When Not to Like Music; When to Like It Again
I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like “You Light Up My Life.”
When I first encountered Debby Boone’s soon-to-be hit in the late summer of 1977, it was just sort of moody and interesting. It was of a piece with the similarly earnest “Just Remember I Love You” by Firefall or “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, and any of the other unavoidable MOR/pop of that era. There was also some excitement in seeing it break quickly — No. 1 in Houston in about three weeks’ time, then exploding everywhere else. Also, “You Light Up My Life,” the movie that accompanied it, was a nice little sleeper with some moments of genuine insight into the advertising business.
I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like Barry Manilow. “Mandy” was also just another pop ballad, and one of the jocks in my seventh-grade class was very excited to buy the promo copy that I’d somehow come across (for his girlfriend, Mandy). Then he followed it with tempo, “It’s a Miracle.” Only “I Write the Songs” was a harbinger of the upcoming wall of ballads, and even that was punctuated with quirky oddities: “Trying to Get the Feeling Again,” “This One’s for You.”
I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like New Kids on the Block. They were just one of a handful of New Edition-inspired groups in the mid-‘80s. Their first singles came through R&B radio, including the first release of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind),” which got extra points for being such a great song choice. When they did become phenomenal, they made Top 40 a more exciting place, for a while.
I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like Celine Dion. I had heard about her from Canadian friends, who knew her as a preternatural young talent. When I first met her at a Canadian music industry convention, she was already poised and charming, and I was ready to root for her. “Where Did My Heart Beat Now” didn’t do much for me, but neither did a lot of the other ballads of that era. And there was still “Misled” and “Unison,” which got extra A&R points for being a remake of an obscure Junior song.
And I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to like Nickelback. As “How You Remind Me” was breaking, a colleague interviewed Chad Kroeger and found him thoughtful and interesting, as well as a student of pop music, who pored over hit singles like “I Ran (So Far Away)” to dissect their structure. Nickelback was quickly accused of ripping off Pearl Jam or Creed, but neither of those were sacrosanct to me. And I thought “Photograph” was well-written — brutally honest if it was in any way autobiographical and really good storytelling if it wasn’t.
Sometimes, I knew when I was going to be at odds with the rest of the world — even if a song I liked was a hit. I knew instantly that “Mickey” was going to distance me from other people, if they weren’t among the two million who bought it. But bubblegum was different. The knives were often poised right away.
Ballads, on the other hand, are born credible, unless they’re at the “Friends and Lovers” by Gloria Loring & Carl Anderson level of syrupiness. Most people want to like them. I have often said that at the outset of the Soft Rock ‘70s that it was impossible to predict that balladeers Elton John, James Taylor, and Bread would end up in such different places. In 1970, they sat together in many LP collections.
“You Light Up My Life” was a rare case of an audience turning on an artist over the course of one song (and, with ten weesk on top, there was plenty of opportunity for that to happen). But for most artists who listeners eventually learned not to like, it was often too many hit ballads in succession. Always there was a later foray into a “bold new sound.” But by that time, it often didn’t matter.
I think about this every time a new crop of listeners aging into the AC or Classic Hits demos brings another body of once reviled music back into the mainstream. A few months ago, I observed that New Kids’ “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” was starting to surface again as a playable record for some AC stations, along with some of the other teen pop from its time. I can now say after a season of music testing that it’s not an across-the-board phenomenon. But two years ago, most PDs wouldn’t have even considered testing it.
I thought about it again a few days ago, hearing AC CHFI Toronto — hipper than most of its US counterparts in most ways — play “Photograph.” In the past, I might have lunged for the streaming audio player. I never disliked Nickelback on principle; if anything, the level of public derision had made me rally behind them again. But I had reached the point of permaburn with “How You Remind Me,” “Photograph,” “Far Away” and any other ballad.
So had much of the audience whose music preferences I survey for a living. As a research phenomenon, Nickelback long outlived the backlash. But in the late ‘00s, as “turbo-pop” took hold, a whole slew of minor-chord rockers, including Creed and Nickelback, suddenly stopped testing in most places. The audience wanted to be happy again. And I understood.
But I was too busy to turn off CHFI. “Photograph” continued to play — the long version (with the verse about the arcade burning down). It was still a good piece of songwriting. And I realized I was actually enjoying it. I haven’t come back around on some of the other artists mentioned here—beyond the few songs by each that I always liked. But I now think Nickelback will be back on pop radio at some point.
Doing it with new music will be a challenge. “Edge of a Revolution,” Nickelback’s 2014 Universal Republic debut single, was enthusiastically tipped to me by PDs for a few days before it landed. But even that excitement was short-lived. “Feed the Machine,” their current top 15 Active Rock single, is a hit title, but one of those “proving-they-can-still-rock” song of theirs I don’t much care for.
But, of course, there’s going to come a point where “Photograph,” “How You Remind Me,” and “Far Away” test positively with audiences again. I would be happy if they don’t rehabilitate Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” at the same time, but I can’t guarantee that. The only question will be whether PDs are willing to even give audiences the choice. But that’s this generation of programmers. The ones who associate “Photograph” with their own childhood memories are ascending the programming ranks now. And one day they will succeed the PDs who decided (correctly) that the New Kids were OK again.