What Do You Consider Fun? posted on April 22nd, 2015
Is “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol a fun song?
It’s energetic. If you were coding your library for energy, you would have to make it a five on a 1-5 scale.
It’s rousing. Fists are doubtlessly pumped or pounded on the dashboard whenever it plays.
But is it fun?
I recently did a traditional library review project for a station. Then, unbidden, I went back to code the library by which songs were fun to listen to, and which weren’t.
The results are probably highly subjective and I can’t guarantee that they’re more sophisticated than just “I personally enjoy hearing this song,” or “I don’t enjoy hearing it.” But most songs were easy judgment calls — not requiring a lot of sophisticated analysis. “Rebel Yell” and Idol’s “White Wedding” were two of the harder decisions.
The Idol version of “Mony Mony” is fun — even if you’re not in a bar full of people doing the R-rated call-and-response. “Dancing With Myself” is fun (and I’d like to emphasize that I’m referring to the song here). “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell” were a little too sonically aggressive, a little too droning, a little too minor-chord. The lyrics of “White Wedding” are ominous (“there is nothing safe in this world”), but even with a less negative bent, “Rebel Yell,” after some thought, went in the “not fun” pile, too.
Conversely, what makes a song fun is a combination of factors, too: major-not-minor key; singalong-worthy; not just uptempo, but bouncy; positive lyrics. But a song can be fun without satisfying all of those criteria.
“Tainted Love,” despite its lyrical angst, is fun. Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” is bouncy enough to go into the “fun” column for the same reason. Even “You Oughta Know,” which doubles the catharsis, might be.
“Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and “Margaritaville” don’t have a lot of musical oomph. But both, because of the subject matter, have become eternal party songs. They would go in the fun column for most people.
“Party Up (Up in Here)” by DMX had one of the most aggressive lyrics of any hit from the late ‘90s crossover hip-hop boom. But there’s crowd noise and whistles are blowing. The punchlines are both funny and cringe-inducing, in the way that many Eminem hits would be, shortly thereafter. And, hey, it was called, “Party Up.” It was engineered to be fun, at least with an asterisk.
Then again, Ke$ha’s “Blow” was engineered to be fun, too: uptempo and another in her endless series of party-out-of-bounds lyrics. But I found it overbearing and entirely joyless. It got played like a hit at the time, but is down to a relative handful of spins now.
The fun factor, or lack thereof, is no indicator of the legitimacy or programming value of a song. There are a lot of long-forgotten novelties that would still bring a smile to many people, at least once. The most phenomenal record of the moment, Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” is elegiac. It serves a different need for listeners.
But it’s all in the balance, and it’s possible to hear some textbook radio stations that are predominantly uptempo, well-balanced in other regards, and still not fun. I often have that feeling about top 40 at the moment, even though true ballads are still hard-fought outliers at the format at most times. Of this week’s top 10, perhaps five are “fun.” That doesn’t mean that “Earned It” or “Thinking Out Loud” aren’t important songs, just that they don’t do the same thing as “Uptown Funk” or “Somebody.”
In fact, there’s been a lot of CHR music in the “not fun” stack lately. Much is in that moody mid-tempo chillout-pop category that predominates these days, but not all: “Take Me to Church,” “I’m Not the Only One,” “Habits (Stay High),” “Love Me Like You Do,” “Chandelier,” both “Maps” and “Animals,” although I go back and forth on the latter. They’re not all downers; they’re just not fun, necessarily.
As summer approaches, all of EDM’s superstar DJs are lining up with new singles. But dance music hasn’t been any guarantee of a song’s fun factor, either, not since EDM got all serious and contemplative and Coldplay-esque, around the time of “Don’t You Worry Child” and “Without You.” There’s nothing fun about Calvin Harris’ “Blame” or “Outside.” Oddly enough, I actively enjoy his new “Pray to God,” the lyrics of which are offset by its bounciness and the “Edge of Seventeen” riff.
At this moment of radio’s PPM-era minimalism, there’s also little to increase the fun factor presentationally outside of morning drive. Many years ago, I heard a jock come out of David Ruffin’s self-explanatory “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me),” and break the mood by declaring, “That song makes me feel so good!” But in this era of no jingles, terse stagers, and offhand jocking, the music sets the tone unabated. So how, in their day-to-day scheduling and week-to-week music decisions, can programmers guide it?