By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
They can be easily identified now as the worst musical years in CHR radio’s history, but that’s not how the early ‘90s started out. There was excitement in 1989 when Scott Shannon launched Pirate Radio on KQLZ Los Angeles, based in pop/metal “hair bands,” but not exclusively. There was excitement again when Shannon rebranded WPLJ New York as “Mojo Radio,” two years later and went up against a reinvigorated WHTZ (Z100).
In that particular period of spring 1991, the songs I associate with the Mojo/Z100 battle are “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M., “Joyride” by Roxette, “Strike It Up” by Black Box, “I Touch Myself” by Divinyls, “Here We Go (Let’s Rock & Roll)” by C&C Music Factory, “More Than Ever” by Nelson, and “Someday” by Mariah Carey. Some of those endure way more than others now, but it hardly seemed like a descent into what followed.
In fact, after a few years where KPWR (Power 106) Los Angeles and its “crossover” brethren — some a new kind of CHR, some Urban stations with CHR reporting status — had been the only excitement on the landscape, the late ‘80s/early ‘90s represented a period where CHR variety had been asserting itself again. It was also the era of “Power Pig” WFLZ Tampa, Fla., and dozens of aggressively imaged stations inspired by that station, Pirate Radio, and others.
There was also the “brat pack” of CHR PDs that looked for reaction records and “bring-back” songs. Sometimes those efforts of CHR PDs in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s would lead to KDWB Minneapolis breaking “The Look” by Roxette as a Swedish import. But it could also mean “Into the Night” by Benny Mardones or “When I’m With You” by Sheriff were back on the charts. Those songs didn’t rankle much at the time because they weren’t yet part of a larger crisis.
Neither did Michael Bolton. For me, he arrived not as a Soft AC lightning rod, but as that guy who made “Fools Game” and “She Did the Same Thing,” two perfectly good moments from the 1982-83 twilight of corporate rock. In the era of Churban and hair bands, Bolton ticked both boxes, particularly after writing “Forever” for Kiss. I’ve always suspected Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island’s affection for Bolton began with hearing him as an R&B artist on KMEL San Francisco before people knew they weren’t supposed to like him.
I was more concerned about Wilson Phillips. “Hold On” was instantly recognizable to me as the kind of record that had sapped CHR’s energy a decade earlier. Then they released three more singles like it, and the one that talked about being “Impulsive” and reckless rankled that much more for being in no way impulsive and reckless. And “Bridesmaids” has done nothing to rehabilitate those songs for me.
In 1990, I went on a Labor Day weekend drive between Washington, D.C., and the Carolinas. After a whole weekend of Wilson Phillips’ “Release Me” (along with “Vision of Love,” “Blaze of Glory,” and the fast-breaking resurgence of “Unchained Melody”), it did occur to me that CHR might be getting wimpy again. But the other songs on the radio were “Unskinny Bop,” “Do Me!” and “The Power” by Snap! Maybe what followed could be blamed on a lack of punctuation.
Six months later, Bolton came back with “Love Is a Wonderful Thing”; I remember my office-mate and I being excited that he had finally picked up the tempo. Amy Grant had just arrived with “Baby Baby,” then “Every Heartbeat.” Grant is often mentioned in the same breath with Bolton in any discussion of the early ‘90s doldrums, but those records sounded great on the radio at the time, and after years as a star of Christian AC, she was a fresh, likable presence for CHR listeners.
Then it was spring 1992 and suddenly Bolton was on his fourth ballad follow-up from the same album. “Every Heartbeat” had given way to Grant’s solemn “I Will Remember You.” There were still glimmers of excitement (Kris Kross, En Vogue, Nirvana — for those CHR stations willing to acknowledge them). But there was plenty more solemnity among the legit smashes (Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “Under the Bridge,” U2’s “One,” Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be There”) and the almost-smashes (Genesis’ “Hold On My Heart,” Celine Dion’s “If You Asked Me To”) alike. I remember listening to Z100 and wondering how it was that I liked the radio so much a few months earlier.
All of this was, of course, taking place against the rapid evacuation of the format by station owners, soon to include WPLJ, and the rise of Country radio. In spring 89, CHR had controlled 15.9% of national listening. By winter ’92, that had fallen to 10.6% — making CHR fourth among formats. In the same time, Country radio had risen from 9.4% to 12.5%. In a few years, being fourth in any market would have been a win for the format, but at that point it was enough to trigger a crisis of confidence.
Within a year, CHR was in a trick bag. There were fewer records CHR could own, fewer stations to break them, and no lateral support for songs like “That’s What Love Can Do” by Boy Krazy or “Steam” by Peter Gabriel. And while this series is about genre burnout, it’s also about the genres thrown out. Many CHR stations found reasons not to play Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, or Alternative. The Z100 that finally pushed aside the AC records and began playing “Slam” by Onyx along with “Connected” by Stereo MCs and “Come as You Are” by Nirvana was one of the most exciting stations ever. But it was an exception.
I don’t blame Michael Bolton. There weren’t really that many AC-leaning balladeers who were obviously signed in his wake, although Curtis Stigers and Joshua Kadison (influences of Bolton, but also Harry Chapin) come to mind. Bolton has become shorthand for the era, but if he had been surrounded by different product, he wouldn’t have rankled. It was when CHR began to rely on the secondary tracks from albums by Bolton, Grant, Genesis and others at the same time that we felt bereft. (Also, many years later, he gave me one of my best artist interviews ever.)
As with the mid-‘80s dance/pop boom, some of the vacuum was created by a failure of major artists to deliver follow-up projects. Madonna steered hard into controversy (“Hanky Panky,” “Justify My Love,”
“Erotica”) and then overcompensated with ballads. George Michael and Paula Abdul both overreached. Def Leppard, INXS, and Bobby Brown’s follow-ups felt like more of the same. New Kids on the Block’s follow-up ran up against both detractors of the music and the nature of the act itself.
Going back through the charts of the time, the real genre burnout, if anything, was the MOR-flavored R&B balladry spawned by the arrival of Mariah Carey and “The Bodyguard”-driven resurgence of Whitney Houston. There was a new generation of R&B influenced by Hip-Hop or at least targeted to that generation — Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci. But there were also soft AC songs by acts who just happened to be from the R&B world:
- “I Don’t Have the Heart” by James Ingram
- “Set the Night to Music” by Roberta Flack & Maxi Priest
- The Peabo Bryson Disney movie duets—“Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World”
- “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams (which I liked, by the way)
- “Masterpiece” by Atlantic Starr
- Bolton’s cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”
- A handful of female signings who in no way deserve to be dismissed as Mariah imitators, but who I remember being promoted as the “next Mariah” in the industry at the time; e.g., Wendy Moten or Lisa Fischer.
None of this should be in any way construed as saying that R&B was the problem here. From “Real Love” to “Rump Shaker,” if CHR had remained comfortable with playing Hip-Hop and R&B, it would have been stronger and played more hits. But in the 1980’s doldrums, the issue was being mostly comfortable with the most ACish of the available R&B — “Slow Hand,” not the Gap Band.
In addition, there were non-R&B acts covering adjacent territory (Jon Secada, early Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan as she moved further into ballad world). They weren’t landing that far from the rockers taking up residence in the ballad or “Unplugged” zones — Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton. It was a lot for an occasional “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors or “Don’t Walk Away” by Jade to have to compensate for.
Next time, the history of Genre Burnout returns with Triple-A Pop (before we knew to call it that) and Eurodance.
More from the Ross On Radio Genre Burnout series: