Adele’s 21 has ruled the American charts for most of 2011, and it’s done so almost entirely on the back of one song: the lead single “Rolling In The Deep.” While the British singer was topping charts in her homeland and several other countries with the follow-up single, the ballad “Someone LIke You,” her US promotional campaign just kept on milking the uptempo “Rolling.” The Ryan Tedder co-write “Rumour Has It” thrived on a few niche radio formats this spring and summer (it hit No. 1 on the Triple A chart), but for most of America, Adele has been synonymous with only “Deep” in 2011. And in an age where promotional blitzes include multiple singles preceding an album’s release (Lady Gaga was on her third single by the time Born This Way hit stores in May), selling so many copies of an album because of one hit is a staggering achievement.
Last month, a couple weeks after “Someone Like You” was sent to American radio for adds, Adele finally properly launched the single’s stateside campaign with a performance of it at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The strategy seemed to deliberately mirror the way it was launched in the UK; a performance of “Someone” at the BRIT Awards had sent the song skyrocketing to the top of that country’s charts all the way back in January. And given that the performance, frankly, felt kind of drab and low-energy when contrasted to the headline-grabbing performances by Beyoncé and Gaga, I was pretty skeptical about the odds of the BRIT effect repeating itself. But evidently it worked, because “Someone Like You” ascended to the top of the Hot 100 last week.
Adele has a lot of momentum in 2011, so the success of this single shouldn’t be too surprising. But “Someone” is a slow song, and for the last few years, virtually every song to top the Hot 100 has been unapologetically uptempo. This year’s No. 1s that could call themselves anything resembling ballads were Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” While those songs may be tender and slow-paced compared to other recent hits, though, they still feature thumping programmed beats (at 108 and 125 BPM, respectively). If a DJ put on either of those songs in a club, couples would not instinctively step closer to each other for a slow dance.
Back in July, New York‘s Nitsuh Abebe noted noted that the average age of artists making Hot 100 chart-toppers had shrunk in the last three decades from 34 to 26, and that the sound of those hits had largely shifted from ballads to dance club bangers. Of the ’90s, he wrote, “In any given week of the decade, there was a 10 percent chance the No. 1 song was by Boyz II Men. Add Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Bryan Adams, and chances hit 24 percent. Americans spent a quarter of a decade listening to this sort of thing: big, lavish ballads, built to charm middle-aged and middle-school listeners alike.”
Ballads and songs from the gentler ends of R&B, pop, rock, rap and country alike continued to regularly rule the top spot of the Hot 100 for the first few years of the 21st century (it’s illustrative of the era that that Sisqo went to No. 1 with the slow, schmaltzy “Incomplete,” not “Thong Song”). But from 2002 to 2006, most of the chart-topping ballads were coronation singles by American Idol winners, sent to No. 1 primarily by singles sold to the rabid fanbase of TV’s biggest phenomenon. Meanwhile, the majority of airplay-driven No. 1s in that period were the kind of clubby R&B and hip-hop that served the same role in pop music currently occupied by dance pop.
In 2005 leading into 2006, Mariah Carey reclaimed the chart-topping balladeer crown she’d possessed in the ’90s with “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us”; James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” hit the top spot shortly after Early in the summer of ’06, the era of the American Idol coronation No. 1 ended with “Do I Make You Proud” by Taylor Hicks, and the songs that topped the Hot 100 for the rest of that summer—”Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado, “London Bridge” by Fergie, “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake—would set the club-crazy tone of the next five years.
In the past half decade, even the gentlest chart-toppers tend not to feel like full-on ballads. Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna’s equally successful knockoff “Take A Bow” are both relatively downtempo, but both feature more sass and humor than the average breakup lament, as well as prominent rhythm tracks. When Furtado and Timberlake returned to No. 1 with slower, more brooding songs, “Say It Right” and “What Goes Around” were both backed by thumping Timbaland beats. The last time a song remotely as slow and quiet as “Someone LIke You” topped the charts was about four years ago. “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, driven entirely by acoustic guitars and strings, was the last No. 1 before Adele to feature no percussion track at all (Billboard noted this week that “Someone Like You” is, amazingly, the first piano-and-vocal No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 53-year history); later that summer, Fergie managed an unlikely turn as balladeer with “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Since then, the No. 1 spot has been almost a nonstop dance party.
Not many of the artists who have dominated the singles charts in the last couple of years do ballads well, if at all. “Unfaithful” is perhaps the least remembered of Rihanna’s many hits, while “Thinking of You” is Katy Perry’s only single to miss the top 10. It’s hard to even imagine Ke$ha singing a ballad. Britney Spears, like most of her TRL contemporaries, routinely released ballads as singles, but since 2007’s Blackout it’s just been one uptempo anthem after another. Lady Gaga’s “Yoü And I” is her eleventh consecutive top 10 single in America and the first one that could even remotely be considered a ballad, but the song’s bombastic Mutt Lange-produced stomp has a lot more oomph than the piano-driven arrangement she premiered on tour last year.
Not even at the height of disco’s domination of the music industry were ballads and gentler downtempo songs as marginalized on the Hot 100 as they’ve been in recent years; “How Deep Is Your Love” peaked just as high as “Stayin’ Alive,” after all. Country and rock acts used to cross over to the top 10 with ballads, but lately only Taylor Swift’s most uptempo singles, and chipper hits by Foster The People and Hot Chelle Rae, have made that move. Adele has already been supplanted at No. 1 by Maroon 5’s fast-paced, Christina Aguilera-assisted “Moves Like Jagger,” which rebounded into the top spot. So it remains to be seen whether “Someone Like You” hitting No. 1 was just a TV-assisted blip, or if it too will bounce back to the top spot, and eventually achieve the kind of of ginormous success that arguably no ballad has had in America in the six years since “We Belong Together.”