Friday, April 12, 2013

Love Rocks Again: Is the Power Ballad Back for Good?

Two years ago, in my OurStage "Sound And Vision" pop-music column, I posed an age-old question previously asked in pop songs by Celine Dion, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and The Black Eyed Peas, among many others: Where is the love?

The catalyst for that particular APB: the disappearing power-ballad duet. For the week ending March 19, 2011, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” the country chart-topper by Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson, was the only traditional male-female duet on Billboard's Hot 100 (at No. 34), and ballad specialists like Enrique Iglesias, Usher and Chris Brown were cooking up their latest hits with dance moves on the side.

In the more than 24 months since, it's not just romantic duets but the power ballad itself that's been little more than a blip in the upper echelons of the Hot 100. The job of keeping love alive around there has fallen more or less to Adele and Bruno Mars, while for pretty much everyone else, it's been all about the party. Alas, most of them aren't partying like it's 1999, or 1979. Dance music circa 2011 to 2013 has been mostly derivative and reductive connect-the-dots "fun" (no relation to fun.), not too much joy to listen to.

But in recent weeks, there's once again been room at the top for music with actual melody and feeling. Lighters up, because the power ballad is back, and for the Billboard week ending April 20, 2013, its return to prominence is being led by Mars' "When I Was Your Man," which becomes his fifth No. 1 single in its 16th chart week. Slightly farther down are a pair of power-ballad duets which, like the Mars hit, are propelled by a simple piano melody: Pink and fun.'s Nate Ruess's "Just Give Me a Reason" at No. 3 and Rihanna and Mikky Ekko's "Stay" at No. 4.

One interesting thing about the artists behind the current resurgence of piano-driven power-ballad hits (of which "Stay" is the only one I want anywhere near my iPod) is how varied they are. Mars has had his greatest success singing silly love songs, while the relatively unknown Ekko has been mastering the avant-pop ballad off the radar for years. Pink and Ruess are better known for pop-rocking, and Rihanna generally inspires dancing, which, for the most part, is what anyone listening to the rest of the Top 10 is probably doing.

Aside from Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z's "Suit & Tie" at No. 4, the Top 10 is a predictable mix of rap, dance, dance-rap and country-rap, featuring two hits by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the return of Nelly (as a guest performer on Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise") and Pitbull pulling Christina Aguilera up commercially but dragging her down musically. She deserves a much better Top 10 return than "Feel This Moment," and now that the power ballad is back, perhaps she can finally get it.

But is the power ballad back for good (to quote the title of one by the British boy band Take That, one that became the group's only U.S. hit in 1995)? It's hard to tell. Unlike the '80s and '90s, when top hit-makers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Heart and Celine Dion were devoted almost exclusively to the art of power balladry, today's top pop stars have more divided musical interests. Even an artist like Justin Timberlake, who could easily pull off an entire album of traditional pop ballads, only included one song that can be described as 100 percent slow jam on his three-weeks-at-No. 1 The 20/20 Experience: "That Girl," which, incidentally, is the album's only song that's under five minutes.

If the contestants on season 12 of American Idol are any indication, though, the future of pop might end up being a throwback to that kinder gentler time when power ballads ruled. The comfort zone for most of the Top 10 this year has squarely encompassed balladry, which became clear while watching most of them stumble through rock week. Burnell Taylor got the boot for his awkward take on Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name," while some of the others took Billy Joel hits from Glass Houses and songs that are structured like ballads -- Queen's "We Are the Champions" (done by Lazaro Arbos), Heart's "What About Love" (done by Amber Holcomb) -- and tried to pass them off as rock music.

At least Candice Glover, my favorite contestant this season (I'd buy a solo Glover covering Joe Cocker covering the Box Tops' "The Letter" tomorrow, if it were available on iTunes) got the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" right, despite the wan response from the judges, save Mariah Carey, the only one to include her in her personal Top 3. Glover, too, though, is most at home tearing into a good, old-fashioned love song, which she did this week, literally, with a jazzy soul-diva take on the Cure's "Lovesong" that put Adele's 21 version to shame and seemed to win the other judges over into Carey's Candice Appreciation Society.

While we wait for season 12's Idol contestants to try to become recording stars, we'll soon see a return of vintage power-balladeer divas. Water and a Flame, Celine Dion's first English-language studio album in six years, is due in October (I cannot wait to hear what she does with Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," one of two covers that will be included on it), and Carey herself soon will be re-entering the fray with her first studio album since 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

Considering that I prefer my power ballads in smallish doses, will it be love overboard? By the end of the year, instead of searching for the MIA power ballad, I might actually be begging, "Give me a beat!" again. But I'll cross that bridge when I'm ready to burn it. For now, "don't stop the dance" (the words, not the Bryan Ferry song, which is basically an uptempo ballad) is the last thing I want to hear.

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