Songs That Made A Difference in 2003

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

When I was editor of the radio programming publication Airplay Monitor, I would usually wrap up the year by writing about the records that had made a difference at radio—not necessarily my favorite songs (which weren’t always radio hits anyway), but the format bellwethers that indicated how radio had changed that year. But if I were still trying to fill a set number of column inches, I’d need to run an extra photo or two this year, because it’s hard to name many watershed records.

It’s not because there weren’t changes in the format landscape. At year’s end, Top 40 was more pop/rock-driven, Rhythmic top 40 was essentially Hip-hop/R&B radio without ballads, Country was more male, and Alternative was almost alternative again. But it was often a string of records that helped change a format’s sound. It was Bonecrusher’s “Never Scared,” Chingy’s “Right Thurr,” and Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low” together that crunked up Rhythmic and Hip-hop radio, making it harder and more southern (but surprisingly more accessible in some ways).

Similarly, Matchbox Twenty’s “Unwell” certainly forced its way on to many rhythmic-leaning Top 40s, but it is easier to cite a succession of crossovers – “Bring Me To Life,” “Picture,” “Drift Away,” “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry),” “Harder to Breathe,” “Stacy’s Mom,” and “Why Don’t You And I?” – than to think of “Unwell” as a watershed.

In 2003, labels were still looking to cut their losses by working fewer projects, which, in turn, reduces the number of potential breakthrough records.

Besides, certain format evolutions are hard to get excited about. Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?” was definitely a key record for Country radio this year, but one that took the format, if anywhere, back to its bad old days of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Programmers sometimes mistakenly describe those records that get a quick response from the audience as “reactionary,” but this one was. And ending 2003 with a string of power-ballads that, in the aggregate, recalls the doldrums of 1981 may not be good news for Top 40 either.

Many of the year’s biggest hits were merely following the groundwork laid down in previous years. There was more “male attitude” music at country, but the template record, Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now” is four years old. There were, as always, records on Hip-hop/R&B and Top 40 radio that pushed the limits of what PDs were willing to play, but Eamon’s “F—- It (I Don’t Want You Back)” and 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” don’t feel nearly as vituperative as “Cleaning Out My Closet” by Eminem did last year.

In 2003, labels were still looking to cut their losses by working fewer projects, which, in turn, reduces the number of potential breakthrough records. That conservatism helped open the door for a handful of independent label breakthroughs and there were still a handful of those this year, including TVT’s Lil’ Jon at R&B and Top 40; Evanescence’s multi-format success on Wind-Up, and the surprise country breakthroughs of Craig Morgan and Sherrie Austin on Broken Bow.

It was definitely Country that proved that no artist was more than one great song away from being back on the radio, with Randy Travis’ “Three Wooden Crosses.” (I’m not willing to quite put Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett’s guest appearances in that category, yet). But there wasn’t a Cher- or Santana-level career resurgence in other formats. And if you want to describe the Top 40 success of Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, or R. Kelly as comebacks, then it just proves we really are giving up on artists too easily.

For all those reasons, the list of records that changed radio in 2003 is a short one. But some songs still couldn’t be denied.

Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow, “Picture” – It wasn’t being worked aggressively to radio, but radio found it—even at a time when programmers are less inclined to go digging for their own hits. It was the fourth single from “Cocky,” even though labels are wont to give up on a project (or an artist) after an unsuccessful single or two. And it not only forced Top 40 PDs to reconsider what might work sonically on their stations, it forced a similar reassessment at a Country format that was mostly allergic to pop crossovers or songs that sounded “too country.”

White Stripes, “7 Nation Army” – Like a group of guys who’d watched “Swingers” the night before, Modern Rock programmers had spent the last year trying not to act too interested in the neo-garage movement. Then one of those records actually tested, even there were echoes of AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” involved, and we stopped hearing neo-garage dismissed as “the new electronica.” There’s no sign of hard rock and nu-metal going anywhere yet, but “7 Nation Army” proved that Rock PDs were playing these songs for someone beside themselves.

Trapt, “Headstrong” – Proof, in fact, that hard rock isn’t going anywhere at Modern Rock. And also the record that forced Top 40 PDs to reconsider whether they were really going to sit out hard rock hits, just because those artists wouldn’t play their station concerts. In fact, it wasn’t until after Trapt’s hard-fought Top 40 crossover that programmers finally came around on Linkin Park.

Outkast, “Hey Ya” – Genre smasher of the year: USA Today’s Ken Barnes calls it this generation’s “Super Freak.” I have to go back to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ self-described “soul hootenanny,” “Mickey’s Monkey,” before I can find any R&B hit to use as a frame of reference. Yet, at year’s end, this was shaping up as an R&B hit, a Modern Rock hit, and one of two Top 40 hits for the group at a time when other hip-hop crossovers were starting to slow down. One other difference between 2003 and 1981: “Super Freak” helped break down the resistance to R&B at an Air Supply-driven pop radio; “Hey Ya” and Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” fused rock and rap to put pop/rock back on Top 40.

Evanescence, “Bring Me to Life” – For giving an indie label one of the biggest Top 40 hits of the year and a female-led act a place at Rock radio.

Pat Green, “Wave On Wave”—Sonically, it’s not the shot across the bow that the Steve Earle or the Kentucky Headhunters were for the Country radio of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it’s still a truly different record, which can’t be said about many of this year’s hits, even if they had more tempo or were more male-friendly. If it didn’t become an across-the-board research monster of the sort that “7 Nation Army” did at Modern Rock, it still became a real enough record by the end of its run that programmers were playing it for something other than its hipness. It’s early days yet, but Green has a lot of the same things going that Garth did during the last boom: he’s a proven concert draw, he bridges country and classic rock, and he’s just good-looking enough to be a recording artist without the guys feeling threatened.

Black-Eyed Peas, “Where Is The Love”—After months of saturation airplay, I’m still not sure if the success of this song reflected growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. role in Iraq, or became a hit because nobody quite noticed the lyrics. But in the year of the Dixie Chicks backlash, it was the first real indication that there’s any room for dissent in today’s pop music. Judging from the music starting to make it to programmers’ desks now (an Outkast album cut here, a Thursday album there), there will likely be other litmus tests in 2004, suggesting that the songs that change radio next year will do so not only musically but sociologically.
Addendum: After this column was first posted Dec. 19, I got the inevitable “well, what about ___” letters, including one from WKSE Buffalo, N.Y., PD Dave Universal asking how I could have left out 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” and another from Murray Elias of reggae label VP about Sean Paul’s “Get Busy.” “Don’t you think Sean and dancehall have significantly changed radio in 2003-2004?” he asks.

“In Da Club” was certainly ubiquitous in 2003, and certainly reflected how fast a hip-hop record could cross to the pop side, but with top 40 at a seeming turning point with hip-hop at year’s end, it’s hard to know if that record was the beginning or end of a trend. “In Da Club” could easily be 2003’s equivalent of Chic’s “Good Times,” the last undeniable multi-format disco smash before top 40 closed ranks against R&B and dance music.

“Get Busy,” after reading Elias’ letter, felt a little more like a sin of omission. In New York, there’s been no question about reggae’s mass-appeal status in recent years years. WHTZ (Z100) New York, which always had a few dancehall perennials like Terror Fabulous’ “Action” in its gold library, had already managed to add every other major dancehall record of the last decade. (WPOW [Power 96] Miami went further this year, playing many as currents.) In New York, “Get Busy” seemed only like further proof that reggae, as Z100 PD Tom Poleman once noted, is the music that crosses all demos. But having songs like “Get Busy” or “Like Glue” play in the heartland is, indeed, a change.

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.