By April 5, 1997, you could already tell that Mainstream Top 40 music was headed for a really good year. New Year’s Day found “Don’t Speak,” the song that turned No Doubt from quirky to core artist, perched at No. 1. A few weeks later, the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” easily the bubblegummiest Top 40 hit in many years, exploded. By this week in 1997, it was perched in the top five with “Lovefool” by the Cardigans and “I Want You” by Savage Garden, while Hanson’s “Mmmbop” was racing into the top 30. Suddenly, a format that had been grateful for any true uptempo hit for much of the last decade had them in abundance.
At the outset of 1997, most group operators probably would have chosen Modern AC, which was, in many cases, able to double as the market’s Top 40. By year’s end, Top 40 was suddenly a serious player in many markets
And that was just April. Still in the wings was Robyn’s “Do You Know (What It Takes)” (coming a few weeks later in early May), Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” (late May), the Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (June), Will Smith’s “Men In Black” (late June), Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” (July), Matchbox 20’s “Push” (late July), and Sugar Ray’s “Fly” (August). And in the last days of the year, Top 40 stations would start playing another teen act–‘N Sync’s “I Want You Back.”
By then, 1997 was clearly the best year for Mainstream Top 40 music since its hot streak in the early ’80s. It was a year in which the format accommodated Ginuwine, Dave Matthews Band, Jewel, Monica, the Verve Pipe, Paula Cole, R. Kelly, Bruce Springsteen, and LeAnn Rimes. It was the year of Blackstreet and White Town. It was a year of great one-shot artists and hitmakers like Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake that endure today. It was the year Top 40 came in to its own again.
Top 40 had not been entirely without music of its own for the past few years–the success of “Macarena” and the Real McCoy/LaBouche string of Euro-dance hits had already given the format a beachhead. And not all of the songs that made 1997 great were actually hits that Top 40 owned. In the first week of April 1997, the label strategy was still to start records at any format other than Top 40 whenever possible, which is how “Mmmbop” ended up being worked to Alternative first (although it found few takers).
But that would change over the course of 1997, and so would the status of Top 40 itself. For most of the decade, many markets had been without a true Top 40. By 1997, the format was starting to repopulate itself, but the format was still viewed as a niche format for the kids–something that group owners could do only on that fourth market signal that had been made possible by the passage of the Telecommunications Act a year earlier. At the outset of 1997, most group operators probably would have chosen Modern AC, which was, in many cases, able to double as the market’s Top 40. By year’s end, Top 40 was suddenly a serious player in many markets and Modern AC no longer had boxcar numbers from pulling double duty.
At the same time, many of the stations that began 1997 as quasi-Hot ACs themselves became more comfortable as true Top 40s playing reaction records from all genres. In that regard, 1997 was a transition year much like 1982, which began with AC holdover hits like ’65 Love Affair” and “Rosanna,” but quickly gave way to “Tainted Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Jack and Diane.” AC and Modern AC endured throughout 1997, which ended with another fast breaking hit, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” but there was nothing particularly onerous about “Foolish Game” or “Un-Break My Heart” in a year in which they were merely part of a balanced musical diet.
In balancing the format so well, Top 40 PDs had the wisdom of nearly a decade of format flux at those Top 40 stations that did not abandon the format altogether. Programmers had seen the focus of the format switch from Rhythm to Hot AC to Alternative to Dance, not to mention the few years in which the audience was listening to Country, not Top 40 in the first place, and finally understood the whipsaw effect that so many fluctuations had on the audience.
Over the course of 1997, Top 40 PDs also came to grips with playing Hip-Hop and R&B again. In April, there was still resistance. The No. 1 Urban song that week, S.W.V.’s “Can We,” an early Timbaland/Missy collaboration, was never even worked to Top 40. Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” also went Top 10 at R&B without pop airplay. It would take “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” later that year, as well as Puff Daddy’s Biggie tribute, “I’ll Be Missing You” for the barriers to finally give way. (Then again, Urban radio was still relatively conservative, too. The only other Rap record in its Top 10 this week, besides “Hypnotize” was “Big Daddy” by the artist then known as Hev-D.)
But if Top 40 PDs had worried that playing Hip-Hop was going to again send pop fans to Country, they needn’t have worried. Country was having its own issues, having made a decision several years earlier to protect its upper-end. Of the three younger-appeal acts the format was to produce during that period, LeAnn Rimes was only grudgingly welcome (Country would play Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” instead), Shania Twain was between albums (she would be back in October), and the Dixie Chicks wouldn’t debut until later that fall. Of the top 30 Country hits from that week in 1997, none are among the format’s 300 most-played titles now.
That said, for a year that represented such a comeback for Top 40, much of the pop music from 1997 is currently in limbo as well. In New York, you can still hear “Don’t Speak” everywhere from AC to Top 40, but you won’t easily find “Don’t Let Go (Love)” or “Da Dip” or “2 Become 1″ anywhere besides satellite radio’s ’90s channels. Ironically, two of Z100’s best Oldies now are “Hypnotized” and Sublime’s “Santeria”–not consensus Top 40 hits at the time.
The female singer/songwriters who were still major presences in 1997 have been whittled down to a handful of titles at Hot AC, although as I write this, Paula Cole has just released her first single in years and Alanis Morissette is suddenly top of mind again with her parody of “My Humps.” It seems unlikely that the pure pop music of the late ’90s won’t resurface at some point–but at this moment, it’s betwixt and between
So how much does April 5, 2007 look like April 5, 1997?
- Rhythmic pop is in much better supply, thanks to the recent hitmaking streaks of Timbaland, Timberlake, Fergie, and “Cupid’s Chokehold” by Gym Class Heroes. (That can be traced back to another hit 10 years ago, Mark Morrison’s “Return Of The Mack,” one of the first hits to build a base at Rhythmic without initial R&B support).
- Uptempo pop is hanging in there–Nelly Furtado, Gwen Stefani, and now Pink and Avril Lavigne–two records that scared programmers at the outset (although it took much less time for radio to come around on “Girlfriend”).
- R&B and Hip-Hop are back to the dribs and drabs they were 10 years ago. Then again, R&B radio has gotten a lot more uptempo R&B product in the past few weeks. If those songs are hits, look for a lot more crossover by summer–which would parallel what we saw a decade ago.
- Alternative radio, 10 years ago, was still in a transition period with holdovers from the boom years (Bush, Smashing Pumpkins, Live, Nine Inch Nails) and before (INXS, Matthew Sweet, Depeche Mode, U2). Some of Alternative’s critics bemoan the format’s direction away from mainstream rock to Muse, Modest Mouse, Kaiser Chiefs, and Bloc Party. But the format was doing pretty well at the time playing White Town, Space, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Part of Top 40’s abilities to pick from so many different genres in 1997 was partially because other formats were offering so much music. In later years, that would be diffused because formats were either taking their cues from Top 40 or finding extreme music to differentiate themselves. Now, programmers are less likely than ever to monitor other formats for potential hits before labels put them on the docket, but it doesn’t help that so many markets have so few current-based stations, limiting the places that PDs could look if they were so inclined.
Thanks to Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo for his help with Airplay Monitor charts from 1997.
NUMBER ONE ON APRIL 5, 1997
Top 40 — Jewel, “You Were Meant For Me”
Adult Top 40 — Jewel, “You Were Meant For Me”
Alternative — U2, “Staring At The Sun”
Country — Clay Walker, “Rumor Has It”
R&B — SWV, “Can We”
Rhythmic Top 40 — Mark Morrison, “Return Of The Mack”