Not That There's Anything Wrong With ... Ballads
March 26, 2015
Country radio's hot topic this week suddenly appears to be Little Big Town's single, "Girl Crush," a daring single from a daring album ("Pain Killer") filled with daring songs, brought to you by a group that has become gutsier and -- dare I say it again -- more daring with each release over the past few years.
In case you've been away on spring vacation or on an extended device break, here's the skinny: After 12 weeks, the song is hanging in there at #32 on the Mediabase Country singles chart. Depending on who you talk to or what you read about it, "Girl Crush" is moving glacially (by LBT standards) because it's either too edgy, too slow or -- crazily, here in 2015 -- too 'gay."
Wha? Huh? "Gay?"
Yeah, according to a piece in Washington Post this week, discussing "Girl Crush," that's the big roadblock from the single's breakthrough.
Snarkily titled "Why stations are pulling Little Big Town's 'Girl Crush' — and what that says about Country radio," the piece focused on a supposed "gay" issue, claiming the lyrical content creates the perception of promoting a gay agenda, thanks to this opening line: "I got a girl crush/Hate to admit it/but, I got a heart rush/Ain't slowing down/I got it real bad."
While a great headline and an interesting, albeit fictional storyline, the piece missed the real story, conveniently bashing Country radio and oh -- by the way -- burying the lead.
"Maybe the real controversy is that a 6/8 ballad is on Country radio." That was LBT's Karen Fairchild, getting the last word in the Post piece and perfectly summing up what's actually happening with "Girl Crush" at this point in the life of the record.
This is really all about a ballad being a ballad.
"Girl Crush" is 12 weeks old. Historically, slow, impactful songs take time -- then, take off.
For example, I looked at a few other powerful and what I would call daring, career-making ballads from the past few years that are still played as gold or power recurrent titles on Country radio. All of them took a while to happen, but ultimately became defining records for these artists.
- Luke Bryanâ€™s â€œDo Iâ€ was first played on or about April 20th, 2009 and peaked at #1 on December 9th that year. I would make the case that this song was the pivot point for Bryan, changing his career trajectory.
- The Band Perry â€œIf I Die Youngâ€ took 27 weeks to peak at #1 in 2010 â€“ it broke them as a legitimate Country act.
- Again, The Band Perry, this time with â€œAll Your Life.â€ Another 27-week run to #1 in 2012.
- Staying with the 27-week theme, Thompson Squareâ€™s â€œIf I Didnâ€™t Have Youâ€ took that amount of time before topping the charts in April 2013.
- Tyler Farrâ€™s â€œRedneck Crazyâ€ was a 30-week march to the top in 2013.
- Also in 2013, Parmaleeâ€™s â€œCarolinaâ€ took 42 weeks to peak at #1.
The average number of weeks for a song to hit #1 in 2014 was 21. Remember, thatâ€™s an average. A handful of 4-5 artists routinely top the charts within 11-13 weeks â€“ this rare air includes Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert and sometimes, Zac Brown Band, Keith Urban and Eric Church. These elite artist help pull the average down; other guys like Brett Eldredge and Lee Brice have taken 30-plus weeks to go #1.
As for LBT's "Girl Crush," Capitol VP/Promotion Shane Allen told me, "We're in a great spot; this could be a career record for them. It's a top-five selling single and we're about to break into the top 30. We're good here."
And that other conversation? "That is a complete non-issue in terms of the life of this song" says Allen.
Again, this is a ballad being a ballad. Does anybody remember what that means? Perhaps as a format, we're a bit rusty with knowing how to manage slow, story songs. When you think about it, it's been a few years since we've had so many to deal with at once; this format has been all about tempo, energy and party time for the past four years or so. With songs from familiar artists -- like LBT -- running up and down the charts in recent years, it feels like some programmers aren't as patient as they should be at times. While the new breed of programmers from Pop radio have brought energy and a willingness to play the living crap out of songs-- which I believe has had a mostly positive impact on Country -- others don't understand that for Country music in general and ballads in particular, songs need to "burn in," not out.
There's also this: "Girl Crush" is a fairly young record by today's spin standards.
Of the 142 stations showing spins on the single, 77 of them have played it fewer than 100 times. That's not enough for reliable feedback. Seventeen other stations have 200 or more spins with just five showing more than 300 plays.
If anyone in radio is seeing spotty to inconsistent research results for this song so far, here's the answer, if you just can't wait out the eventual positive scores (i.e. "Burn It In"): Play the living shit out of "Girl Crush" for two weeks. Power it. Make a "Crush" category where songs cannot be ignored and familiarity comes fast. There are times in the life of a song when the only way to know if it's a hit is to treat it like one. Insulate it with power gold or recurrent if you need to -- but play it often and keep testing it. You'll know soon enough what you've got.
That's a programming take on "Girl Crush," which I wouldn't expect the Washington Post to understand, so I'll give them a pass.
But hey, if you're really stuck on the "gay issue" with the song, Okay, I'll play along for a minute.
Hmnnn. Last time I checked, a) This is 2015 and b) most songs have more than one verse and a chorus, too. Also, for anybody playing the "gay" card as an airplay speedbump, how about a) Listening to, say, the ENTIRE song and b) refer to my first "a" and realize what year this is.
I recently spoke to Jimi Westbrook of Little Big Town, who told me, "We've heard those conversations; that some people aren't getting past the first part of it."
Westbrook, while understanding that initial reaction, believes people should lean in a little more. "The song is about jealousy. Country music has always had great songs of jealousy, and I think that in particular this is a brilliant story about jealousy."
As evidenced by part of the second verse: "I want her long blonde hair/I want her magic touch/Yeah, 'cause maybe then/You'd want me just as much."
"That's a classic tale," said Westbrook. "I think everybody has dealt with rejection at some time in their life, and there's that moment when you're sitting there and thinking about that person they're with now and going, 'What do I not have that they have?'"
Is the song edgy? Hell yes it is, from a sonic standpoint. See my earlier assertion and reference to daring. LBT's "Pain Killer" album was my #1 album from 2014, precisely BECAUSE of its edginess.
Is it controversial? Well, not really, but it makes for great (but fictional) copy in mainstream print and social media.
No, people. It's a ballad and it's early and it's really that simple.