When Miley Cyrus returned from creative exile after a few years off the charts, her recent comeback cut wasn't a brash dance track or a ballad. Instead, We Can't Stop was an alluring midtempo grind — emphasis on grinnnd if you witnessed her teddy-bear twerking routine on the MTV Video Music Awards. The song went No. 1.
When fellow former Disney princess Selena Gomez wanted to make a grownup statement as she turned the ripe old age of 21, Justin Bieber's ex released Come & Get It, a recent midtempo bouncer that mixed rickety beats, synth blasts and offbeat Middle Eastern flourishes. The song went No. 1.
When Katy Perry decided to re-enter the pop-culture conversation after blowing up our radios in 2010, her remember-me single turned out to be Roar, a midtempo charmer aimed at her girlstrong fanbase. The song is currently No. 1 — and received little challenge from Lady Gaga's frenetic uptempo song Applause.
If you haven't picked up on the trend, you're going too fast:
Midtempo is the new uptempo, a slowed-down response to a radio dial that for the past couple of years was ruled by such go-go-go merchants as DJ David Guetta (Titanium, Turn Me On), Nicki Minaj (Starships, Super Bass), Psy (Gangnam Style), and Jessie J (Domino), all of it a response to the EDM (electronic dance music) craze.
There are still plenty of fast songs being played out there. Gaga's Applause isn't doing Roar numbers, but it's selling pretty well. Swedish DJ Avicii's Wake Me Up, which seemingly merges folk and techno, is getting pretty darn hot, too. And such DJ-led events as the mondo Sunset Music Festival in Tampa are still popular with young music fans.
But there's no denying that midtempo is the go-to speed, especially among the heavy hitters. You could even make the argument that two of the biggest songs of the summer — Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines and Daft Punk's Get Lucky, both of which nod to a funky '70s style — are closer to a seductive midtempo than a wilder uptempo.
That things are slowing down doesn't necessarily mean that things are cooling down. If anything, these midtempo songs are a response to the up-close-and-personal dancing styles of the clubs. People aren't just flailing away on the dance floor anymore; things are getting, well, more concentrated.
Speaking of which: Like most trends in 21st century popular music — especially the sultrier ones — you could trace this one back to Rihanna, the biggest-selling digital artist of all time and a trendsetter for sure. For all her fast songs such as S&M and We Found Love, Rihanna has always excelled at midtempo cuts, too. Tracks such as Umbrella and Rude Boy — so much better for hip shaking.
Rihanna also gets all the best producers, the guys who set trends, working for her — guys, it should be noted, who then also go on to work for Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry.
The Norwegian production team of Stargate helmed Rihanna's No. 1 midtempo hit Diamonds and then Gomez's Come & Get It. Atlanta's Mike WiLL Made It produced Rihanna's midtempo Pour It Up and then Miley's We Can't Stop. New York City's Dr. Luke is Katy Perry's main dude. He did Roar, but first he produced RiRi's charming reggae bounce You Da One.
These guys decide what's hot and what stays hot. They also take cues from each other; it's competitive out there. And after going pedal-to-the-metal for so long, perhaps they wanted a change. Perhaps now they wanted to go loose and sexy and free, everybody getting down in a steamy middle range.
And maybe, just maybe, with the social-media-driven world going a million miles a minute, a song that takes its time, fights the tide a bit, is a nice relief from the breakneck speed of everyday life. If anyone understands the relentless 24-7 news cycle, it's Miley, Selena and Katy.
Oh, the radio will speed up soon enough. It always does, the circle of pop. But for now, kids, just enjoy that chill groove.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.