Radio Hits One: Reality TV Propels Aging Stars Back Into The Top 40


When I heard that Jennifer Lopez was leveraging her new position as an American Idol judge to launch her new single, premiering the video for “On The Floor” on one episode and performing the song on another, I rolled my eyes at what I thought was her hubris. It’d been less than two years since Lopez’s long-flagging music career had seemed to finally come to a screeching halt; her single “Louboutins” flopped, and Sony opted to drop Lopez rather than release her seventh album. Using Idol as a platform to relaunch herself into pop stardom seemed doomed and desperate.

Or so I thought.

A few months later, “On The Floor” has peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and stands as the sixth-biggest digital single of 2011 so far, nearing three million sold. That makes it either Lopez’s biggest hit in eight years or the biggest hit of her career, depending on how you measure these things. With help from Lady Gaga producer RedOne and Top 40 radio’s favorite rapper of the moment, Pitbull, J.Lo is suddenly back on the pop landscape. The other new addition to the Idol judges’ table this year, Steven Tyler, has experienced only modest success with his recent debut solo single, “(It) Feels So Good,” although at the very least it’s the Aerosmith frontman’s first Top 40 hit in about a decade. (And “Good”‘s chart showing is better than the No. 62 peak of “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” Paula Abdul’s 2008 collaboration with still-standing Idol judge Randy Jackson.)

It’s notable that American Idol‘s newly established ability to revitalize the careers of its celebrity judges comes at a time when the show’s starmaking capacity is at an all-time low. Season 10 champion Scotty McCreery’s “I Love You This Big” peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100, making him the third consecutive Idol winner whose debut single missed the top 10, after years of Idol ‘coronation singles’ shooting to No. 1 or close to it. McCreery hasn’t yet released an album, but it seems likely he’ll also be the third Idol winner in a row to fail to go gold (although 2009’s runner-up, Adam Lambert, managed both a top 10 single and a gold album). Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood may remain comfortably established in the pop music firmament, but Idol‘s days of launching major stars seem to be slowly receding into the past.

The Voice, the new singing competition that proved to be something of a breakout hit for NBC, is in a similarly strange position, with its celeb participants outshining the unknown hopefuls. Of course, The Voice made a point from the very beginning of picking pop stars whose careers are a little more current than Paula Abdul’s to judge and advise its contestants: one of its four celebrity mentors, Cee Lo Green, is still riding high on the monster success of “Fuck You”/”Forget You.” And even though both Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine were coming off of 2010 albums that sold poorly and yielded no major hits, they remain pretty big contemporary stars.


Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera, “Moves Like Jagger” (Live on The Voice)

Around the time Javier Colon was crowned the winner of The Voice‘s first season and launched his single “Stitch By Stitch” to No. 17 on the Hot 100, Aguilera and Lambert released a new Maroon 5 single, “Moves Like Jagger.” It handily outperformed Colon’s song, peaking at No. 8. Even The Voice‘s least famous mentor, country singer Blake Shelton, rode the show’s popularity to his greatest crossover success to date, with the single “Honey Bee” peaking at No. 13. The Voice was a more inspiring and entertaining show than Idol this year, partly because the celebs seemed to really bond with the contestants and sincerely want them to do well. But one wonders if Colon and his fellow competitors feel a little used by the stars, who ultimately grabbed the primetime spotlight to revitalize their own careers.

When reality TV first exploded on American primetime at the dawn of the 21st century, the focus was primarily on taking regular everyday folks and making them hugely famous, at least for a little while. The first wave of established celebrities to capitalize on the craze consisted largely of has-beens, particularly when it came to musicians. VH1’s Celebreality programming block catapulted singers and rappers whose best days were a decade or two behind them—Vanilla Ice, Bret Michaels, Flavor Flav—back into the spotlight.

Many of the middle-aged musicians who caught the reality TV bug found themselves suddenly more famous than ever, but it rarely helped them sell records or return to the singles charts. Ozzy Osbourne found himself welcomed into America’s homes thanks to MTV’s The Osbournes, but its effect on his career was negligible: his solo albums actually sold less after the show became a hit, while his presence on hard rock radio was pretty much the same as before. The show did, however, launch the briefly successful career of his daughter Kelly, and when she dueted with her dad on a rendition of the Black Sabbath oldie “Changes,” it gave Ozzy something he’d never had in his long career: a No. 1 single in the UK.

For a few years, established music stars seemed to try harder and harder to use reality TV to boost their careers with worse and worse results. TLC and INXS tastelessly used Idol-style TV competitions to replace deceased group members, and the world wisely ignored them. And then all sorts of mildly relevant musicians got in on the act with their own shows, which began to function as just another promotional platform, while many has-beens are happy to still be on TV somewhere other than VH1 Classic. For some, stints on TV were more of an obstacle than an asset on the comeback trail: Whitney Houston’s publicity blitz for her chart-topping 2009 album I Look To You was all about reminding the world that she was once pop’s biggest diva, and not just that crazy lady on Being Bobby Brown.

Glee‘s recent emergence as a blockbuster recording-industry franchise proved that TV can still have a huge impact on music sales, even as American Idol‘s influence on the Billboard charts has sagged. But the return of Lopez, Aguilera and Levine to the top 10 revealed a new link between pop comebacks and television exposure. Somewhere out there, you can bet there’s an aging diva whose last album flopped that’s putting in calls to 19 Entertainment, trying to find out if J.Lo’s spot at the judges’ table is up for grabs next year.