with showing his maturity, or so it seemed. His one true recent hit, “Mirrors,” was a ballad. And while “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is more immediate, more calculated, and far more crowd-pleasing than “Take Back The Night,” it is still retro-flavored R&B, not a change in musical direction.

In his excellent analysis of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Chris Molanphy suggests that Timberlake knew the clock was running on his hitmaking career. But “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was a confirmed hit upon impact. Timberlake was never anywhere near the place where he wasn’t one hit away from renewed prominence, or where anybody would have begrudged him even trying.

So if Kelly, Gwen and Madonna face resistance, and Justin can strut back in with the leading Song of Summer 2016 candidate, is there gender bias? The answer is confounded because he did have “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and they didn’t. I will only say that the only male artist who I’ve ever heard generate the same “give it up already” type comments is Mick Jagger, and he was well into his 60s by that point.

Top 40 is in an unusual place now, not generating the enthusiasm it did a few years ago, but still at the top of the format heap, challenged only by country (which has its own issues). Top 40 needs hits these days, but it won’t always put in the work to find or nurture them. Both Clarkson (“Piece by Piece”) and Timberlake (“Drink You Away”) had potential TV-driven event records, but neither was fully accepted by CHR.

“Make Me Like You” was uptempo pop of the sort that No Doubt and Stefani reliably supplied in the decade or so between “Just A Girl” and “The Sweet Escape.” It could have filled the need for tempo and pop balance in today’s format. Clearly, it wasn’t the record that could blow a hole in top 40’s resistance. That will have to be the 2017 equivalent of “Hollaback Girl.” (If you’re interested, the cut on “Truth” that best captures that song’s audacity is “Red Flag.”)

Top 40 needs hits again. I still believe that its Class of ’03 artists are capable of supplying hits, and one hopes the format won’t be resistant for the wrong reasons. This is a format whose comeback has been built on the surprise acceptance of 35-to-44-year-old women, and they would probably be displeased to see an artist viewed with indifference or derision for being the same age as they are. No act is entitled to a hit song if they don’t have one, but genuine consideration is something else, if only in gratitude for all those nights spent crashing on their sofa.

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