The Ultimate Fad Format

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As Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae-Nae)” wraps up its phenomenal summer, there is still no second single available from him. In fact, on iTunes, there is no second song—the only representation being a five song EP with five different mixes of “Watch Me.”

In its purest form, “Watch Me” is the sort of song that remains a category of one for several years at a time: the hip-hop novelty that line-dances its way into pop culture. The most obvious reference is “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” eight years ago, or “Teach Me How To Dougie,” but V.I.C.’s “Wobble” made its way to summer camp and bar mitzvahs as well a few years ago, even without being a traditional radio hit.

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago when iHeartRadio’s monthly “Data Download” blog reported that “Watch Me” had been their top starter song for the month of July. Sometimes a transcendent song or artist will suggest multiple paths for customized radio. You could have gone in a variety of directions with “Adele Radio” from current hits to retro R&B pop (although that’s a bigger category now) to any “after-dinner music.” But what would a “’Watch Me’ Radio” listener expect? Had a dance fad given us the ultimate fad format?

That anybody would launch “’Watch Me’ Radio” to begin with confirms that song-driven streams are now the unit of currency, even on iHeartRadio or Pandora, where intended usage is different. Unlike Spotify, iHR and Pandora’s compulsory licenses don’t let you start with a given song. But after years of YouTube and now Spotify training, users are likely inclined to type the song they want now, regardless of available catalog or whether they can hear it right away. It’s one more way that the distinction between the listener’s collection and a programmed “radio” station has worn down. Then I went to iHeart’s “’Watch Me’ Radio,” curious about just what it would play for me. I tried the same exercise for Pandora and for Rdio, whose different license conditions meant that you can hear “Watch Me” first.

Nobody played Soulja Boy or Cali Swag District. None of the services drew a blank, even though Rdio actually did play me two different mixes of “Watch Me” about 35-40 minutes apart. Nobody gave me an all-purpose party songs station, although that’s probably the context in which a lot of listeners know the Silentó song.

The Rdio version was closer to the current rhythmic top 40 format. The iHeart version was more urban, recognizing “Watch Me” as the most mass-appeal distillation to date of the slow, sparse hip-hop that has come out of Atlanta for more than a decade. Pandora’s version was somewhere in between. No version was purely urban (which is to say “only songs that urban radio would play now”). All three featured Fetty Wap, whose “Trap Queen” had been as unlikely a summer pop hit as “Watch Me.”

The various stations (full monitors below) were instructive in a few ways:

They underscored the extent to which Hip-Hop and R&B have returned to the pop radio mainstream, which is to say tentatively, but noticeably compared to 18 months ago. Even 18 months ago, with the success of “All Of Me” and “Happy,” we were at a place comparable to the early ‘80s where only the poppiest R&B – Diana Ross, Pointer Sisters, James Ingram – could cross over. “Trap Queen” feels like a throwback to the early ‘00s to me, but it’s not “Just Once.”

At various times in the last five years, I’ve felt that R&B radio was suffering from a lack of tempo. Usher, Chris Brown and Rihanna were making dance records directly for top 40, thus sealing off some of the opportunities for a medium-weight uptempo record to emerge. But after giving top 40 what it wants for two singles, the Weeknd is now scaling the format just as quickly with “The Hills,” the type of hit he’s been having at urban radio for years without top 40 attention. I’d still like a nice, bouncy “Too Close” or “Family Affair,” but R&B and Hip-Hop is closer to being accepted on its own terms.

That’s because the other thing you notice listening to “’Watch Me’ Radio” is how many other hip-hop and R&B songs and artists came to radio as digital-age phenomena. “Watch Me” might not be a format unto itself, but Silentó’, Fetty Wap, Bobby Shmurda, OT Genasis, Sage the Gemini, and T-Wayne might be. The early ‘90s hip-hop record that sold without airplay has finally been replaced by the song that gets streams and Shazam detections with minimal airplay, metrics that top 40 pays attention to. This was predicted two years ago when Nielsen BDSRadio first began offering streaming data. But it seems less like wishful thinking now.

Here’s where “Watch Me” takes you on three different streaming services:

iHeart Radio:

Fetty Wap, “679”
Rae Sremmurd, “This Could Be Us”
OT Genasis, “CoCo”
Sage The Gemini, “Good Thing”
K Camp, “Comfortable”
Mike Will Made It, “23”
B.O.B., “Airplanes”
Migos, “One Time”
Future f/Drake, “Where Ya At”
Dej Loaf, “Try Me”

Pandora Radio:

Wiz Khalifa f/Charlie Puth, “See You Again”
T-Wayne, “Nasty Freeestyle”
YG, “My Hitta”
Big Sean, “I Don’t F**k With You”
Natalie Larose f/Jeremih, “Somebody”
Jidenna, “Classic Man”
Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
Chris Brown x Tyga, “Ayo”
Beyonce, “7/11”
Silento, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae-Nae)”
Fetty Wap, “My Way”

Rdio:

Silento, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae-Nae)”
Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”
The Weeknd, “The Party and the After Party”
Flo Rida, “GDFR”
T-Wayne, “Nasty Freestyle”
Jason Derulo, “Trumpets”
Omi, “Cheerleader” (the reggae original)
Rae Sremmund, “No Type”
DJ Snake & AlunaGeorge, “You Know You Like It”
Selena Gomez, “Slow Down”
Silento, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae-Nae) (Dance Remix)”

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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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