The Novelty Is Wearing Off, And That’s Good
We forget it now, but there was a time, even 6-8 years ago, when anything from the pop side of the new-wave ‘80s was inherently considered goofy by some programmers.
The guitar rock side of the genre—U2, Clash, Police, David Bowie, even Billy Idol—belonged in the same canon as Dire Straits, Bryan Adams, and John Mellencamp, which radio programmers clearly considered to be the elevated plane.
When it came to new-wave pop, an entire robust genre was somehow remembered as a collection of novelty throwaways. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” might have been a little quirky. “Take On Me” had no whiff of novelty. It didn’t matter, PDs remembered them both as if they were “Putting On The Ritz” by Taco.
In that era, ‘80s pop/rock and ‘80s new wave pop were two distinctly different genres for both program directors and even in listener research. Play even “Tainted Love” and you had to position it as a “guilty pleasure.” Think about the words “Europop” or “synthesizers,” and the adjective most often heard used to modify them was “cheesy.”
As time passed, and the Oldies/Classic Hits format moved further toward being the Adult Hits format of stations like Jack- and Bob-FM, the distinction evaporated. These days, it’s common to see ‘80s MTV new wave/pop actually testing as well or, often, better than early ‘80s pop/rock, partially because “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” wasn’t overplayed at quite the same clip as “Summer of ’69.”
So saying that the novelty is wearing off doesn’t mean that people lost interest in hearing those songs after the first few times. On the contrary, songs that once seemed ephemeral lost the stigma of being novelty or goofy. And ‘80s new wave pop isn’t the only place where it happened.
There was a time when Madonna’s “Material Girl” was a novelty blemish on her catalog—a song we somehow allowed to become a hit only on the career-making heels of “Like A Virgin.” Now, it’s the fifth most played Madonna at Classic Hits (which means hundreds of spins a week).
A few years ago, both Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” began to test. The latter, by a goofier band and with its references to “Animal House,” once seemed inherently more novelty. Both songs were once considered schlocky. Now both are merely anthemic.
We’d already been through it. When ‘70s disco returned to the radio at Classic Hits and AC, two of the era’s most derided hits, “Play That Funky Music” and “That’s The Way (I Like It),” became two of its most enduring. They only left AC when PDs decided not to play the ‘70s anymore. When they did, the last vestige of ‘70s soft pop to stick around was “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
I’ve had a lot of cause to think about this lately, both because I’m working with an all-‘90s station, and because I’m starting to see more hits from that era, from New Kids on the Block to Spice Girls to ‘N Sync, become playable songs again in radio station research.
“Lovefool,” “Mambo No. 5,” and “Tubthumping” have all been songs that test in several formats for a while. But PDs react to them differently. “Tubthumping” in particular has been hard for some programmers to get past—even if they have no problem with the other two. To me, it’s merely anthemic in the same way as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” But what about “Your Woman” by White Town? Because that one is Taco.
It’s not news to regular readers of this column that songs or artists come out of the penalty box. But each song that returns to the airwaves compels some programmer, somewhere, to ask the question, “Would I play this again under any circumstances?” When they do, the taint of “novelty song” is definitely part of the equation. But I’m starting to wonder if that distinction matters anymore.
It was once clear cut. Around 1973-74, a few CHR PDs (especially those who ran the syndicated “Dr. Demento” show) began using the novelty records of a decade earlier as secret weapons. At least a few re-charted. But no matter how many generations succumbed to it, there was no doubt at the end that “Monster Mash” was a novelty, not to be kept in the gold library, except for Halloween.
Fifteen years later, a new generation of similarly inclined programmers also went back to the golden graveyard, except this time the paradigm was reversed. The hits of the late ‘80s were galvanizing enough—hair bands and the first wave of crossover rap and hip-hop inflected R&B. The songs that came back were often AC ballads—“Into the Night” and “When I’m With You.”
It was during that era that you stopped hearing the term “novelty record” and started hearing the term “reaction record” and the distinction between goofy and merely galvanizing began to fade. In the early ‘70s and late ‘80s, CHR programming became itself analogous to a novelty hit. Broadcasters enjoyed it at the time; afterwards, they felt it had been bad for the format. There was never a question of playing New Kids on the Block again when New Kids was programmer shorthand for what they thought had gone wrong in 1990.
But now consider the early 2000s when Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” began to show up in CHR gold libraries again. It was humorous. It was musically abrasive—the Hip-Hop equivalent to Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl,” another song that wouldn’t have fit on Top 40 radio, had it not been funny. It was everything that makes a novelty record. And yet, “Baby Got Back” somehow became a song for the ages, despite having been a hit at CHR radio’s most confused moment.
And by the end of the ‘90s, the “songs that tanked the format” argument had been deflated by the artists that saved CHR radio—Hanson and Spice Girls. Were New Kids on the Block really a problem, if Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync represented a subsequent golden era? “This Is How We Do It” and “No Diggity” were never novelties. Now they’re universal. Today’s generation of listeners has no idea what a previous generation of PDs were so hung-up about.
In fact, there’s a lot from the ‘90s, particularly the Modern AC/Triple-A crossovers that spanned the decade, that are, if anything, far too sober. (Consider “Last Kiss,” one of the early ‘60s goofs revived by Top 40 in the early ‘70s, brought back in the ‘90s by Pearl Jam with great solemnity.) The ‘90s are less exciting when your palate is only “I’ll Be” by Edwin McCain or “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan.
Not surprisingly, when PDs were only willing to consider those songs, the ‘90s were considered to hold little interest to listeners twenty years later. Once PDs were more willing to delve into ‘90s reaction records, listeners started to react. Only another five years will prove it. But I’m starting to think the day is coming when “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls won’t be considered any more novelty/goofy than “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” at least not to the generation that made it a hit. Or to subsequent generations that just view “Wannabe” as a fun party song, and don’t know they’re not supposed to like it.