Is a hit song always a product of its time? Or is there a song so magical — so potent — that you could release it any year, in any decade, and it would be a number one record?
It's a question inspired by the driving habits of singer, songwriter and producer Ryan Tedder. I spoke with Tedder earlier this year, as we were just starting to think about the questions that would lead to the Hitmakers series that has been running on All Things Considered this month.
"When I'm in the car," Tedder told me, "I have Sirius Radio and I listen to the Forties On Four [channel], which is all 1940s music."
You wouldn't immediately suspect it from listening to the commercial pop hits Tedder has penned. He's got songwriting credits on Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love," Beyonce's "Halo," and 2007's inescapable "Apologize," for his own band OneRepublic.
But he insists that the kind of song he wants to write is "The Lady is a Tramp," as done by Frank Sinatra in 1957.
"It has a soul to it that just is completely nonexistent in music today," Tedder says. "And I'm writing a lot of what's happening today, so I guess I could point the finger back at myself for propagating some of this. But when you think about a song like 'At Last' [as recorded by Etta James in 1961]" — Tedder exhaled in frustration. "I could write that song now and give it to a Mariah Carey or whomever. And it wouldn't work! You'd put it on the radio and it would die instantly."
But why? Aren't "At Last" and "Lady Is A Tramp" great songs? Wouldn't we love hearing them on the radio?
Tedder stood firm — those classic tracks would not work today. "It's too melodical," he says. "It's too musical. It doesn't have an 808 drum kit behind it, and it's not programmed to be playing in a club."
This was intriguing. And as we set up interviews with other writers and producers about they way they make hits, we wondered if they thought classic songs could transcend their era. So we asked them.
LaShawn Daniels and Makeba Riddick, the subjects of Neda Ulaby's piece about what goes into writing a hit today, have collaborated on songs for stars like Rihanna and Beyonce.
Riddick had two number one records this year alone, "Rude Boy" and "Love the Way You Lie." She knows exactly what criteria constitute a hit.
"Think about the word 'hit,'" she says. "That's a record that's being played at every party. On every format — pop, hip-hop, rock — on every chart. 'At Last' is a timeless record. But the definition of the word 'hit is not equal to 'timeless.' I was in the gym today and 'Thriller' came on. This is the biggest record of all time! But could I hear it on the radio today? If it was fresh and brand new? No."
Daniels agrees with his co-writer, and adds, "because of radio evolving, the marketplace requires something new. But ['At Last'] is a blueprint. You can go back and dissect the elements, [and discover] what was going on with people [at that time], because it translates the emotions of that era."
But in a way, "At Last" is the exception that proves the rule. "At Last" worked at the president's inauguration, Daniels points out. Beyonce sang "At Last" while Mr. and Mrs. Obama danced at one of his parties. By the end of the performance, she was in tears, and so, I would venture to say, were a lot of people watching. For a brief moment, "At Last" once again translated the emotions of an event; 31,000 copies of Beyonce's remake of the song were sold during that week. Respectable, but no where near a hit song. When another historic milestone passes, "At Last" might work once again, but probably not on the radio.
Yet old songs don't just disappear.
"So many old records have been sampled," Riddick says. "I definitely think you could give a record a facelift and it could be a hit." Today's writers take elements of what worked then — say a lyric, a bass line — and build songs that top the charts right now.
Like Evan Bogart, who re-worked Soft Cell's 1982 hit "Tainted Love" as Rihanna's 2006 hit "S.O.S."
"We took what we thought were the most memorable parts of "Tainted Love," the bassline melody and the synth, the 'Doo doo!' and then we re-interpolated that," Bogart says. "Then I wrote on top of it what a young girl's version of 'Tainted Love' would be. The only line I used from the original was 'tossing and turning, can't sleep at night.'
Bogart absolutely agrees with Tedder that "At Last" wouldn't be a hit today. "I think even if Mariah Carey recut 'Vision of Love' today it wouldn't be a hit — and that's the most classic song she's ever done!"
Bogart doesn't think even "S.O.S." would be a hit if it came out now — and it came out just a few years ago.
What made "S.O.S." work was this: It's fresh but calls back to what you heard at the skating rink. (Incidentally, have you ever noticed that each phrase in the second verse of "S.O.S." is a song title from the 1980s? Bogart is a massive '80s fan.) What you heard your parents play before you could choose your own music. That little drop of nostalgia into today's production styles can propel a song to the top of the charts.
We put it to super-producer Jerry Wonda. He produced The Score for the Fugees and more recent smash records like Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." More fervently than anyone, this producer believes there is no hit song from the past that you could release right now and have it go to number one.
"It's a whole new sonic today," Wonda told me. "If I did the Fugees again right now, I would give them a whole new sonic." He wouldn't give the Fugees that same sound that made their album a hit in the mid-nineties, and a classic now. "I got sonic," Wonda promises, "that nobody using yet." Sonic that wouldn't have been possible ten years ago, and sonic that won't work ten years out, because of how technology's evolution affects the music pop producers create.
Finally, we put Tedder's theory to one of the greatest hitmakers ever: Quincy Jones. He's one of the only people alive who's been making hits since the 1940s.
If you look back at the 1940s and try to figure out what was working then, Jones says, you might want to pay attention to this one thing — something that seems to be omnipresent in the hits that are topping the charts right now, this last week of 2010.
"In the thirties and forties, Basie was one of the biggest bands in America," Jones says. "And the bass drum was four to the floor — gong, gong, gong, gong — exactly the same as disco. Exactly."
What worked in the forties worked in the seventies works right now. Listen to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," as one of many examples. It's four to the floor! The hits may change, but the elements do not.