Would 'At Last' Be A Hit Today? : The Record Six of today's hitmakers on whether a classic song can transcend the era in which it was made.
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Would 'At Last' Be A Hit Today?

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Would 'At Last' Be A Hit Today?

Would 'At Last' Be A Hit Today?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This month, we've been meeting hitmakers, people who make and sell songs that go to the top of the charts. In Nashville and Atlanta, New York and L.A., they are focused on producing the pop song of the moment.

But as NPR's Zoe Chace reports, they also study the music of their parents and grandparents.

ZOE CHACE: Picture this: Pop music writer Ryan Tedder driving around Los Angeles, drumming his fingers on the dash, listening to his favorite radio station.

Mr. RYAN TEDDER (Songwriter): When I'm in the car, I have Sirius Radio and I listen to the Forties On Four, which is, you know, all 1940s music.

CHACE: This is a guy who writes and sings pop music that plays on today's commercial pop radio. But he's not listening to those stations hoping to hear his own songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Bleeding Love")

Ms. LEONA LEWIS (Singer): (Singing) Keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love.

(Soundbite of song, "Apologize")

ONEREPUBLIC (Band): (Singing) It's too late to apologize. It's too late.

(Soundbite of song, "Halo")

BEYONCE (Singer): (Singing) Halo. I can see your halo, halo, halo.

CHACE: Those are songs sung by the likes of Leona Lewis and Beyonce, and also by Tedder himself as front man of his own band, OneRepublic.

But here's the song he wants to write.

(Soundbite of song, "The Lady Is A Tramp")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) She gets too hungry for dinner at eight. She likes the theater and never comes late.

Mr. TEDDER: I mean, it has a soul to it that just is completely nonexistent in music today. I feel like a Frank Sinatra - and, you know, and I'm writing it, so writing a lot of what's happening today, so I guess I could point the finger back to myself for propagating some of this. But, you know, when you think about a song like "At Last"...

(Soundbite of song, "At Last")

Ms. ETTA JAMES (Singer): (Singing) At last...

Mr. TEDDER: I could write that song now and give it to, let's say, a Mariah Carey or whomever, and it wouldn't work. You'd put it on the radio and it would die instantly.

(Soundbite of song, "At Last")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) My lonely days are over. And life is like a song.

Mr. TEDDER: Try and think about that working today, that's just not - I mean, it's like, forget it. It's too melodical, you know? It's too musical. It's not - it doesn't have an 808 drum kit behind it. And it's not programmed to be playing in a club.

CHACE: Everyone we interviewed for our series on Hitmakers agreed with Ryan Tedder. A hit song is always a product of its moment. The very nature of a hit is that it's fleeting.

Mr. LASHAWN DANIELS (Songwriter): It's a blueprint.

CHACE: LaShawn Daniels has been writing hit songs for more than 10 years.

Mr. DANIELS: You can definitely go back in the '40s and everything and just dissect the elements of that hit record, the emotion of the time frame, what was going on in that time period to the people, because it translate the emotion of that era.

CHACE: It's not just the Rat Pack or Motown that today's writers keep in their back pocket.

Ms. MAKEBA RIDDICK (Singer-songwriter): I was in the gym today and "Thriller" came on.

CHACE: Makeba Riddick writes commercial pop songs with Daniels.

Ms. RIDDICK: And I was like, oh, my goodness, this is like the biggest record of all time.

Mr. DANIELS: Right.

Ms. RIDDICK: But could I hear it on the radio today?

Mr. DANIELS: If it was fresh and brand-new, right now, if it came out today.


CHACE: But here's how "Thriller" is relevant to today's hitmakers. Here's why they study up on the hits of the '40s, '50s, '60s: Because they will take elements of what worked then - say a lyric, a bass line -and build a song that'll top the charts right now.

Ms. RIDDICK: So many of those old records have been sampled and become number one records all over again.

Mr. DANIELS: Right. Right.

Ms. RIDDICK: So I definitely think that you could give a record a facelift and it could be a hit.

Mr. DANIELS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "S.O.S. (Rescue Me)")

RIHANNA (Singer): (Singing) La-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la-la-oh. You know...

CHACE: This is what the 1982 hit "Tainted Love" sounded like when it was re-worked into the hit song "S.O.S." in 2006. Evan Bogart wrote it. He's another one who's written for the likes of Beyonce, Britney Spears and Rihanna.

Mr. EVAN BOGART (Songwriter): We took what we thought were the most memorable parts of "Tainted Love," which were the bass line melody and the synth, the doo, doo, and we re-interpolated that. And then, you know, I wrote, on top of it, what a young female's new version of "Tainted Love" would be like. The only line I used from the original is tossing and turning, you know, can't sleep at night.

(Soundbite of song, "S.O.S. (Rescue Me)")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Y.O.U. are making this hard. You got me tossin' and turnin', can't sleep at night.

CHACE: This is what made "S.O.S." a hit: It's fresh but calls back to what you heard on the ice skating rink, what you heard your parents play before you could choose your own music. But there's one problem with that approach.

Mr. QUINCY JONES (Musician): If you sample everything today, what are you going to sample in 20 years?

CHACE: Quincy Jones - that's the guy we need. He's maybe the only person alive who's been making mega hits since the 1940s: jazz hits, soul hits, Motown hits, pop hits. He produced "Thriller." He's going to tell us about the connection between the hits today and the hits of 60 years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

CHACE: Now think back to today's music writers driving around L.A., listening to Count Basie and his orchestra. That's not just a writer with his head in the sand, nostalgic for an era where pop cost a nickel. That's a writer who's developing tomorrow's hit songs. Because from Basie to Katy Perry, what worked in the '40s, worked in the '70s, works right now.

Mr. JONES: In the '30s and '40s, Basie was one of the biggest bands in America. And the bass drum was four to the floor - gong, gong, gong, gong. Exactly the same. Exactly the same as disco. Exactly.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of song, "Disco Inferno")

THE TRAMMPS (Band): (Singing) Burn, baby, burn. Disco inferno. Burn, baby, burn. Burn that mother down.

(Soundbite of song, "Teenage Dream")

Ms. KATY PERRY (Singer): (Singing) ...teenage dream, the way you turn me on.

CHACE: Four to the floor. It's got a good beat. You can dance to it. It's a hit.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Teenage Dream")

Ms. PERRY: (Singing) My heart stops when you look at me. Just one touch. Now, baby, I believe this is real. So take a chance and don't ever look back. Don't ever look back.


"Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry was the number one single for two weeks this fall, one of three number one hits she had in 2010. Here at year's end, we'll take a quick note of some of the biggest names on the charts this year.

SIEGEL: And Katy Perry is one of three women who dominated the Billboard Hot 100. Going back to January, a new name was zipping up the charts -Kesha, with an ode to too much partying.

(Soundbite of song, "Tik Tok")

KESHA (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.

P. DIDDY (Rapper): Hey, what up, girl?

KESHA: (Singing) Got my glasses. I'm out the door. I'm gonna hit this city.

P. DIDDY: Let's go.

KESHA: (Singing) Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, 'cause when I leave for the night, I ain't coming back.

CORNISH: "Tik Tok" stayed at the top for nine weeks, longer than any other song this year.

(Soundbite of song, "Tik Tok")

KESHA: (Singing) Don't stop. Make it pop. DJ, blow my speakers up. Tonight, I'mma fight 'til we see the sunlight.

CHACE: After two months, Kesha finally ceded her number one spot. Then, in March, Rihanna staked her first claim of the year on the Hot 100.

(Soundbite of song, "Rude Boy")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up? Come here, rude boy, boy, is you big enough? Take it, take it, baby, baby. Take it, take it, love me, love me. Come here, rude boy, boy, can you get it up? Come here, rude boy, boy, is you big enough? Take it, take it, baby, baby. Take it, take it...

SIEGEL: Rihanna would go on to have a total of four number one songs on the charts this year, more than any other artist.

CORNISH: By another measure, there was a singer who was even more popular - Justin Bieber. His video for "Baby" has more views than any other music video on YouTube.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby")

Mr. JUSTIN BIEBER (Singer): (Singing) And I was like, baby, baby, baby, oh. Like baby, baby, baby, no. Like...

SIEGEL: More than 400 million viewers. And Justin Bieber never once made it to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 2010.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby")

Mr. BIEBER: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, oh. Like baby, baby, baby, no. Like baby, baby, baby, oh. I thought you'd always be mine, mine.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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