It’s Where You Start, And Where You Finish
It remains one of the hottest, best-produced Country hits of the early ‘70s. When Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” hits the radio, as it did in late 1973, it sort of bounds on to the airwaves, already cooking along at the tempo of the rest of the song. That “Jolene” continues to build is because of Parton’s impassioned vocal, especially the haunted wail at the end.
Miley Cyrus has been covering “Jolene” for years, sometimes with Parton. But if you were previously unaware of her affection for the song, it’s quickly evident in “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” which became an immediate bright spot on pop radio late last week. (That Cyrus feels free to channel “Jolene” without naming Parton as a co-writer indicates the presence of a godmother clause.)
Self-described “sad banger” or not, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” brings some scarce energy to the format. Even so, the most dramatic difference between the new song and its inspiration is the intro. The new song launches slow, with an orchestral flourish. For that matter, Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” despite its clear mission to re-energize, begins slowly, before “picking it up, picking it up.”
For a long time, the up-tempo hit with a slow and/or acapella opener was an attention getting outlier: “I Will Survive”; “Carry On Wayward Son”; “Live And Let Die”; “Last Dance.” In recent years, however, as tempo drains from pop music in general, there’s a seeming prohibition against the hits coming in hot. Songs whose intended contribution to pop music right now is tempo — Silk City, “Electricity”; Five Seconds of Summer, “Youngblood” — saunter on to the radio in an apparent attempt to blend in with the ethereal mid-to-downtempo pop that surrounds them.
“Your tireless pursuit of tempo!” groaned an A&R friend during a recent e-mail exchange on today’s music. Bemoaning a lack of hot intros can easily take us back into the geekery of “perfect top-of-the-hour songs.” I’ll proceed cautiously, beginning with the caveat that a hot intro is hardly a requirement. The most-played Classic Hits of the moment are divided between hot openers (“Summer of ’69,” “Don’t You [Forget About Me],” “Always Something There To Remind Me,” “I Love Rock & Roll,” “You Give Love A Bad Name”) and more unassuming builds (“Jessie’s Girl,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “More Than a Feeling.”)
If your artist catalog is sufficiently deep and immortal, chances are it contains both types of intros. The contrast of the two enduring Bon Jovi hits is shared by Prince (“1999” and “Little Red Corvette”), Journey (“Any Way You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”); Michael Jackson (“Beat It” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” but also “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T. [Pretty Young Thing]”); and Abba (“Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo,” but also the change-up of “S.O.S.”).
In more recent examples, Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again” practically fades in, before building to become its generation’s “Any Way You Want It”; the next single, “All the Small Things,” barreled in. Those contrasts are part of why they put two hits together in the first place.
Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” arrived on the radio both ways — neither slow, but one version with sparse beats, and one with a dramatic keyboard blast. In either case, some of the excitement of the record — inarguably one of the best constructed hit singles of a great CHR moment — was that it quickly built momentum either way, going from hot to hotter.
The song that was most emblematic of Urban AC was, for a long time, Luther Vandross’ “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” medley, starting slow and acappella, and remaining stately. When new jack swing arrived in late 1987, it rebelled against the previous five years of R&B (which seemed pretty great then and now) with a crash of effects and jittery beats. Now, the most played gold title at Urban AC this week, not counting holiday songs, is Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” exactly that kind of statement from its first notes.
Not every record needs the attention-getting Martha & the Vandellas “Heatwave” intro that Motown became famous for in its heyday. Not every Motown record had one. But it’s sure faster to conjure those songs that have them from any genre than the songs that were the exceptions. Think of late-‘70s R&B and Disco — some of the songs that endured most were those that announced themselves most boldly: “Got to Be Real,” “Best of My Love,” “Le Freak,” even “Y.M.C.A.”
I could sort of understand the motivation that made the slow and/or cold start so unavoidable. As producers told Rolling Stone in an article on the lack of tempo, slow and brooding is more interesting to them. Another A&R friend describes how artists and producers are always looking to show dramatic range, especially in the streaming era. What might have been tension-and-release at the end of a song’s bridge is now tension-and-commence at the outset.
But like everything else once contrarian, the slow-build structure is an anti-cliché that has become a cliché. It’s not always attention-getting now; I like the finale of L.S.D., “Thunderclouds,” but if I hear it on the radio from the beginning, I might not get there. The slow starts on “No Tears” and “Nothing Breaks” work fine within the context of the songs. It just takes a few seconds longer for those songs to fix the rest of pop music’s problems. And many songs, of course, don’t fix pop music’s problems at all.
Most artists and producers are going to regard pop’s lack of tempo as neither their problem nor their opportunity until, of course, somebody fills it successfully. Niall Horan’s “On the Loose” was almost up-and-hot throughout (it still had some minor-key broodiness), but only almost a hit. And yet, some of what makes Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” welcome on the radio now is that it announces itself with a horn flourish and, if not quite up-tempo, proceeds with the right mixture of bounce and intensity. Great songs can start however they want. On great records, the artifice of a hot, attention-getting intro is nothing to be ashamed of, and of course we need both.