Breaking free from club hits, ballads are here to stay

It could be from tougher college admissions, steeper gas prices, or more depressing news stories. It could be from a rise in Twitter break-ups or maybe just longer nights. But no matter the cause, we are listening to more emotional music than ever this year.

This trend has announced itself in the re-emerging taste for ballads. These are slow, sentimental songs, usually featuring lyrics somewhere along the lines of “take me back” or “please love me.” Most years, fans of these moody tracks are, perhaps fittingly, disappointed. The only ballad to hit number one in the past four years was Adele’s mega-hit “Someone Like You.” Since then, the top forty has been almost entirely club beats and dubstep remixes.

This year, on the other hand, top-40 listeners have faced an onslaught of ballads. Three such songs have already hit number one: “When I Was Your Man” (Bruno Mars), “Just give me a Reason” (P!nk feat. Nate Ruess), and welcome or not, “Wrecking Ball” (Miley Cyrus). Rihanna’s “Stay,” Katy Perry’s recent release “Unconditionally,” and perhaps soon, Britney Spears’ new emotional slow dancer, “Perfume,” closely follow these hits. These are songs for those of you who, listening to “Holy Grail,” skip over Jay Z’s verses and belt along with Justin Timberlake. These tracks are everywhere this year.

Some of these songs are intimate. Consider the personal detail in “Perfume,” for example. Britney expresses anxiety that her boyfriend is having an affair, confessing with tragic breathlessness, “I hope she smells my perfume.” Other songs in the genre have more of an epic sense to them, such as Beyoncé’s shimmering ode to Blue Ivy, “God Made You Beautiful.” These tracks are characterized by sustained layered vocals and heavily reverbed rock kits. A ballad can feel like your local coffee shop or the end of “The Lion King:” the form wields a versatility that today’s jet-powered dance tracks often lack.

With this transmutability in mind, it should come as no surprise that the hit status of recent ballads defies all the research conducted by label-owned songwriting powerhouses. Their findings suggest that hit songs go at about 120 beats per minute (bpm), which is the ideal pace for jumping along to at a club. The ballad, which is largely defined by its slow tempo, is by its very nature excluded from this possibility. Sure, it helps to have a major celebrity’s name plastered on the release, but according to the usual thinking, this year’s slowed down cuts should never have made it to the top ten at all.

The world needs music to sob to just as much as ever, but the rise in popularity of ballads probably has little to do with an increase of misery among radio listeners.

Yet the growing presence of the ballad on the radio does generate a certain hopeful vision for what pop music might become. As more introspective songs replace thumping club beats on the charts, perhaps we will see music in all forms leaning back towards the personal, emotional and meaningful aspects of our lives. This may not quite be a Renaissance, but it could be a restoration of one of music’s greatest purposes: to move the listener.

Of course, creating music that moves is not limited to the ballad. And what resonates with any given listener is variable. Sometimes the intricacies of lyrics are obscured in layers of pulsing beats or undercut with dance-floor targeted drops. But when the lyrics and melodies of these tracks are stripped bare, they often hold meanings that were not emphasized in the original. There are plenty of famous examples of this phenomenon; acoustic covers of Britney’s “Toxic” or Rihanna’s “We Found Love” have attracted millions of hits for exposing those hidden meanings. Ballad form simply highlights this potential in a song more dramatically.

Dance tracks have their place. Music that makes a person want to jump around or roll down their windows can be empowering and at its best, transcendent. But in the ballad, listeners get the chance to experience everyday things which have become rare on the radio: sensitivity, delicacy, and unrefined longing, to name a few. As listeners gain interest in these meanings at the expense of shallower tracks, perhaps the writers responsible for the soul-crushing hit formula will be forced to rework it — or even abandon it altogether. For 2013 at least, it seems the ballad is here to stay — so maybe it’s time to grab your tissues and embrace it.

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