Oops…They Did It Again? Is It Time To Reconsider Teen Pop?

As pop hits make their way from Top 40 to Hot AC to AC to Classic Rock or Oldies over the course of the years, almost every major genre of music resurfaces at some point-no matter how stigmatized it might be considered at its ebb. The disco hits of the late ’70s were only a few years old when a backlash drove them off the radio around 1980. It took nearly two decades, but eventually “Stayin’ Alive” and “Get Down Tonight” did become AC staples, and suddenly it was hard to remember just how completely they had disappeared from the radio, or how controversial it would have been to play them. Same goes for the hair band music of the late ’80s.
But there are a handful of genres that usually disappear from the radio and never come back:

The vicissitudes of the record industry and further ups-and-downs at Top 40 have ensured that no records have since achieved quite the combination of sales and airplay critical mass that “Bye Bye Bye” and “I Want It That Way” did.

One is the (usually AC’ish) pop music from Top 40’s most fallow periods, particularly the early ’80s and early ’90s. A few titles-“Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes or “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes, say–have gurgled forth, but I’m not expecting to hear “Say You’ll Be Mine” by Christopher Cross or even “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John back on the radio anytime soon. During its ebbs, Top 40 doesn’t have the same agenda-setting power over listeners’ memories or emotions that, say, disco did for a year or two.
The other music that remains conspicuous by its absence is the teen pop of the ’70s and ’80s. Even when those eras got their respective Oldies formats, you could pretty well count on not hearing Bobby Sherman, the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers, Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, or, later, New Kids on the Block. (I have encountered “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family since Oldies programmers became more determined to find anything from the ’70s they could play-but not that often.)
So what then will happen to the teen pop of the late ’90s? It’s been more than a decade since Hanson and the Spice Girls broke through, followed shortly thereafter by the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Britney Spears. Like Disco, the explosion of teen pop lasted about three years-a year or so longer than Rollermania or the New Kids’ hit streak, much longer than Shaun and Leif-and took on a much greater magnitude because of the sheer number of acts involved and their multi-platinum sales success.
It’s a question that PDs will be grappling with soon. Late ’90s teen pop is the oldest wave of music that has not resurfaced on the radio in some significant way. The rhythmic Top 40 hits of the early ’90s have the Movin’ format and other similar stations. The female singer/songwriters of the mid-’90s faltered for a year or two at Hot AC, but are now re-emerging at Mainstream AC and are a significant part of stations like WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York. But even AC, which held on to Teen Pop even when Top 40 had clearly moved on, rarely delves past “I Want It That Way” these days.
And yet…
A former ‘N Sync’er is now the No. 1 image artist at Top 40.
The Spice Girls are back together and preparing to tour.
The Swedish hit factory that turned out so many of those late ’90s hits has never stopped pumping them out-even if Europop’s vehicles are now Beyonce’, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, and other artists who have dodged or transcended the “teen pop” tag.
The vicissitudes of the record industry and further ups-and-downs at Top 40 have ensured that no records have since achieved quite the combination of sales and airplay critical mass that “Bye Bye Bye” and “I Want It That Way” did.
And at a time of viable current product when “Throwback Weekends” are hardly a necessity at Top 40, WHTZ (Z100) recently did one where both ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys were prominently featured in the promos.
Two years ago, Edison’s Larry Rosin and I found ourselves discussing whether the Bob- and Jack-FMs should play Britney Spears’ “Baby . . . One More Time.” At that time, it didn’t feel like Britney belonged on Adult Hits which was, for all its “we play everything” hype, still a ’70s/’80s Pop/Rock format. And it didn’t feel like it had been gone long enough to be missed. Now, I find myself barely able to conjure mentally what some of those songs sound like beyond the hook. “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “Oops . . . I Did It Again” would be refreshing now-at least once.
And, oh yeah, the 15-year-old Backstreet Boys fan of 1997 is now officially in the 25-54 demo.
So how and where would these songs best resurface?
On Mainstream Top 40? I’ve always been a fan of bold use of the Top 40 library-particularly since so few Top 40s do-but the format sounds pretty good right now without a lot of decade-old records, not to mention being one of the few “today”-driven choices left. (But I did really enjoy Z100’s Throwback weekend.)
On Hot AC? Not many of those stations played teen pop when it was current-perhaps to their ultimate detriment. But it’s a little easier to imagine hearing those songs now that some stations have opened up stylistically beyond Modern Rock crossovers.
On Mainstream AC? It seems like the most logical choice. The best Mainstream ACs have the authority to cherry-pick titles from five decades. The format is always looking for records that have tempo without being abrasive-particularly in those ’90s categories. And in a format that eventually welcomed back everything from “Dancing Queen” to Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy,” there seems to be very little danger of being stigmatized.
From a timeline standpoint, the most logical place for teen pop to resurface would be a station like Fresh, although it’s worth noting that so far it hasn’t-even given the presence of some other lost titles from that era like Janet Jackson’s “All For You.” And while Fresh may be the AC point of entry for a 25-year-old, a station that focuses on the younger end of the AC demo has also taken in the 30-year-old who was 20 a decade ago and often diametrically opposed to the mother/daughter coalition in her tastes. For that reason, the teen pop titles might have a better chance of testing well at a mainstream AC that targets a wider swath through 25-54, allowing them to pick up both moms and daughters who lived through those records.
As ACs prepare for your fall music test this year, it may be worth putting some late ’90s titles in-even if those songs have selected themselves out over the past several years. And if those songs don’t come through, it may be worth trying it again in a year or two. The songs tested shouldn’t just be the ballads-they should also include the uptempo songs that would give the format tempo and brightness without edginess, one of the best things about those records for Top 40 at the time. The return of ’90s teen pop isn’t a given-but in a format with license to play the best of everything, it’s a legitimate area of inquiry.
Not all genres return to the radio in the same proportion. Disco has been a treasure trove of rediscovered titles for AC. The late ’80s hair bands have perhaps 15 playable titles at Classic Rock and Hot AC between them. But those titles did go from completely lost to exceptionally potent for a few years. It is my guess that the late ’90s teen music will ultimately offer a handful of playable records-but there’s no reason not to start figuring out which ones those are going to be.

9 replies
  1. Greg Gillispie
    Greg Gillispie says:

    Sean: You mentioned the 15 year-old boy-band fan in ’97 is now in the 25-54 demo is meaningless. His mother/grandmother may also be in that demo.
    But…of greater importance – does the window move or stay static.
    If you are targeting a more realistic demo, say 35-54, are you supposed to become a 36-55 demo station the next year, not letting any of the younger folks grow into the demo.
    Or do you keep the window 35-54 and when a year goes by, the 54 year-old that was part of your demo is gone.
    I know, Arbitron came up with these demo groups to satisfy buyers who use these demo groups to give radio the challenge of getting the $$.
    Maybe we should just create our own groups, know the lifestyle, etc. about the members, and go market that.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out of radio will play the music I like or if I’m too young or old…

  2. Axl Nemetz
    Axl Nemetz says:

    When I read that you were “not expecting to hear … “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John back on the radio anytime soon” it made me check Mediabase, and sure enough, it’s not getting much airplay these days: 30 total spins nationally in the last 7 days. The reason it struck me as a song that was still getting played a lot is because I literally heard it every day for a 7 days straight in Cancun last month! Obviously, that’s not the U.S. radio norm!

  3. Doug Daniels
    Doug Daniels says:

    So…I’m sitting here listening to an old Chartbreakers CD from BP dated February 28, 1997. My wife (who is 43) was doing a little reminising. I hear a song that sounds damn good. I asked her what it was. It was The Spice Girls: “Say You’ll Be There”. (how quickly we forget) I hate the Spice Girls. I was enjoying this song. It sounds adult. Not that whining sound that was so prominent on most of the “teen-tunes” from that era.
    I presently have a poll on my station’s website (wwww.mix1053.com) and there isn’t even ONE vote for 90s music as a favorite decade. Sure—most of our listeners are 35+…but a 35 year-old was 18 in 1990. As a Mainstream AC programmer I am open to finding songs from the 90s that go beyond Hootie & The Blowfish, Melissa Etheridge and all those cross-over country songs. Most of the 90s Modern AC stuff is still just too far to the left for us to embrace and frankly, not that good. We need music that is “joyful” to lift spirits and create smiles. The Wallflowers and Alanis Morissette don’t do that. Maybe the Spice Girls and a few other carefully selected titles can.
    ~Doug Daniels
    OM/PD/AM Drive
    KONA FM-Tri-Cities, WA

  4. Scott Evans
    Scott Evans says:

    When I ran net station 90sAndNow.com I threw in music from all genres, including “teen pop” songs. Requests I received included backstreet boys, Hanson, Britney, etc..and was surprisingly either from college women or working women in offices. You can sell to demos, but trust me after working in the real world for the past 6 years the stereotypes are not correct.

  5. george tobin
    george tobin says:

    interesting enough i never hear the mother of the new teen revival tiffany on the radio
    i had 2 #1 records and a total of 4 top ten billboard chated songs that i produced and haven’t heard in years although over 10 million copies were sold
    ithik we’re alone now,could’ve been( carrie underwood sang it on her 1st appearence on american idol)all this time and i saw him standing there

  6. Dave Mason
    Dave Mason says:

    LOVE the comments- and LOVE the fact that someone’s even bringing up “Lost” songs. When, oh WHEN will we forget the “era” issue as a reason for the existence of a radio station. In a time when mainstream A/C’s are cleaning up in a lot of markets (KYXY, WRRM and a host of others), shouldn’t we take a look (or a LISTEN) to the FEEL of our radio stations? There should be a lesson learned from the “Oldies” explosion of the mid 80’s. A/C was afraid to play songs with tempo, screaming guitars and wild lyrics. Then “Wild Thing” resurfaces across the street eating up the 25-54s. Many “Soft Rock” stations are getting away with playing so many of the great current/recurrent/gold titles that have tempo – cause no one’s challenging them.
    If ya played “MMMmmm Bop” and then Backstreet Boys – yer gonna die. But if you were to find a way to slug them in as the ever popular “ohh wow” songs – it might work.
    People don’t think “eras”. People think -“Hey that station plays songs I like and makes me feel good”. If a 25-54 market leading A/C can play “Where Did Our Love Go” – and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” . . . .and Aerosmith, they all fit into the “sound” of the station. Determine your “sound” and (I suggest) use eras for song separation and the ever popular “variety”. It’s worked for AC’s for decades. It works for “Jack”.
    I think it’ll work anywhere if you take the time.
    By the way, should Classic Rock play “Saturday In The Park”?


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