By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
It has traditionally been an indicator of a format’s health: Are there enough uptempo hit records?
In the early ‘80s, as Top 40 rebounded from the first crisis severe enough to nearly put the format out of business, you could see the format’s average tempo build and peak in the summer of 1984, generally considered to be the height of the format boom, at a 3.9 on a 1-5 scale.
The hits of summer 2016, by comparison, were at an average of 3.2—lower than any of the mid-‘80s years I had looked at. A few uptempo hits, such as Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and Drake’s “One Dance,” were offsetting the predominant new sound of the format—busy EDM-based ballads with texture, but no tempo. A song such as Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” was at least a bouncy “3” on a 1-5 scale. Other hits were sonically aggressive, but more lugubrious.
I went back and calculated average tempo for the top 10 songs at Mainstream Top 40 this week. On a 1-5 scale, it’s a 2.7—not even consistently midtempo. No two people code every song the same way, and you might be more generous. (Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better” has bounciness and a pulse, so I gave it a 3, but barely. Some stations probably have that coded as a 4 or 5 these days.)
The whole issue of what constitutes tempo and energy has been confounded these days not just by the aggressive production of the EDM ballads, but by the laid-back post-“Cheerleader” vibe of tropical house music. Drake’s “One Dance” and “Too Good” are both uptempo, but not exactly pumping. (I still treated both as 4’s. Discuss.)
And just as it’s hard to determine which format has hot music right now, it’s also hard to find a current-based format with uptempo music. Here’s each of this week’s top 10s by format, according to Nielsen BDSRadio. Your calculations might differ, but not the likely order.
Adult Top 40 – 2.8 – Still having “Can’t Stop the Feeling” in the top 10 lifts the average here a little.
Mainstream Top 40 – 2.7 – Only two songs (“This Is What You Came For” and “Into You” that could truly be called uptempo).
Adult Contemporary – 2.7 – The number is surprisingly high here because the format’s not just holding on to Justin, but the top 10 currents (by AC’s standards) also include “Cake by the Ocean” and “Ex’s and Oh’s.”
Alternative – 2.5 – The number is buoyed by two veteran acts going “back to punk”—Green Day and Blink-182. It’s offset by the bluesy and solemn current hits from Kaleo and Bishop Briggs.
Rhythmic Top 40 – 2.4 – No songs rate a five. Only the two Drake hits get a four.
Country – 2.3 –Only one true uptempo song, Justin Moore’s “You Look Like I Need a Drink,” and two midtempos that I might consider coding as hotter (from Kenny Chesney and Jake Owen) if you insisted.
R&B/Hip-Hop – 2.0 – It was here that the chilled-but-busy sound started. Only Drake’s “One Dance” is uptempo.
For the purposes of comparison, I also looked at the British airplay charts this week. Top 40 radio there is galloping along (relatively speaking) with a 3.3. The uptempo side of EDM is more represented on the radio this week with hits from Clean Bandit, Jonas Blue, “Sunshine” by Tieks, and Kungs’ “That Girl,” which was clearly Europe’s song of summer.
And then I looked at the average of the top 10 Classic Rock songs. Even with “Dream On” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” the average was 3.7.
Then I averaged the top 10 songs at Classic Hits—the format also known as Oldies/Greatest Hits. That number is a 4.0. The songs with the least tempo here are “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Every Breath You Take.”
While the much-discussed summer numbers for Classic Rock and Classic Hits probably represent more than a vote on the music itself (e.g., the number of stations dividing the available shares), if you do agree with Nielsen’s characterization of the Classic formats as dominating summer, consider that they both had more available tempo than any of the formats showcasing currents.
During its early ‘90s doldrums, Top 40 programmers lived for any medium-weight song with tempo. They wouldn’t play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but they lived for each new dance hit, from “Rhythm Is a Dancer” to “Another Night” to “Mr. Vain.” They seized on songs that would be Triple-A now—“Come to My Window,” “Wild Night,” “I Only Want to Be With You.” Finally, in 1997, after Hanson and Spice Girls, there were a wide variety of uptempo songs that all sounded different from each other, but like hits.
So consider now the difficulties of several more uptempo recent chart entries. Meghan Trainor’s “No” and “Me Too” both came and went quickly. So did Fifth Harmony’s “Flex (All in My Head),” more of a bouncy midtempo along Sia lines anyway. The Kungs hit continues to grow slowly here, while DNCE’s “Toothbrush” could never escape the shadows of “Cake by the Ocean.”
It is possible that the combination of established artist and tempo gave the Fifth Harmony and Trainor songs a fast start, but denied research a chance to catch up. Or could it be that the audience isn’t so concerned with tempo now? Hip-Hop/R&B’s resurgence has taken place largely without it. Country’s “bro”-era boom was built largely on power ballads (“Cruise,” “Drunk on You,” etc.). Someone will argue that the availability of tempo is, for the first time, no longer the sign of a healthy format.
But top 40’s current mass-appeal was forged during the 2009-2011 “turbo-pop” era of “Dynamite,” “Party Rock Anthem,” and “Raise Your Glass.” The possible sociology behind the music changes is a column unto itself (and a much more fraught one). But in retrospect, it is possible to find a mood of cautious national optimism in those early recovery years that hardly seemed present in our multiply embattled summer of 2016. We’d all be happier now with the mood elevated, not reflected, by the hits.