by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Until recently, it looked like we’d reached a point where an artist’s stock as a celebrity no longer tracked with their value at contemporary radio. Being front-and-center in America’s affections for a year did nothing to put Ozzy Osbourne back in current rotation (or keep Kelly Osbourne there for very long). Legal travails did nothing to keep R. Kelly off the radio. Program directors had long known that there were artists for whom you’d give away concert tickets, but not play their records. So being top-of-mind (or, this week, topless) didn’t necessarily translate to airplay.
But top 40 has been starved for real hits for a few years now, and long-starved for the consumer press attention that was regularly lavished on their core acts in the mid-‘80s. Notoriety isn’t always a sure way back on to the radio, but there’s increasing evidence that it’s helped at least a few artists lately.
Ironically, it hasn’t helped Madonna, tabloid celebrity’s mistress of ceremonies, very much. The week after her MTV kiss with Britney Spears, I persuaded a friend to put “Hollywood” back into his research, thinking it might also be helped by that song’s brief ubiquity in Gap ads. Instead it came back with the same low scores as before. By the time “Nothing Fails,” the third “American Life” single, came out, any juice the event might have given her had gone to help Britney’s record, if anybody’s.
With Madonna, of course, we’ve had 20 years of ongoing controversy. By “the kiss,” the audience had gotten pretty good at separating her records from her publicity. At the height of her controversy, they’d still managed to vote no on songs like “Erotica.” And they’d already been through the “is she or isn’t she?” controversy a decade earlier.
But the kiss’ impact on Britney’s records is a little harder to deny. Top 40 program directors I’ve spoken to have a pretty similar story. “Me Against the Music” was, for most, not a home run. “Toxic,” on the other hand, is shaping up as her biggest record since “Oops! … I Did It Again” three years ago.
Program directors are quick to tell you that the record itself, not Britney’s post-MTV/marriage/annulment celebrity has made “Toxic” a hit. But most allow that the MTV Awards enhanced the initial event status of “Me Against the Music,” a song that definitely wasn’t a slam-dunk after the top 15 “I’m A Slave 4 U.” All that publicity did help make “Me Against the Music” a bigger chart record than the similar-sounding “Slave.” Without that momentum, PDs would likely have been much less receptive to a second single from this project. So it’s not a stretch to say that her celebrity kept Spears’ career rolling until she had a consensus hit. (Who could have predicted a year ago that Spears, not Pink, the reported first intended object of Madonna’s affections, would have the hot record now?)
Compared to Britney, Janet, and Madonna, Jessica Simpson hasn’t actually done anything controversial: not knowing the difference between tuna and chicken is only a problem if you work in food-service. But Simpson’s TV celebrity is, by most accounts, easily eclipsing her singing career, even with the singer back in the top 5 at mainstream top 40 with “With You.”
It’s troubling to think that she (or Crow, or Britney, for that matter), might have viewed this as something she had to do to compete.
In a perfect world, “With You” would have been a hit no matter what. In a society that makes women insecure about their looks, even male programmers could grasp the relatability of a lyric about someone who makes you feel beautiful. Country PDs have known how potent this sentiment was since Sammy Kershaw’s 1993 hit “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful.” And Christina Aguilera’s like-minded “Beautiful” did a lot more for her career last year than her tabloid-chasing “Dirrty” video. But without Simpson’s new celebrity, programmers would likely have been even less primed for a second single from her than from Britney. In both cases, the predispositions that were changed were those of PDs, more than audience members.
So what about Janet Jackson? She’s an artist whose 20-plus year recording career always matched that of Madonna for consistency and versatility, but who never got the same respect. (Madonna was called canny for choosing hot producers; Janet was dismissed as a producer’s puppet.) Some programmers still root for Jackson; others have been trying to write her off for years and always act surprised when she has a real hit. Jackson’s increasingly explicit publicity photos and lyrics of the last 10 years have always struck me as unnecessary, but knowing how the industry treats any female artist over 30, you can understand what prompted them, and this week’s Super Bowl disrobing.
In fact, you also understand what prompted Sheryl Crow to spice up her image a few years back. Crow’s 1999 appearance at the disastrous last Woodstock concert (at which she reportedly resisted entreaties from audience members to do just what Janet did this week) coincided with the radio’s reclassification of her as an “adult” artist. Three years later, the publicity blitz that accompanied her “Come On Come On” album included a Stuff pictorial. (It’s a far cry from Heart’s Wilson sisters fighting with their label in 1976 over print ads that featured sexual innuendo.) And another sort of tabloid notoriety, Crow’s relationship with Kid Rock, helped make the otherwise unlikely “Picture” a hit last year.
A quick survey of top 40 programmers this morning found general agreement that whether Jackson’s new “Just A Little While” is a real long-term hit is “almost irrelevant this week,” as one puts it. But there were pockets of dissent. One heartland PD has kept the record off the air so far, and several others sense a publicity stunt backlash that could hurt the song. Some PDs also think Jackson alienated older listeners without attracting younger fans. But there are certainly programmers who think the record is off to a faster start because of the Super Bowl.
I still root for Jackson each time out. So I hope “Just A Little While” is a real hit, as opposed to the record where program directors (or audience members) suddenly decide to be outraged. But it’s troubling to think that she (or Crow, or Britney, for that matter), might have viewed this as something she had to do to compete. Radio has already shown that upping the ante on outrageous stunts doesn’t usually end happily. Only Janet really knows what she hoped to accomplish. There’s a thin line in this industry between assertive and exploited when it comes to female artists. Let’s hope Jackson is on the side of her choosing.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.