By Sean Ross
Motown, a record label that knew a little something about brand, often played it safe when it came to following-up a hit single. “It’s The Same Old Song” was the famous case of the sound-alike follow-up becoming an in-joke, but “War [What Is It Good For?]” begat “Stop The War, Now.” “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” spawned the even harsher “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved.” Occasionally the sound-alike worked. As often, it squandered an artist’s momentum.
The early Jackson 5 hits showed the Motown machine at its finest. The first three all sounded like “I Want You Back.” But the fourth was the change-up ballad, “I’ll Be There.” When Michael and the brothers Jackson finally started writing their own hits, “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” became the even better “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Then the same formula gave us the less remembered “Lovely One,” which slowed the hitmaking streak for a year or two.
Fortunately, Michael had “Billie Jean” waiting in the wings. Then he released “Beat It” just as “Thriller” was being propelled from hit album to phenomenon. “Michael Jackson goes rock” was a change-up, but one done from a position of strength. And then Michael fell back into a pattern of repetition (“Thriller” + “Beat It” = “Bad”) that wore the musical excitement off subsequent releases.
For any artist, each new single — especially the first single from a new project — is a branding choice. Should they follow today’s musical trends, even at risk of bandwagon jumping? Should they give fans what they want, even if it’s repetitious? Fleetwood Mac’s edgier “Tusk” single bewildered millions of “Rumours” fans. The Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight,” released the same day, was the safer choice–riding the momentum of “Hotel California” but without the same spirit of innovation.
The ideal singles are those that simultaneously maintain and freshen an artist’s image. Fans don’t think the change-up is that out of character; detractors say, “I didn’t know they had it in them.” The music reaches new fans who were unaware of the old image anyway. Adele was one of a half-dozen retro-R&B acts in Amy Winehouse’s wake, until the extra oomph of “Rolling In The Deep” made her the artist that defined the category. Carly Rae Jepsen had a handful of pop acoustic hits on Canadian radio, until “Call Me Maybe” turbo-charged her sound.
Sometimes the calculated change-ups are both risky and enduring. Of the three Kiss ’70s hits you’ll still hear on the radio now, one was their policy statement, “Rock & Roll All Night,” but the ballad “Beth” and danceable “I Was Made For Loving You” were controversial at the time. Kiss wouldn’t have another hit for nearly a decade after their disco “sell-out” single. But “I Was Made…” was wildly influential and still sounds contemporary nearly 35 years later.
The hardest rebranding is when artists whose very franchise is their “fun factor” turn serious. That violation of brand has tripped up acts from Paula Abdul to Lady Gaga, and most famously George Michael, who spent the goodwill created by the “Faith” album on the ponderous “Praying For Time.” After “When I Come Around,” Green Day wanted to remind us all they were still punks with “Geek Stink Breath,” and if you don’t remember that title, that’s the point. To reclaim their career momentum an album later, they needed another change-up, “Time Of Your Life.”
Following musical trends is another possible pitfall. It’s easy to sound like a not-so-fresh reworking of what was on the radio 9-12 months ago when your new single was being written. What’s right for an artist often depends on song quality, and where they are in their career arc. “Call Me Maybe” spurred an album of mediocre dance pop that obliterated any sense of Jepsen’s own identity. But around the same time, fellow Canadian Serena Ryder began making similar pop records and even her original singer-songwriter audience was happier.
Beyoncé’s recent self-titled success has prompted numerous articles unto itself, but it’s worth mentioning how she negotiated the first single trap. After three consecutive lead-off fizzles that were nice enough, but not special (“Déjà Vu”) or too much like previous hits (“If I Were A Boy” and “Girls [Run The World]“), it was actually better not to let any one song set the tone for the project. It’s a gamble that worked so spectacularly because, even with the misses, she had a 15-plus year portfolio of hits that were consistent with brand, but different from each other: the ideal for every artist.
Sean Ross covers music and radio both for those inside the business and those looking to follow or understand it. Follow him @RossOnRadio and subscribe to his free, weekly “Ross On Radio” newsletter here. http://twitter.us5.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=908909951efbd6c235deaefb1&id=679b187753