by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
It says a lot about 2005 that the record that best explained what was happening at radio wasn’t a new song, but a 28-year-old pop nugget that nobody would have considered significant at the time. In fall 1977, “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band drifted amiably in the Top 40 and soft rock firmament between “What’cha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise and “Falling” by LeBlanc & Carr. It was neither durable enough for most radio station libraries nor galvanizing enough to rate a mention when people who didn’t like ’70s pop began reeling off goofy titles from that decade.
But it’s 2005 and the spread of Jack- and Bob-FM and their 1,000 song playlists has sent AC and Classic Rock programmers scrambling to protect their variety images, even those stations that never really cultivated them in the first place. Now, “Smoke From A Distant Fire” is more available on the radio this year than at any time since 1977. In fact, there are a lot of titles that were easier to hear this year than in any since they were released-“I Was Made For Loving You” and “Lick It Up” by Kiss, “Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet, “Waterloo” by Abba, “Lovin’ Every Minute Of It” by Loverboy, and “I Can’t Dance” by Genesis among them. But only “Kung-Fu Fighting” rivals “Smoke” for sudden rehabilitation from the type of song that shouldn’t be on the radio to one that must be.
We have a good idea how this will play out. There was a time in the early days of Classic Rock radio where you could go from market to market and hear “Jump Into The Fire” by Nilsson. When the all-’80s stations came along, “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics was suddenly as available as it was in 1986. So whatever the durability of Bob- and Jack-FM, “Smoke From A Distant Fire” is likely to dissipate eventually. But, for now, it typifies a radio dial where programmers’ creativity is going in to bringing back lost 45s, not finding new music. It’s not unlike 1990 when Oldies were booming, Top 40 was disappearing and the most-heard song on any road trip was likely to be “Unchained Melody.” Except that we’re not dealing with “Unchained Melody” here.
Even looking at the product that reflected how radio’s current-based formats evolved this year gives one a sense of deja vu. Just when you thought Country was lessening its ties to the early ’90s boom, it turns out that Garth Brooks needed only the uptempo “Good Ride Cowboy” and a little time off to walk back in like nothing ever happened. At Top 40 and R&B radio, it was Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” which offered this year’s demonstration of how no artist is ever more than one great song away from a comeback.
At Modern Rock, six of the most played records of the year to date are by the Class of ’94-Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, Foo Fighters, Beck, and two from Green Day; make that seven if you count the Blur/Gorillaz connection. Top 40, resistant in recent years to anything that wasn’t a young-end reaction record, suddenly made room for two singer-songwriter records-Howie Day’s “Collide” and Gavin DeGraw’s “Chariot”-that could have as easily been on Top 40 in 1991 or, for that matter, 1981.
And a lot of the bellwether records at various formats were themselves a year or two old. “Yeah” by Usher and “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas showed just how much the taste of Hot AC listeners had changed. Top 40 followed AC’s lead on tapping Country’s recurrents, playing Tim McGraw’s year-old “Live Like You Were Dying” and Keith Urban’s nearly two-year-old “You’ll Think Of Me.” The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” didn’t make it to some Top 40 stations until a lot of them already had the follow-up, “Mr. Brightside” in rotation as well. And the reggaeton boom sent new “Hurban” and established Rhythmic Top 40s both back to the vaults for the songs that had broken without significant airplay over the last two years or so.
In 2005, musical activism was stronger than ever. By last year, it had become clear that Rock, R&B, and Top 40 radio were willing to accommodate anti-war commentary-already a change from the chilling effect we’d seen after 2003’s Dixie Chicks backlash. But this year the statements were more pronounced: Kanye West spoke out against the president on live TV. System of a Down’s “B.Y.O.B.” asked, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?” Green Day followed up “American Idiot” and “Holiday” with an anti-war video for “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song that might otherwise have played as neutral on the radio. And no careers were jeopardized. While you can’t say that there’s been a complete turnaround until we see the first anti-war hit at Country radio, or at least until the attitude toward the Dixie Chicks changes, it’s still hard to imagine a song like “Holiday” on Hot AC a year ago.
Here are some other records that reflected the changes at radio in 2005.
* Daddy Yankee/”Gasolina” – Technically, this was a 2004 holdover as well, but its influence in this year of reggaeton’s breakthrough was undeniable, particularly for a record that didn’t get played everywhere. “Gasolina” is to Daddy Yankee what “Maria” was to Ricky Martin. Not every Top 40 played it, but those that did could have told you what was going to happen when “Livin’ La Vida Loca” came out.
* Kelly Clarkson/”Since U Been Gone” – When Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Shakira were making their first English language records, the Latin crossover acts were the only artists willing to make pure uptempo pop records and the only ones with enough hipness to get them played at Top 40. This year, it took an “American Idol” to prove that listeners still wanted that type of record, if only it were offered to them.
* Gwen Stefani/”Hollaback Girl” and Black Eyed Peas/”My Humps” – They’re both throwbacks to the Rhythmic hits of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the gold titles that you keep thinking are going to start testing at Hot AC any minute now. But perhaps the Top 40 and Hot AC success of these hits means that today’s adults would rather have their retro needs met this way. After all, not every 20-year-old who liked “Crocodile Rock” in 1973 was ready to go listen to early ’60s music full-time.
* Green Day/”Holiday” and Bowling For Soup/”1985″- As the edgiest of Green Day’s three pop hits this year, “Holiday” should have been the one that didn’t cross to Hot AC, instead it did better there than it did at Top 40. Of course, today’s 28-year-old was a 17-year-old Green Day fan at the time of “When I Come Around.” But the Bowling for Soup phenomenon was just as telling. Three years ago, pop/punk had been one of the genres that divided Top 40 and Hot AC. This year, BFS seemed to be filling the hole for a Barenaked Ladies record at Hot AC. “1985” was No. 7 there (vs. No. 9 at Mainstream), particularly clicking with some of the listeners it was poking fun at.
* Dierks Bentley/”Lot Of Leaving Left To Do”-It’s hard to find a record that was as revolutionary at Country this year as “Redneck Woman” or “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” were in 2004. Consultant Joel Raab cites Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood’s “American Idol” performance of “Bless This Broken Road” as a breakthrough pop culture moment for the format, but that song would have fit comfortably on Country radio in 2000, or 1990. Still, it’s interesting to see Country going back to the lyrical themes that had been on hiatus. First the drinking songs went “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” again. Then the slightly naughty novelty song washed up on “Some Beach.” That left only “Cheatin'”-although the current Sara Evans hit brings it back in a decidedly pro-social way-and the return of the ramblin’ man. We hadn’t heard much from him since the era of “Gentle On My Mind” and “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” so bragging about lovin’ ‘em and leavin’ ‘em again is a definite eye-opener, and something that could not have happened on the female-focused Country radio of 2000.
* Will Smith/”Switch” and Black Eyed Peas/”Don’t Phunk With My Heart”-Smith has long faced resistance at Urban radio, to the point of commenting on it on his recent album. But while there have always been records that divided R&B and Rhythmic Top 40 stations, it was telling this year to see the emergence of Hip-Hop titles that existed primarily at Mainstream and even some Adult Top 40 stations.
Some other trends are more easily expressed in groups of 3-4 songs than one or two:
* The R&B resurgence at Hip-hop/R&B radio as led by John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” Lyfe Jennings’ “Must Be Nice,” Fantasia’s “Free Yourself,” Ray J.’s “One Wish,” and Bobby Valentino’s “Slow Down” among others. R&R’s Dana Hall credits the success of “We Belong Together” with bringing programmers’ attention back to R&B. To that I’d add the influence of Clear Channel’s Urban outlets, which have always championed R&B the way that their Top 40 counterparts pass around Chingy or Houston records. The R&B revival wasn’t quite across-the-board. If you wanted to get your R&B record on a younger leaning Hip-Hop station, it helped not to have too much of an Urban AC track record. Unless, of course, you were Charlie Wilson.
* The success of Green Day, the Killers, Weezer, Fall Out Boy, Nickelback, All American Rejects, and even Papa Roach at Top 40 radio in a year when Rock radio was ostensibly in trouble. Then again, crossover hits from Bryan Adams, Bob Seger, Journey, David Bowie, Toto, Styx, Yes, Genesis, John Mellencamp, Journey, and ZZ Top-the songs that are at the center of today’s Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrids-didn’t do much to quell the “Rock radio is dead” rumors in 1983. So while you still can’t say that Top 40 is aggressively pursuing Rock crossover, you have to wonder if it’s getting more mileage out of it than some Rock stations.