The Good and ‘Bad’ Of Superstar Follow-Ups

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Adele is making it look easy this week, but, historically, it’s been kind of hard to be a superstar releasing a follow-up album. Artists have sold millions, yet remained in the shadow of previous albums that sold a few million copies more. After the 3.38 million sales of 25, nobody thinks matching or surpassing the 11.2 million-selling 21 is impossible now – people have stopped ending sentences with “because records just don’t sell like that anymore” – but everybody is watching.

I’ve been considering the superstar follow-up since last week when Slate/NPR contributor Chris Molanphy predicted in a Facebook thread that 25 would be the “ultimate front-loader.” Molanphy coined the “AC/DC Rule” several years ago about albums such as the band’s For Those About to Rock or Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, whose first-week success was primarily a fast-burning ratification of the strength of the previous album.

Thinking about it, it becomes evident that there are different types of follow-up projects. And by the end of its first sales week, a number of things seemed clear about 25:

Adele, despite the modesty of her release-week interviews, was never really in danger of being rendered irrelevant by her absence. “Hello” had already shown that. Besides, Adele was already known for defying current pop trends, not defining them. By contrast, Timberlake didn’t just wait too long for “Suit and Tie,” he also broke the promise of “Like I Love You” and “SexyBack” to deliver a jolt with each first single.

25 will have other hits. “When We Were Young,” “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” and “Water Under the Bridge” are already in rotation at a handful of stations, even in an era when radio is loath to deviate from label game plans and find its own hits.

It will not be George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Kelly Clarkson’s My December, or Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, the sort of ambitious but hard-to-like superstar indulgence that launches with built-in excitement, but quickly squanders the goodwill of the previous blockbuster.

It will not be For Those About to Rock. That album repeated the previous formula almost to the point of self-parody and didn’t contain a true radio hit. 25 is a phenomenon unto itself. It is not a follow-up and nothing but.

It probably won’t be Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling, the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown or Whitney Houston’s Whitney – the sort of late ‘70s/mid-‘80s multi-platinum, multi-hit follow-ups that were, nevertheless, almost instantly the soundtracks to backlash.

But it will not be Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or Prince’s Purple Rain — the commercial and artistic achievement that clearly eclipses the big hit album before it. Nothing on 25 goes to the different place that “Billie Jean” or “Go Your Own Way” did. Many of the songs are of a piece with 21, and nobody seems any less satisfied for it.

Depending on whether 25 surpasses the sales of 21, a better comparison might be Madonna’s True Blue or Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. The former didn’t outsell Like a Virgin; the latter actually outsold Control. Both were entirely satisfying extensions of the previous album; neither did anything to diminish the superstardom of either artist by the time her next project rolled around. And if a comparison to Miss Jackson seems in any way reductive, that’s because you’re thinking of her in 2004, not 1989.

The difference between 25 and any of those albums, of course, is that those records came from a time when there were several blockbusters every year, and when artists routinely put together two smash albums in a row. Without Appetite for Destruction or Hysteria or Like a Prayer on the next endcap, Rhythm Nation and its 8x-platinum sales might loom larger in your memory than I’m guessing they do now.

Those albums also came out just a few years too early for us to have their mega-sales reinforced on a daily basis by SoundScan. 25’s excitement is informed both by how much the music business needs this record, and how nice it is for an album to be a shared experience again.

The real magnitude of a follow-up album sometimes takes years to emerge. Sales don’t tell the whole story. Same with the mere number of hit singles, since Bad, Dancing on the Ceiling, and Whitney all had more chart hits than their predecessors. Superstar follow-ups were the sort most likely to provoke the “whatever it takes” strategy on behalf of label promo teams, especially in that “whatever it takes” era.

But how much enduring music an album contains is something else. Looking at radio play today is a usually unfair funhouse-mirror judgment on the strength of an album at the time, one that would make the first KC & the Sunshine Band album — never certified gold — more important than Dark Side of the Moon. But it is not irrelevant to award some bonus points if people are enjoying today an album considered to be overshadowed decades ago.

And based on that, I am willing to reconsider the ultimate follow-up, Michael Jackson’s Bad. As that album made its two-year way across the pop landscape, it already seemed like a faint echo of Thriller stylistically. During that time, Jackson’s personal eccentricities started to come to the fore. Music changed, even as Bad was racking up No. 1 hits. Rap and new jack swing made Jackson sound tame. “Welcome to the Jungle” made “Dirty Diana” sound lame.

The singles from Bad disappeared from the radio almost entirely. But so did the singles from Thriller in the decade preceding Jackson’s death. Only Urban AC radio kept the faith with Jackson in those years. But as somebody involved with radio’s testing of music, I saw some interesting things happen with the music from Bad once Jackson’s hits did return to the radio.

  • “The Way You Make Me Feel” emerged as a first-tier Jackson song, often on a par with the Thriller hits.
  • So did “Man in the Mirror,” the Bad single most unlike anything heard before from Jackson.
  • “Bad,” a composite of “Thriller” musically and “Beat It” lyrically, became a decent tester itself, and easier to program than the seven-minute “Thriller,” which always seemed out of place after Halloween anyway.
  • “Smooth Criminal” endured both through the original and Alien Ant Farm cover, which made it seem like more than a throwaway genre exercise.

So I’m starting to think of Bad as less of a disposable follow-up and more as just another hit album. Bad’s footprint looms at least as large now as Off the Wall, even if that seemed like a better, fresher album for having created Jackson’s solo superstardom in the first place. Even with the surprise durability of “Black and White” and “Remember the Time,” I can’t make that case for Dangerous, however. The other singles on that album did wear down Jackson’s good will at radio and push him into self-parody.

Jackson was taught in Motown’s musical finishing school, in which there was nothing wrong with more of a good thing. And when “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” gave way to the less winning iteration of “Lovely One,” he moved on and gave us “Billie Jean.” But at some point, he became unable to find a next musical act.

25’s place in history is set. Adele’s career trajectory will depend on how the singles from 25 (and 21) endure (which looks pretty good from here) and what she decides to do next time out. And the next time. For now, I’m confident in both of the following statements. 1) There will come a time when another new stately piano ballad from Adele about confronting your ex is not a sure thing anymore. 2) That won’t be any time soon.

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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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