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After Years of Superstar DJs, a Return to Dance Music?

103.5 KTU WKTU Lake Success New YorkDuring the worst of the early ‘90s Top 40 doldrums — when Alternative and Hip-Hop/R&B had all the good records and CHR owned nothing — pop/Eurodance hits were among the best of what the format had, even if they were a relative trickle: “Rhythm Is a Dancer,” “What Is Love,” “More and More,” “Another Night.”

Then the current incarnation of WKTU New York launched in 1996 and dance/pop was no longer one hit every nine months, especially when WHTZ (Z100) returned to CHR a year later. Dance was a major part of CHR’s revival and stayed that way for a few years, until Hip-Hop/R&B began to cross over again and suddenly dance was no longer required to supply rhythmic music to the format.

Nearly two decades later, it’s easy to see that the two genres were supplying entirely different things and shouldn’t have been a zero-sum issue. The early 2000s were a fertile time for dance, but it was heard primarily on a handful of “pure dance” stations. In 2003, the year’s most played songs on WKTU were Wide Life’s “I Don’t Want You,” Reina’s “No One’s Gonna Change You,” Whitney Houston’s “Try it on My Own,” and Lasgo’s “Something.” Only the latter made it to Z100’s top 40 (at No. 33).

For much of the ‘00s, WKTU downplayed currents for Classic Dance. Around 2009, it segued back to a more current-based format to block WNOW (Now 92.3). By that time, pop music was danceable again. It came from major labels and mainstream producers, then it came from superstar DJ/producers, but it was prevalent enough and supplying enough energy to CHR that I remember writing at the time that a true dance music format would be hard, because Mainstream CHR was practically that.

When CHR lost its tempo and energy in the mid-‘10s, it was an inside job, led by superstar DJs themselves, more interested in experimenting with trap pop or at least something more ethereal and less energetic. For the last few years, it’s been an odd feeling to look at a chart with so many contributions from the Chainsmokers, Diplo, Zedd, and Marshmello, and still somehow feel so often like there was, somehow, no dance music, except when Calvin Harris released something.

So seeing Kygo & Whitney Houston’s “Higher Love” in power at WKTU has been intriguing in a few ways. One has been seeing it radiate from WKTU over the course last of few months throughout the Northeast — across the market to Z100, WNEW, and WLTW, but also to Long Island, New Haven/Hartford, Providence, then Boston, and similarly up and across Upstate New York. Where one station in a market plays it, others likely follow. You would have expected WXKS-FM (Kiss 108) to pick it up from adjacent markets; instead, it was surrounded first by CHR WODS and Hot AC Mix 104.1.

The other gratifying aspect of “Higher Love” has been having WKTU break a dance record to begin with. Maybe it would be fairer of me to lump Kygo & Whitney with the other chop-driven dense mid-tempo songs I don’t like, but its bounciness, familiarity, and the presence of Whitney make it feel different to me. (For better or worse, in markets where “Higher Love” hasn’t broken, there are clearly a lot of PDs who view it as somehow too adult and not of a piece with what they already play.)

Last Tuesday, WKTU added Loud Luxury’s “I’m Not Alright.” That song is already in the mid-40s at Mainstream CHR. WBLI Long Island, N.Y., is playing it, too, but Z100 isn’t yet. It’s not what WKTU used to do, but it’s also different from the recurrent CHR WKTU has been doing recently, sharing most of its current music with Z100 (save for a few Latin crossovers) and distinguishing itself through library titles.

Less than a year ago, CHR was unlistenable. It’s better now because of Lizzo, Billie Eilish, the return of the Jonas Brothers, a more up-tempo Post Malone, a friendlier Taylor Swift project, and the willingness to acknowledge Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes (or any combination thereof), with more than one song. But CHR isn’t fixed. It would benefit now from Dance crossovers (and, lest anybody think I’m suggesting it at the expense of anything, hits from Hip-Hop, Alternative, and everywhere else).

Dance acts, so seemingly ubiquitous for a while, are barely represented and not by dance songs — Marshmello & Kane Brown, Diplo & the Jonas Brothers, Illenium & Jon Bellion. After “I’m Not Alright,” the most danceable song in ascent at CHR is Tones & I’s “Dance Monkey,” which started here (as it did in Australia) as an Alternative record, even though it’s really none of the above.

Only a few of the songs currently on the Dance chart have had even a dalliance with CHR — Kaskade & Meghan Trainor, Chainsmokers & Illenium, Sam Feldt. But there are candidates. Joel Corry’s “Sorry,” already a top 10 airplay hit in the U.K. Riton & Oliver Heldon’s “Turn Me On,” with its samples from Yazoo and First Choice. Regard’s “Ride It,” which has the pedigree that CHR looks for — Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits and Tik Tok. WPXY Rochester, N.Y., which has been searching out reaction records for the last few years, has already found it.

CKOI Montreal is an odd mix of dance, Modern AC, Franco Pop, and gold, influenced by odd regulations that govern French-speaking Canadian radio. But dance music was a large part of what made it so much more palatable than its American counterparts a year ago. Dance music never really goes away in Montreal — it didn’t in the early ‘80s, either. It should always be a part of pop music in New York, too. And beyond.

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  1. jimib says

    One reason for CHR’s lack of listenability is the hamstringing of the disc jockeys, denying them freedom of personality, creativity, limiting their time spent educating the audience about the music along the way during their talk breaks and stop sets.

  2. Sean Ross says

    John Parker is a dance music A&R and promotion veteran who wrote the lengthy, well-considered response to this column that I hoped for, but published it on Facebook. He’s given me permission to summarize it here.

    “EDM has done a great job of keeping Dance music alive but lately, listening to a lot of the songs from the big producers is like listening to a ’70s AOR or Hot AC station. The songs are good but I wouldn’t really call them ‘dance’ music.

    “The vibe out now works for the kids of today, or does it? I’m hearing about declining interest … and that is worrisome for someone who has made his living in this business since the mid-’80s. The songs of today don’t have that staying power. You aren’t going to know what they are 5, 10 or 30 years from now. Why? Because they are passive. Music that lasts make you want to shake your ass . . .

    “This weekend I was once again at a Freestyle show in a packed venue. Songs that are 30 plus years old and people going crazy like they just came out today. Why? Those songs bring back memories of great times. Once again, involving passion, movement and a gathering of a tribe that has something that binds them. When I signed Rockell in 1996, Freestyle was dead. We brought it back with a great artist, great songs and passion.”

    “Today’s dance songs are here and gone quickly. It’s mostly made so that the acts have something to do shows behind and for today’s youth that moves from trend to trend as quickly. There is no sustainability in that. The chances of having classic songs made when one is pumping songs out like a factory is slim. I’d like to see more songs made for the mainstream audience that gets dance music.

    “Dance music needs strong artists, blood pumping songs and most of all to put the excitement back into the genre to get the 18 to 50 year old women back into the game. Let’s bring that back and give CHR something that once people hear it, they want to hear it 1,000 more times. I wish I thought we were closer to that, but we have a long way to go to get there. But stay tuned.”

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