Collaborations: How Much Is Too Much?

Two of the biggest forces in popular music during the 1990's were Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. By themselves they ruled the charts, and a superstar collaboration was inevitable. It came in the form of 1995's "One Sweet Day", a single that dominated the Hot 100 with a jaw-dropping and record-setting 16 weeks at #1. Despite the success that the collaboration yielded, acts teaming up for singles remained events as opposed to the norm.

Flash forward to the twenty-first century, and collaborations have become a common occurrence. Some of them are the lovechild of two massive musical forces such as Alicia Keys and Usher teaming up for "My Boo" or Justin Timberlake and Madonna on "4 Minutes". On the other hand, some of them, like Pharrell's "Can I Have It Like That" featuring (and I use that term lightly)Gwen Stefani, make you wonder if the featuring credit is really necessary.

Apparently it is. Looking at the #1 singles of each decade reveals an increasing trend to jam-pack credits with multiple artists. In the 1980's, collaborations accounted for only 6% of all #1 hits. In the 1990's this grew to 13%. With just over twelve months in this decade left, collaborations make up 38% of the chart toppers in the 2000's, including the current one, "Live Your Life" by T.I. featuring Rihanna. One could argue that the massive success "Life" has achieved is a direct result of the featuring credits. Although T.I. has done quite well on his own (#1 album Paper Trail and #1 solo single "Whatever You Like"), "Life" utilized Rihanna for cross-over appeal to music fans who listen to more Beyonce than Big Boi.

The best example of getting the most mileage out of a cross-over hit is Nelly & Tim McGraw's "Over And Over". Talk about reaching across party lines, "Over" unites red states and blue states in a smooth twangy guitar R&B tear jerker about lost love. Pro-life or pro-choice, we all hurt. Isn't that what collaborations should be all about? Isn't that what music is all about? Bringing people together, despite our differences, because there are somethings, like the joy of love and the pain of losing it, that are universal.

Admittedly, collaborations are made more often for the purpose of selling records than for art's sake, but can you blame them? Rihanna's so hot right now, it's a wonder that only T.I. and Maroon 5 have grabbed a hold of her coattails. Looking at the growing number of collaborative hits over the past thirty years makes you wonder what the 2010's hold. With a record industry in decline, it may become a necessity to tack on as many artists as possible to a song to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But, at what point does the excitement of having multiple big names headlining a song wear off? What about with "Stand Up To Cancer", the charity single featuring Carrie Underwood, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Fergie, Sheryl Crow, Nicole Scherzinger , Natasha Bedingfield, Miley Cyrus, Leona Lewis, Keyshia Cole, Ashanti and Ciara. It only made it to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. You can argue that it's because it's a crappy song to begin with, but is it that much worse than "We Are The World" which was #1 for a month?
The market has been inundated with artists featuring other artists and having Justin Timberlake or Jay-Z tack on an intro or bridge to a song isn't news anymore. The very integrity of the collaboration is at stake. The only solution is for record companies to revert back to releasing only event collaborations. Can I have it like that? You got it like that.

Highs & Lows in Collaboration History:
High: "One Sweet Day" - Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men

Low: "Can I Have It Like That" - Pharrell feat. Gwen Stefani

High: "Over And Over" - Nelly feat. Tim McGraw

Low: Artists Stand Up To Cancer - Just Stand Up


afree said...

Good article. I agree that there are too many collabs. I guess it comes from the rise of rap/hip-hop which is built on featuring and breaking other artists. By mid-decade, pop had come to embrace as many aspects of rap/hip-hop as it could in an attempt to revive itself commercially. Collaborations were a big part of that. Will it go away? Probably not. Too many online iTunes shoppers are drawn to a song for the sole reason that it has at least one artist they like featured on it.

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