By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
In September ’83, R&B fans could agree on two things about “Just Be Good To Me” by the S.O.S. Band. It was the record of the moment. And that song’s slow-but-muscular groove was very similar to “Don’t Stop The Music” by Yarbrough & Peoples, the semi-crossover R&B hit of two-and-a-half years earlier.
Over the next five years or so, that same groove would resurface in at least a half-dozen different major R&B hits, and finally on a full-fledged pop hit with Exposé’s “Let Me Be The One.” It was a source of amusement, not annoyance, because all the records were pretty good. Also, they came spaced at intervals, so there was never more than one on the radio at the same time. And because very few of the songs were pop hits, the sound never lost its underground cachet.
In other words, the Y&P/SOS groove was no “Yacht Rock.” That term didn’t exist in the early ‘80s, but people knew that the midtempo Doobie Brothers/Kenny Loggins/Christopher Cross sound that was the beginning of Smooth Jazz had become overabundant. After a few years of Michael McDonald soundalike hits, researcher Rob Balon coined another term to describe the phenomenon, taking to the trade press to warn stations of “genre burnout.” Finally, McDonald gave the genre its own coda, with “I Keep Forgetting.” Then “Tainted Love,” “Don’t You Want Me” and “Mickey” swooped in.
I’ve been thinking about genre burnout a lot in light of the various EDM-inflected trends that have dominated CHR (and all pop formats) for the past 18 months. It is inevitable that Top 40 will overindulge hot new sounds. Every musical trend goes through several rounds of copycat hits. Every trend attracts veteran artists looking for a comeback, or just to follow the music.
Every musical trend has its good moments. It’s the lack of variety that becomes an issue. There were yacht rock records I liked well enough at the time. When those songs were flanked by disco and the phenomena of “Rumours” and “Hotel California,” they hardly rankled. Back then, yacht rock was merely, well, smoke from a distant fire. It was 1980-81 when disco and R&B were exiled, new wave hadn’t quite kicked in, and the Doobies clones were everywhere (bringing with them very little tempo and energy) that top 40 radio was at its dreariest.
When the music is uptempo and fun, cloning isn’t as much of an issue. There’s even enough tempo and energy in the gently loping, midtempo “trop-house” flavored hit music of the moment that I wouldn’t mind it– if all the songs weren’t using similar tracks, and if the only relief wasn’t the downtempo-EDM “trap-pop” built on the same sort of manipulated vocal samples. It’s the claustrophobia of the format that rankles now, and the ratings prove it’s not just my complaint.
So I suppose somebody in 1966-67 might have felt there was too much garage band rock. But it was a few years later—when those acts had evolved either to the extremes of harder psychedelia or bubblegum that Top 40 PDs felt they had a problem. They couldn’t really compete with the burgeoning rock format for the former sound; they griped about being saddled with the latter.
During the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, there was a Knack-like “skinny tie” band on every label. But between the Knack and Huey Lewis & the News, few of them connected nationally. Even the Romantics, immediate stars in Detroit, had to wait three years for a national hit, and nearly a decade for “What I Like About You” to become a retroactive hit. But most of those records sound pretty good now. Same for the Stray Cats-era rockabilly updates that somehow glommed on to early ‘80s new wave.
You can’t blame the original records for the endgame. I don’t like the Destiny’s Child hits any less because of “He Loves You Not” by Dream. But in 2001-02, those second-string rhythmic pop girl groups became a core sound of the medium-market Clear Channel “Kiss FMs” that were changing the sound of the format: the spackle between Linkin Park and hip-hop crossovers. But the final year of a once-hot sound is never fun. And thanks to the longer incubation times for songs at radio, the clones last longer as well.
I’m sure I complained about an overabundance of late ‘00s/early ‘10s “turbo-pop,” but, of course those records sound pretty good now. It might have seemed too soon for Meghan Trainor’s short-lived “Me Too” to hearken back to songs like “Sexy And I Know It” that had barely disappeared from the radio themselves, but as a music researcher, I’ve seen some indicators that song connected more than most people realize. In the end, there was nothing wrong with having too much fun.
It might take me a while longer to miss other trends. I’m still burnt on the overabundance of songs in every genre—but especially folky-acoustic Mumford-like pop—with the “whoa-ay-oh” chant. But I’m sure the day will come when I feel more favorably about today’s hit music, especially if something else can break the gridlock, soon. In fact, I’m looking forward to looking back at it.
Next: a forty-year history of genre burnout’s highs and lows.