In early 2003, when Kid Rock scored a surprise multi-format hit with “Picture,” comebacks were already a rare commodity at Mainstream Top 40. In a narrowly defined, increasingly Rhythmic format, an artist who lost career momentum with any given project couldn’t count on getting it back even if he or she showed up with the “right” record next time. It was too easy to find yourself permanently exiled to Hot AC or, for an R&B artist, Urban AC.
So pulling off a second comeback, with “All Summer Long,” would seem like an almost Cher-like feat for the real-life Robert James Ritchie. It’s undoubtedly impressive – but it’s happening alongside some other unusual career arcs this summer:
- Buckcherry: An act that had been out-of-business at Active and Modern Rock for roughly five years capped more than a year of comeback Rock hits with a first-ever Top 40 hit in “Sorry.”
- Ray J: Technically, the comeback was last time around with the indie-label surprise hit “One Wish.” But the follow-ups stalled, and until “Sexy Can I” dropped, there was no guarantee that he would repeat the success of that song, much less eclipse it.
- Jesse McCartney: “Beautiful Soul” and the current CHR No. 1, “Leavin’,” bookended “Right Where You Want Me,” the No.29 single from his last album that proved that a more mature, soulful Jesse wasn’t immediately going to take – at least until he had the right record.
- Madonna: You can give as much of the credit to Justin Timberlake as you want, not every superstar pairing works. And her biggest hit since the early part of this decade was on a label that was on the last album of its contract.
- Coldplay: Okay, it’s not like they ever relinquished their status as one of the world’s biggest rock acts, but their radio momentum did sputter over the course of “X & Y.” And if Chris Martin didn’t take a little of that altitude loss personally, where did the lyrics of “Viva La Vida” come from?
- New Kids On The Block: Even if “Summertime” has indeed peaked at No. 19, any comeback is significant from a band that was once so scapegoated by Top 40 that it went by NKOTB for a while in hopes of getting past PD bias. Now consider that there’s a new single from the reformed Menudo – never allowed past No. 62 by ’80s PDs – in the wings as well.
And if you’re not willing to anoint 2008 the year of the comeback just yet, we’ve still got the Chris Cornell and Timbaland collaboration on the way and a Michael Jackson & Akon track floating around on the Web. And if “The World Should Revolve Around Me” by Little Jackie puts band-member Imani Coppola back on the radio, more than a decade after her “Legend Of A Cowgirl” it will be a particularly impressive achievement.
Not every attempted comeback has taken at Top 40 – Celine Dion’s “Taking Chances” and Janet’s “Feedback” attest to that. Donna Summer and Def Leppard both remain significant presences at AC and Hot AC respectively, but it’s hard to imagine either breaking through to Top 40, even with “American Idol” in Summer’s case. But artist career paths are a lot less symmetrical in 2008 and there are a variety of reasons, including:
- Top 40 is in a period of transition. Rhythmic Pop is still the prevalent sound, but there’s neither the “shock of the new” that there was in the period between “Hollaback Girl” and “SexyBack,” nor any other one musical movement clearly poised to unseat it. Now think back to the early ’90s and the time between Hip-Hop’s pop breakthrough and the New Rock revolution when Roberta Flack and James Ingram suddenly found themselves with hits again. (And, no, lest it seems like I’m trying to diminish any current product, I do not think anything out now is as lame as “Set The Night To Music” was in 1992.)
- Quiet as it’s kept: Top 40 has become the adult format that it always aspired to being. The 35-year-olds who grew up with New Kids On The Block, or at least the 25-year-olds who never stopped liking Kid Rock, are a growing presence, while the younger listeners who might have been most unsparing toward a veteran artist are the ones who have selected themselves out of radio listening.
- Adult Top 40 and even AC have a little more ability post-James Blunt and Daniel Powter to help cross a record to Mainstream Top 40. That’s a change from the early part of the decade when being a veteran artist with a Hot AC hit was confirmation that you would not be playing on CHR between “In The End” and “Case Of The Ex.”
- The music industry needs the hits from anywhere it can get them. At a time when “no one knows anything,” why should there be any preconceived notions about who can have a hit record? And veteran acts have a built in audience that is used to buying albums – witness Kid Rock (to be fair, it should be noted that “All Summer Long” isn’t available on iTunes) and Coldplay (whose singles are available, but are selling albums anyway).
- With labels widely believed to be working fewer records, slightly more left-field projects have an easier time finding their champions now. And in the post-Spitzer era, where fewer resources are supposed to be going into “whatever it takes” on behalf of declining superstar acts, an artist who has been cold for a while is no longer necessarily lower in the pecking order than an act who has continued to have hits from each project, but at greater cost and with diminishing returns each time. It’s not unrelated to the changes in the Country radio label world where acts in need of a comeback (Tracy Lawrence) or a true breakthrough (Craig Morgan) suddenly had more promotional muscle behind them than they once would have.
- Mariah Carey: Cher’s “Believe” might have proved that one great record could return you to pop culture again, but “We Belong Together” pulled off an even greater feat, restoring momentum to a career that had been publicly damaged. While it’s hard to imagine the hot producer or great song that could put Barry Manilow or Michael Bolton back on CHR radio tomorrow, even Celine seemed like a plausible candidate for a minute and nobody else seems to be beyond the pale.
- Conversely, if few acts are beyond a comeback, few of Top 40’s image artists -if you believe that there are such people — are guaranteed their next hit either. Not Beyonce. Not Gwen Stefani. Not Kelly Clarkson. Usher follows up one of the biggest albums imaginable and even his producer talks about having to make him hip again. And artists who take several years between projects are starting from scratch anyway. Gavin DeGraw had a hit last time out, but if “I’m In Love With A Girl” comes home, it will still feel like a comeback. So why shouldn’t the act with the best record at any given moment have a hit? Pink’s 2007 comeback, in fact, seemed specifically designed to fill the holes that Kelly Clarkson didn’t.
Finally, in the same way that the annual U.K. drive for the No. 1 song during Christmas week often serves as a comeback vehicle, the U.S. labels have discovered the power of the “summer song” as evidenced by both Kid Rock and New Kids On The Block. Kid Rock didn’t really need the summer angle for listeners to be interested again – but it did help certain PDs figure out how they were going to explain that song to their audience in between Rihanna and Lil Wayne.