Is the novelty/reaction record dead?
Is radio out of touch with pop culture?
About once every eight weeks in 2006, I got an e-mail or IM from Edison Media Research’s Larry Rosin asking, essentially, the same question: Are there any Top 40 stations out there that acknowledged the “High School Musical” soundtrack? (No.) The “Hannah Montana” soundtrack? (No.) Weird Al Yankovic’s “White And Nerdy”? (A few.) The “Dreamgirls” soundtrack? (A few are showing interest now.) Did any radio stations play Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday”? (Not unless it was never monitored.) Did any find some way to edit and play SNL’s “D*** In A Box”? (Same.)
For anybody who remembers the era when “King Tut” by Steve Martin was on “Saturday Night Live” at 11:55 p.m. on Saturday and on programmers’ desks a few days later, it’s hard to experience the “D*** In A Box” phenomenon and not get, well, kinda wistful. For all the mushiness of late `70s Top 40, it still had the ability to find a steady stream of novelties and TV themes, and somehow manage to play the ultimately enduring–“Brick House,” “Hotel California” and “Go Your Own Way”–as well. The generation of PDs who grew up in that era spent much of the late `80s/early `90s fighting each other to discover the next reaction record first.
Novelty records, reaction records, and hits that reflect pop culture aren’t always the same, of course. And none of those has disappeared entirely. It’s hard to say that there were no reaction records in a year that gave us “Promiscuous” and “London Bridge.” Or that there were no novelty songs in the year of “Ms. New Booty,” “Chain Hang Low” and “I’m `N’ Luv (Wit A Stripper).” And the MySpace-surfing PDs playing “High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens and “American Idol’s” Chris Daughtry would dispute that they’re not acknowledging pop culture.
It’s hard not to feel that novelty and reaction records were further diminished in 2006.
But it’s been more than a year since “Gold Digger,” the last record that could be called both funny and truly phenomenal. (And if you’re looking for a record that was both those things and truly left field, you probably have to go back to “Because I Got High.”) It’s hard not to feel that novelty and reaction records were further diminished in 2006. From Daniel Powter to Nickelback to James Blunt, much of what was on Top 40 was less reactive than reactionary–power ballads that, to programmers’ surprise, somehow appealed to daughters as well as moms. And the national press wrote a number of articles about today’s more conservative teens.
One possibility is that the most cutting-edge of the teens selected themselves out, leaving the ones with more conservative taste to voice their choice. But pop culture itself was more conservative, perhaps a reflection of more somber times overall. After all, Powter’s “Bad Day,” Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” and Hudgens’ “Come Back To Me” were all part of pop culture. And if radio had acknowledged “And I Am Telling You That I’m Not Going” or “Breaking Free,” they would have been playing an `80s song that was meant to sound like a mid `60s R&B ballad and a new song that managed to recall `80s pop.
There were other forces at work against the novelty/reaction record:
- The diminished impact of Hip-Hop at Mainstream Top 40. Hip-Hop didn’t disappear, but it did cross fewer records over for what felt like even shorter periods of time. In 2006, Rap records that would have peaked in the somewhere around No. 10 a few years ago struggled to the low teens/high 20s. And Hip-Hop was one of the few formats still supplying novelty/reaction records on a regular basis.
- The increased conservatism of R&B/Hip-Hop radio, particularly a handful of prominent Clear Channel stations that moved toward the cusp of Urban AC. Those stations still passed reaction records among themselves, but they were more likely to be Kirk Franklin’s gospel “Looking For You” than a Hip-Hop novelty.
- The Hip-Hop community’s own backlash against novelty rap. Viewed from a historical perspective, there have always been dance records and it’s hard to imagine being any more upset about “Laffy Taffy” than “The Loco-Motion” or the Electric Slide. But some Hip-Hop fans clearly were, perhaps because it sometimes felt like there wasn’t anything happening other than the “wack shit,” as KMEL APD/MD Big Von Johnson called it in R&R.
- The return of “angry” at Modern Rock radio–also once a pretty reliable supplier of novelty and reaction records. Scan the most-played songs last year–“Wasteland,” “Animal I Have Become,” “Hate Me,” and “Miss Murder” among them–and even “Bawditaba” and “Nookie” seem positively lighthearted. The closest you come to a novelty in the upper reaches of Rock’s year-end chart is Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch”; the only true novelty in play right now, Psychostick’s “Beer!” is hovering around the lower reaches of the Active Rock universe. Rock can put more music on Top 40’s agenda at the moment, but what it’s sending has mostly been the power ballads.
- The unlikelihood of a major-label actually working certain types of novelty and/or reaction records. Twenty years ago, a label might have still been willing to snap up a breaking record on a small label that was more likely to sell singles than albums. Then the strategy, used as recently as Afroman, was to try and force an album sale by not issuing a single. But that doesn’t work in the download era. And while records associated with the Disney Channel do sell albums, the Disney/Hollywood strategy since “Lizzie McGuire” and Hilary Duff has been to wait until Vanessa Hudgens and now Mylie Cyrus cut pop albums, rather than working a soundtrack. So why don’t PDs go find those songs themselves?
- The decreased likelihood of a PD going “off the menu” to find their own record. It still happens occasionally, as it did when a Saving Jane remake of “Hang On Sloopy” became a hit in Columbus, Ohio, during college football season. But usually, programmers are most willing to acknowledge pop culture when it’s worked to them. Some in the industry cite a post-Spitzer fear of playing anything unusual, but PDs were already putting a lot less effort into finding music, not the least of which was the corporate culture that made a PD look like a dinosaur for listening to music instead of riding along on sales calls. And that means…
- The R&D lab for reaction records has been all but closed. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were two camps of PDs, Guy Zapoleon’s Nationwide programmers and those Urban and Rhythmic PDs consulted by Jerry Clifton, who were always on the lookout for reaction records, reissues or at least the next single off a hot album. Many of those PDs are out of radio or in formats where they’re not breaking music. Or they’ve become more musically conservative.
If there’s any format whose ascendant fortunes suggest that PDs should keep looking for songs that galvanize, it’s Country. A decade ago, PDs overreacted to what they saw as an overabundance of “ditties” and the format was much duller for it. Last year, the format finally seemed to find a balance between the heartstrings reaction record (“Jesus Take The Wheel”) and the less somber variety (“Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”). Right now, the scales seem to be tipping toward the former (“Alyssa Lies,” “I Just Came Back From A War”), but it’s nice to still have a “Red High Heels” here or a “Good Directions” there.
Country also proved that a few reaction records go a long way. Much of the format’s product is still decidedly passive–records that still take half a year to cut through. But having a handful of galvanizing records made the mainstream product around them a lot more interesting. Top 40, on an upswing, might not feel the need to go looking for records now. But most formats could use the excitement, as could radio overall.