Headlines – RadioInsight (2024)

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Headlines – RadioInsight (1)I was eager to see the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Last week’s chart was the one that radio veteran Gene Baxter correctly identified as “The Best Billboard Top 10 in Ages.” That’s because last week’s top 10 was populated by radio hits, not by outlier songs whose story depended entirely on first-week streaming numbers (although a few of them had started out that way).

This week’s Top 10 is all radio hits as well, although how that happened is telling. Eminem’s “Houdini,” his biggest radio record in years, fell 8-12, while Benson Boone’s “Beautiful Things” rebounded 11-8. On Top 40 radio, “Beautiful Things” is still the No. 3 song, proof of the difficulty that new songs have in reaching power rotation. (I think of “Million Dollar Baby” and “I Had Some Help” as well past the “confirmed hit” point, but they’re not consensus powers at CHR at this writing, which is another discussion.)

The excitement about what’s happening now at Top 40 has dragged me away from other things I planned to write about for the past three weeks now. This week, that’s just not about the chart, it’s about the emergence of a new possible core sound in the uptempo female pop that includes the rises of both Sabrina Carpenter and Chappell Roan, but goes beyond them.

Despite this, each week, I try to be realistic. There are still a lot of asterisks:

  • May’s PPM ratings winners were often in the high four-share range — not something that would have been impressive a few years ago.
  • Nothing in the June ratings is promised. Few CHRs have been winning month after month after month.
  • This week, there are only two songs that are bigger at CHR than the five-month-old “Beautiful Things.” (That is, however, an improvement over songs lingering in power after 9-12 months in release, “Calm Down” or “Flowers”-style.)
  • The Thursday night/Friday-morning new-release excitement has been inconsistent in the three weeks since Sabrina Carpenter’s “Please Please Please,” now the Billboard No. 1.

Top 40 is working its way back from a particularly scary moment, with May showing record lows as well as rebounds. When veteran consultant Alan Burns revived the “What Women Want” study, he found surprisingly concrete dissatisfaction with the state of hit music, as he discusses here. Whether those numbers would be different today is interesting to ponder, but Burns’s numbers show the depths from which CHR has to rebound.

For decades, consultant/veteran programmer Guy Zapoleon has been the creator/arbiter of the theory of top 40 cycles, although that theory has been tested recently by some music that seemed to typify his “extremes” and “doldrums” simultaneously.

Zapoleon says he will be willing to declare an up cycle for the format “when we see great-looking Top 10s most weeks for months on end.” Even then, he notes, Top 40 up cycles used to be typified by a consistently great top 20. The CHR resurgence of 1983-85 is memorable because even the “turntable” records — the songs below the top 10 with airplay but no sales — were great, too. These days, with fewer records being promoted to CHR, the opportunity for memorable turntable hits is a lot less available. It’s also hard to imagine getting to the point where there are so many hits that other great songs can’t find room at radio.

The ”consistently radio-friendly Top 10” will have to survive the next time a superstar releases a new album and floods the Hot 100 with album cuts (although that served us pretty well with Billie Eilish’s “Birds of a Feather”). Both Top 40 and the Hot 100 will have to make it through another December dominated by 30-to-60-year-old holiday songs. (We could plan for that one now. Labels could resolve to keep the product flowing; AC stations could crossplug their CHR sisters as the place to go when you want something else this season.)

As for a ratings comeback, is it when we start having more discussions about stations in the high-5 share range? Is it when some of the market-exclusive CHRs in the 2-3 share range finally rebound? Country is as successful as any format dependent on current music, and yet even its numbers remain erratic from market to market. The proof of its rebound is most visible when you look at numbers at the national level, and so likely will it be for CHR.

About that second core sound. The first was the emergence of a distinct Triple-A/acoustic flavor reminiscent of 1995 (Hootie, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge). I became considerably more excited about that possibility when Noah Kahan’s hits or Hozier’s “Too Sweet” added some tempo to the equation. And the mid-’90s singer/songwriter sound turned out to work pretty well for CHR, as it happened, especially when there were other sounds (dance, teen pop, more R&B and Hip-Hop crossover) between them.

I wonder if we’re seeing that moment now in the sudden rush of smart, uptempo pop from female acts: the surge of Sabrina Carpenter, the return of Billie Eilish and the possible comeback of Charli XCX, the breakthrough of Chappell Roan and the other potential hits beyond “Good Luck Babe” on her debut album. If Taylor Swift’s “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” becomes a single, it will qualify as well.

It’s a category that goes deeper than what CHR has tapped into. Last fall, I thought it could be the UK’s Maisie Peters and Canada’s Charlotte Cardin that filled that need. I still think the latter’s “Confetti” — worked only to Hot AC and a midcharter there — could be the worldwide hit that it was in Canada, but Cardin has more on the album if it isn’t. Or it’s Remi Wolf, whose “Cinderella” I heard on the radio this week at Triple-A WNRN Richmond, Va.

Roan’s success and Charli XCX’s reemergence are often cited as the surfacing of a decade-old pop underground. But I also hear the new movement as informed by a diverse group of the female singer-songwriters of recent years. The common thread for those acts is a strong fan base and some radio support at Triple-A or Alternative (Claro, Phoebe Bridgers, Maggie Rogers, Sharon Van Etten, Caroline Polachek, Courtney Barnett, Beabadoobee) with music that was hooky and mid-to-uptempo, but nowhere near where Top 40 was at the time. In certain ways, “Good Luck, Babe!” is the crossover pop hit from the Boygenius album.

Girl in Red was also on that list. Her new album, I’m Doing It Again Baby, is determinedly more poppy, and has 3-4 songs that would sound great at CHR. One of them is a duet with Carpenter, who has also emerged over the last three months as a core artist that radio helped develop. I’ve encountered some grumbling about “Espresso” being silly. “Please Please Please” has its own links to singer-songwriter world (and Abba) and makes her hard to pigeonhole.

The most recent wave of punchy female pop is almost the inverse of the sometimes-severe streaming-driven male singer/songwriter music that has powered Country’s resurgence, also with its own connections to Triple-A. The newest incarnation of female pop is self-aware but not self-lacerating. Both are proving therapeutic for the audience in their own ways. I wanted to avoid the glibness of characterizing it as “I’m a loser” for the Country guys vs. “you’re a loser” for the pop women, but a lot of songs do fit that way.

The new female pop is also coming along after the Triple-A crossovers in the same way that “Wannabe” did in 1996-97. There’s no exact parallel — that song was an established UK hit just waiting for America to notice — but “Espresso” is similarly confectionary. So is Roan’s “Hot to Go,” which SiriusXM Hits 1 and KMVQ San Francisco are already playing. (In the music’s lyrical assertiveness, you could also make a case for cutting straight to the Alanis Morissette comparisons.)

The new female pop, like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry in the late ’00s, has the advantage of being uptempo, slightly edgy but mainstream hit music that CHR and Hot AC could own. Like Country crossovers, or Country/dance-hybrid novelties, it would certainly be possible for radio to overindulge, and as with Country crossovers, the best way to combat that is by playing more than 14 currents and having a strong variety of everything. That’s something you can hear on this week’s Big Hits Energy playlist.

The real test of a CHR resurgence is when the comeback is stronger than the throwbacks. Top 40 bottomed out because there was a moment where “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Toxic” beat all comers. We are now at a place where I feel decisively that there is new music worth hearing. What’s missing now is depth and consistency, and even that is more attainable with a little radio and label enterprise.

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Headlines – RadioInsight (2024)

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