Elton’s Comeback and the CHR Comeback

Some thoughts about Elton John & Dua Lipa’s “Cold Heart,” a surprise Top 40 contender here and the No. 3 song in the U.K., and about comeback singles overall:

I’m glad “Cold Heart” is charting at this cautiously optimistic time for Top 40 music. Artist comebacks often take place at a time when Top 40 is grasping for direction. When I championed Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” three years ago, I acknowledged that the format still needed its next Gaga—somebody who could generate the provocative-but-playful hits that Madonna, then Gaga had provided over the years. 

That next act turned out to be Dua Lipa. Fifteen months ago, she had to do a lot of CHR’s heavy lifting. Now, in a format that stretches from Olivia Rodrigo to Lil Nas X to Ed Sheeran to Walker Hayes, “Cold Heart” adds to the excitement, instead of showing CHR’s problems in relief. “Cold Heart” isn’t tasked with solving anything, but it does contribute to pop music’s energy and depth of available product—two issues that are improving, but hardly solved yet.

“Cold Heart” benefits from the place that “Rocket Man,” one of the songs it interpolates, has earned on the eternal jukebox, and from the reinforcement provided by “Rocketman” the movie, as well as the general trend towards repurposing hits. Even before “Bohemian Rhapsody” the movie, I wanted a new Queen and Adam Lambert album. Now that scenario is under discussion. Brian May says he’s struggling for material, but all they really have to do is rework “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

CHR has, in general, been receptive to hits over the last year from the hitmakers of the format’s 2008-13 dominance: Chris Brown, Nelly & Florida-Georgia Line, Jason Derulo. We have contenders from Pitbull and Coldplay, with the help of BTS. Some could be called comebacks; others like Maroon 5 are artists who never fell out of contention at CHR. Given that any Top 40 resurgence is likely to start with 25-to-34-year-olds, there should be a place for those acts who can still deliver.

Many of the stations that have stayed strong through radio’s travails of the last year are heritage brands. There’s definitely some symmetry in hearing “Cold Heart” on WHTZ (Z100) New York—which was playing Elton the week it launched—or KIIS Los Angeles, or Pitbull’s “I Feel Good” on WKTU New York. How big a hit “Cold Heart” ultimately becomes here doesn’t hinge in any way on a Canadian chart reporter, but I still want to hear it on CIDR (Virgin Radio), the effective successor to Detroit’s CKLW, the legendary Top 40 and longtime Elton supporter that helped break “Bennie and the Jets.”

Formats such as Triple-A and Adult R&B have always accommodated veteran acts. The latter has a chart hit this week from Earth, Wind & Fire, who, like Elton, flipped one of their ‘70s hits (“Can’t Hide Love”), brought in a contemporary artist (Lucky Daye) and are now on the charts alongside the Isley Brothers, with whom they had a Verzuz battle in April, even as the Adult R&B format contemporizes. Robert Plant’s collaboration with Alison Krauss continues with a top 15 Triple-A hit this week. 

In the U.K., veteran artists are a regular presence on the airplay charts, which are driven by a song’s reach, not its spins. It used to be that behemoth BBC Radio 2 could put a song in the top 25 with just a handful of widely heard spins. But “Thank You” by Diana Ross was recently top 15. Rod Stewart’s “One More Time” was top 20 last week. Abba’s much publicized return with “Don’t Shut Me Out” managed to be No. 9 overall, not just airplay. 

One of the ironies of “Cold Heart” is that it comes at a time when AC and Adult Top 40 are taking their cues from Mainstream Top 40. American Authors are making two appearances on Adult Top 40 this week—one by themselves, one with Santana and Rob Thomas. Acts outside CHR’s consideration, have to scrap to make it into the top 15 at that format. Elton has had top 20 hits at AC over the years. It’s worth noting that his truest hit at AC and Hot AC in recent memory will be because he pursued CHR.

I’ve compiled the wide range of recent singles from veteran artists this week into “The Comeback Playlist.” It stretches from Elton to still-in-play acts like Pitbull and Coldplay to the veterans that you might be surprised to know have recent music. Some are still radio contenders for a reason. Some are caught in a place between “as good as their classics” and “contemporary enough to be on the radio today.” 

One of the lessons of “Cold Heart” is that any acts still out there swinging should make a record that can still be on Mainstream CHR. Sometimes that’s just what it takes to be supported at their stronghold formats (e.g., Martin Garrix with Bono and the Edge at Triple-A) but the time/space continuum for artist careers is more warped than ever in the streaming world. That’s probably more likely to lead to a several weeks’ resurgence for “Dreams” than Fleetwood Mac’s return to contemporary airplay, but the notion of Elton John back on contemporary radio seemed unlikely too, until it wasn’t.

This story first appeared on radioinsight.com