Radio and the Rock Hall Nominees Make Music Fans “So Emotional”
The acts that are nominated for (and ultimately elected to) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are as much a reflection of the RRHOF process itself as any true place in an individual’s own rock and roll firmament — something made clear by the discussions that ensue when the nominees are unveiled each year. It’s a funhouse mirror. And so is radio.
Regular Ross on Radio readers know that I take ongoing fascination from the songs that programmers and listeners continue to ratify as part of radio’s gold libraries. Even the most enduring acts have robust catalogs that are pruned down to a relative few songs. There is a book’s worth of examples, and those are likely to be upended again by the rise of streaming, but for now, I can just turn to my old favorite about KC & the Sunshine Band having more enduring radio songs for much of the last decade than Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin.
Personally, I’d like to hear more depth at radio from all three acts. For some readers, it will be more of an either/or thing. Because music is so personal to the individual, radio used to be in the crosshairs for any deviation from a listener’s own tastes, and a few of the artists in this year’s RRHOF nominations figured prominently over the years in many a critical assessment that “radio sucks because they don’t play enough [insert neglected artist here].” As the RRHOF strives to become more broadly reflective of the canon and popular taste, you can now count on a certain number of acts every year who were also perennials in the same person’s “ … because radio is too busy playing [insert critically reviled mainstream artist here] instead” complaints over the years.
The advent of satellite radio and streaming meant that mainstream commercial broadcast radio finds itself pilloried less often for what it didn’t play, although the bad news is that radio’s gatekeeping power is no longer substantial enough to infuriate people. But the RRHOF nominations are an easy, once-a-year flashpoint for the dorm-room discussions about the value of various artists (and the people who have the audacity to like them) to emerge anew.
Here are the 2020 nominees with a quick look at their place in radio through the years, and today. The Nielsen BDSRadio spins quoted measure all the U.S. and Canada airplay logged for a song over the past seven days. In each case, those numbers are probably inflated a little because of spins given to an act as a result of the nomination, but they still give an idea of each act’s relative presence at radio.
Pat Benatar – From late 1979 until 1986, a consistent and consistently good provider of radio records. To some extent, early ‘80s pop/rock is starting to fade as the late ‘80s take center stage, but thanks to “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Love Is A Battlefield,” and “We Belong,” she’s still a regular radio presence. “Hit Me” is the airplay leader with 2,300 BDS spins this week (with Canadian spins included, it also helps that the song, written by a Canadian, is stealth Cancon).
Dave Matthews Band – When they emerged, rootsy pop/rock still had a presence at Alternative radio and was also a calling card for a resurgent Top 40, at least until teen pop and rhythmic pop reasserted themselves. As Alternative went through the Jewel/Tool split, DMB became a core act for the emerging Modern AC format. Now they exist in the space between formats, moving into their “modern-day Grateful Dead” status as a band whose touring base is set for the next 30 years but with less of a path at radio. Most enduring: “Crash Into Me” with 177 BDS spins.
Depeche Mode – In the UK, they were consistent pop hitmakers. In the U.S., they finally managed a hit with “People Are People,” then disappeared from pop radio for a while, although they were certainly a core act (along with New Order, the Cure, and the Smiths) for the Alternative radio that did exist in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Then “Violator” made them a multi-format presence for a year during that late-‘80s/early-‘90s time that is becoming a sweet spot for Classic Hits radio. “Just Can’t Get Enough” is also a song with far more American radio presence than it had as a current. Ultimately, I believe they will be remembered as a Classic Rock band in the same way the Talking Heads now are. Anywhere else in the world (especially with non-English-speaking audiences), they already are. Most played: “Enjoy the Silence,” 594 spins.
Doobie Brothers – Like a lot of pop/rock acts of the ‘70s, the Doobies were always a radio presence, but every song was not a pop radio smash. Their first radio streak yielded “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Running,” “China Grove,” and “Black Water”—songs that only faded as stations moved on from the early ‘70s. In their second era, “What a Fool Believes” was never a “Carry On Wayward Son” or “Blinded by the Light,” but has enjoyed a double resurgence from the rise of “yacht rock” and the emergence of “The Breeze” stations and other Soft AC outlets. Most played: “Listen to the Music,” 562 spins.
Whitney Houston – Her radio heyday lasted 12-13 years and her radio career morphed often. Her second album provided her most enduring gold title (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody [Who Loves Me]”), followed up by the unflattering “Didn’t We (Almost Have It All),” which showed how good Arista was at getting No. 1 singles by sheer willpower. Then, “I Will Always Love You” and the other singles from The Bodyguard gave pop radio something to hold on to at a difficult time, and now they too are in the sweet spot, thanks to Soft AC and renewed focus on the early ‘90s. Plus she’s back on the radio thanks to the Kygo reworking of her version of “Higher Love.” (That’s also her most played song at the moment with 5,287 spins; “I Wanna Dance” has 1,379.)
Houston is the artist who has generated the most “not rock” grumbling since her nomination, and, as such, crystalized every debate about the nominating process and what the RRHOF should be. Personally, what I want to see at this year’s RRHOF ceremony is both Houston and Chaka Khan & Rufus inducted. For the final solo number, Khan will sing the song recorded by both artists, “I’m Every Woman,” then flip Houston’s shout-out at the fade-out to namecheck Whitney. Then the all-star jam can be a medley of “I Wanna Dance” and “Tell Me Something Good.” I’m glad we had this little talk.
Judas Priest – Their signature songs (“Living After Midnight,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) always had some presence at early ‘80s AOR radio, where part of their franchise was rocking even harder than Ozzy Osbourne (at the time, one of the format’s core artists). They never had the crossover hit that might have given them the growing Classic Hits/Classic Rock presence of, say, the Scorpions, but they’ve also gotten some help from the reconfiguring of some Active Rock stations as harder Classic Rock outlets. “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” is the most-played BDS song with 434 spins.
Kraftwerk – Their airplay was patchy at the time. “Autobahn” was a 1975 Top 40 oddity that would exist on the same plane with “Black Superman (Muhammed Ali),” if it weren’t for what came later. (I like both, by the way.) “Trans Europe Express” and “Numbers” were the R&B hits that became part of the Hip-Hop landscape. I definitely remember “Trans Europe Express” as an odd, spectral presence on WOL Washington, D.C. in 1977. Now, it’s their most played song at radio with all of eight BDS spins.
MC5 – “Kick Out the Jams” went to No. 2 at Detroit’s Top 40 CKLW and WKNR, and they emerged just as progressive rock radio in Detroit was doing the same. They were never a radio band anywhere else. If anything, their footprint may be larger now because of Dave Marsh’s weekly “Kick Out the Jams” show on SiriusXM’s The Spectrum. “Kick Out the Jams” got six BDS spins this week, and I’m guessing that even those are because of the nomination itself.
Motorhead – Ross on Radio readers may remember individual AORs that played them. I don’t remember them having much of a U.S. radio footprint at all, even compared to Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. But “Ace of Spades” got 76 BDS spins this week. Their top two markets include hard-rock stronghold Salt Lake City and nearby Boise.
Nine Inch Nails – As the most mainstream distillation of industrial rock, they became an Alternative mainstay in the mid-‘90s with a signature song that, even with lyrics obscured, pushed radio’s boundaries. (I remember one prominent Alternative GM saying post-Janet Jackson/Super Bowl incident that he’d finally had to pull “Closer” because of new scrutiny.) Setting aside their recent “Old Town Road” to CHR airplay, they have a continued home both at Alternative and at an Active Rock format where ‘90s Alternative plays a prominent role. “Closer” got 546 BDS spins this week.
The Notorious B.I.G. – The hits from “Ready to Die” existed mostly at R&B radio, just as Hip-Hop’s presence was finally exploding at the format, and were certainly part of the excitement when WQHT (Hot 97) New York segued to Hip-Hop. When “Life After Death” came out, “Hypnotize” was a pop hit in Canada (where there was no R&B radio), but not here, because Mainstream CHR was still resisting Hip-Hop crossovers. That changed with “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Then in the mid-‘00s, his gold titles became pop-radio staples, something that lasted until the throwback Hip-Hop/R&B format emerged with him as the core artist. “Mo Money Mo Problems” is the BDS spin leader this week with 654 spins.
Rufus & Chaka Khan – Chaka Khan often figures into my own personal “radio should play more” calculations. Like a lot of their peers at the time, Rufus was a consistent R&B hitmaker from whom CHR cherrypicked a few titles. Their most enduring multi-format hit, “Ain’t Nobody,” came from a one-off reunion project and it is often miscredited as a Khan solo project, just as “Lady Marmalade” is often misattributed to a solo Patti Labelle. With both “Sweet Thing” and “I’m Every Woman” splitting their spins with more recent versions by Mary J. Blige and Houston respectively, “Ain’t Nobody” got 247 BDS spins this week — the most of any Rufus or Chaka solo title.
Todd Rundgren – Like Kraftwerk, an admired act with an extensive body of work that occasionally came into radio’s orbit, primarily with “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me.” (Which is too bad, because “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and “You Cried Wolf” are perfect radio singles that never got to be radio hits.) Rundgren is the kind of artist for whom satellite radio is most vital; find him on SiriusXM’s ‘70s on 7, the Bridge, the Spectrum, and others. He is now most represented at broadcast radio by 1983’s “Bang the Drum All Day” (83 spins), one of those songs that didn’t become a full-fledged hit at the time, but will linger forever at radio as long as 5 p.m. Friday rolls around.
Soundgarden – Nirvana and Pearl Jam retain dual citizenship at Alternative and Active Rock. Alice in Chains has largely accrued to the latter, as grunge becomes a core sound there. Soundgarden has been somewhere in the middle, but “Black Hole Sun” has enough airplay between the two (and now some Classic Rock stations) to sport 1,540 BDS spins this week. Even the next track, “Spoonman,” has 654.
T. Rex – In England, a consistent hitmaker and great singles act whose “Hot Love” became as much of a Classic Hits staple over the years as “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” In the U.S., a one-hit wonder whose song endured as one of the most perfect radio records of all time, but hasn’t outlasted the erosion of the early ‘70s at broadcast radio. “Bang a Gong” got 310 BDS spins this week.
Thin Lizzy – Another perfect radio record. Another American one-hit wonder, although Metallica expanded their influence decades later by remaking “Whiskey in the Jar.” “The Boys Are Back in Town” remains a Classic Rock staple (and endures to a lesser extent at Classic Hits) with 890 spins this week. Even “Jailbreak” got 99 spins in the week of the nomination.