By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
If you just look at a Billboard list of the top songs of 1993, that year doesn’t look like the nadir of the pop radio doldrums. After the No. 1 song, “I Will Always Love You,” the top 11 is heavily Hip-Hop (and mostly quasi-novelties) “Whoomp! (There It Is),” “Rump Shaker,” “Informer” and “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” The next tier is the rhythmic pop: Robin S.’ “Show Me Love”; Janet Jackson, “If”; Jade, “Don’t Walk Away.”
But most of those songs are there through a combination of sales and airplay at Rhythmic Top 40 radio. Mainstream Top 40 sounded nothing like that when I drove from Kansas City to Fargo, N.D., that July 4 weekend. There weren’t all that many Mainstream Top 40s to listen to. At each pole of the trip, CHR had been exiled to smaller stations that had picked up the slack from the heritage top 40 station that had fled the format. Only KQKQ (Sweet 98) Omaha, Neb., had somehow managed to tough it out.
I don’t think I heard any of the Hip-Hop hits on I-29 that weekend. What I remember was an occasional Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Is” or Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” punctuated by things like Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately,” Exposé’s “I’ll Never Get Over You (Getting Over Me),” Taylor Dayne’s version of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” UB40’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Tony Toni Toné’s “If I Had No Loot,” Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Walk on the Ocean” (a few months old but an indelible memory of the trip).
Readers probably remember one or two of those songs fondly. But that weekend was a vivid illustration of a Top 40 radio that was afraid to play the real hits, and grasping for anything else to play. I don’t dislike any Tony Toni Toné’ song. But it’s “If I Had No Loot,” from relatively far down in the Raphael Sadiiq pantheon, that I remember as the most-played song of that entire road trip. And if you dig further into 1993, you get to the Jeremy Jordan and Joey Lawrence singles that have become trivia questions.
In his engaging, just-published autobiography, The Harmony of Parts, “Open House Party” host/creator John Garabedian recalls that show being almost forced off the air in the early ‘90s and syndicator Superadio being “on life support” by 1993, thanks to a paucity of CHR stations. Even in 1995, Garabedian recalls being told that CHR would never rebound. It was only after the success of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync that Garabedian recalls the format and the show “flourishing” again.
Even before that 1995 Garabedian meeting, CHR actually had begun its comeback. And the songs that helped bring it back were arriving on several different tracks.
The first was what would come to be thought of as Modern AC. For those CHR stations still in the format, and pretty much on the cusp of being Hot AC stations anyway, it was easiest for Soul Asylum and Toad the Wet Sprocket to further prompt Hootie & the Blowfish, Melissa Etheridge, Blues Traveler and Tracy Chapman. Those songs filled the same need for rootsy/acoustic pop that Garth Brooks and Wynonna had been filling on Country radio in the previous few years. And they represented the softer end of the “New Rock Revolution” that CHR could acknowledge, since it wasn’t comfortable with Nirvana or Pearl Jam either.
The next group of songs that CHR could own were the dance/pop hits. By the time of that road trip, Snap’s “Rhythm Is a Dancer” was already a recurrent, but the steady stream of like hits from Real McCoy, Captain Hollywood Project, Culture Beat, La Bouche, and ultimately “Macarena” was just starting to flow. They would be accelerated by the arrival of WKTU New York in 1996.
Finally, in early 1997, there was the arrival in quick succession of Spice Girls and Hanson. Top 40 had remained conflicted about teen acts throughout the format’s struggle. Many blamed New Kids on the Block for the format’s travails, but that didn’t stop Jeremy Jordan or Joey Lawrence from finding at least a few believers. It was those records (along with Robyn’s “Do You Know [What It Takes]”) that helped usher in Backstreet and ’N Sync.
Other things were happening, of course. Top 40 was finding the R&B and Hip-Hop records it could acknowledge again. (The No. 8 single of 1997 is Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack.”) It was also going beyond Modern AC to find the No Doubt and Third Eye Blind records it could deal with from rock. But it was the dance and pure pop that gave CHR “songs it could own” again.
Many of the songs that CHR owned are not the ones that represent the ‘90s on the format now. Here’s a sampling of different ‘90s songs, each in a different way totemic of what was happening at radio at the time, and the airplay they received for the seven days ending Nov. 12, according to Nielsen BDSRadio:
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge” (1483 spins)
- Nirvana, “Come as You Are” (1286)
- Green Day, “When I Come Around” (1079)
- Sublime, “Santeria” (1051)
- Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” (876)
- Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So” (611)
- TLC, “No Scrubs” (601)
- Montell Jordan, “This Is How We Do It” (581)
- Puff Daddy, “I’ll Be Missing You” (518)
- Hootie & the Blowfish, “I Only Wanna Be With You” (493)
- Blackstreet, “No Diggity” (464)
- Blues Traveler, “Run Around” (426)
- Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do” (354)
- Mary J. Blige, “Real Love” (309)
- Backstreet Boys, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (196)
- Jewel, “You Were Meant for Me” (167)
- Melissa Etheridge, “Come to My Window” (134)
- Spice Girls, “Wannabe” (130)
- ‘N Sync, “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (127)
- Real McCoy, “Another Night” (113)
- Stereo MCs, “Connected” (82)
- Savage Garden, “I Want You” (81)
- Hanson, “MMMBop” (59)
- Dionne Farris, “I Know” (18)
- Los Del Rio, “Macarena” (8)
The current airplay footprint of a song is, in part, a function of what stations are available now to play it, as well as how much it’s needed by various formats.
The biggest ‘90s Alternative titles never disappeared from the radio, and the second tier emerged in the early ‘00s when the format became gold-based. Various Alternative titles have become the center lane of both Active Rock and Triple-A stations. (It’s interesting to consider that a nugget like “Connected” gets a surprising amount of its airplay at Triple-A now.)
Songs like “No Scrubs” and “This Is How We Do It” have been propelled back on to the radio by the rise of the “throwback Hip-Hop and R&B” format. And even if that format doesn’t endure, they’re becoming mainstays at Urban AC. A few, like “No Scrubs,” are even starting to test for Mainstream Adult Contemporary stations.
Sheryl Crow, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Blues Traveler are often the first songs with which Classic Hits stations delve into the ‘90s. Some modern AC titles of that ilk still work for today’s AC stations. Some are middling AC records that are more enthusiastically being received at those Classic Hits stations that really want to push newer.
That leaves the rhythmic and pure pop. Songs like “Another Night” have their champions. WMSX (Mix 96) Buffalo plays it 9x a week. KSMG (Magic 105) San Antonio 5x. WPLJ New York, which has played a lot of ‘90s rhythmic pop over the last year, 4x. WPLJ and rival WKTU are giving “Wannabe” 15 spins a week between them.
But the format that really seizes on the pop ‘90s doesn’t exist yet. To some extent, it doesn’t have to. While things might be changing now, the mother/daughter coalition that powers CHR (and even Mainstream AC) has found its common ground in today, so that there’s no need to please only half the audience with yesterday. The songs that get played now depend on formats like Urban AC or Active Rock that usually struggle for current product.
The mid-‘90s CHR rebound also took place, in part, because programmers stopped fretting about “disposable music.” One trade magazine railed at the time about the long-term career prospects of Amber and her dance-pop counterparts. There’s not a lot of similar discussion about, say, Omi now. But when CHR gave itself permission to play disposable pop, it also gave itself permission to indeed dispose of it afterwards.
It’s not impossible that we’ll have much different news to report about the gold of Real McCoy, Backstreet and ‘N Sync in a few years. It already seems to get more traction at AC radio than it did a few years ago. Every generation demands their high school music eventually. This one is just distracted by today’s music, and I wonder for how long.
“No Diggity” and “This Is How We Do It” were songs that not every CHR played during the format’s nascent comeback. Some stations went back and acknowledged those songs as recurrents or oldies. They are clearly now mass-appeal songs in a way that few were able to recognize then. But it’s interesting that it is the music that polarized in 1993 (or the few years before and after) that galvanizes now.