With all the attention this week surrounding Kate Bush‘s “Running Up That Hill” re-entering the Billboard Hot 100 at a new No. 8 peak following its use in Netflix’s Stranger Things, we wrote this week about 10 times in the Hot 100’s history when a movie or TV sync brought a decade-plus-old song onto the chart. But if you look at the timeline of those 10 songs and their chart resurrection, a very obvious trend emerges — the majority of them happened over a five-year period from the late ’80s to the early ’90s.
The period starts in 1987, when use in two hit film comedies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to School) the year before brought The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” back to the Hot 100 for the first time in 23 years. Then, over the next half-decade, five more golden oldies — Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” (Stand by Me), Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” (Good Morning, Vietnam), The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” (Dirty Dancing), The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” (Ghost) and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Wayne’s World) — all hit the top 40 thanks to a new movie placement. Two years after that, one more scraped the bottom of the Hot 100, when a lightly remixed version of The Knack’s “My Sharona” hit No. 91, thanks to its use in Reality Bites.
Then, for a long time, nothing happened. For two decades, in fact, in between “My Sharona” in Reality Bites and N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” reaching the Hot 100 for the first time in 2015 (thanks to its use in the N.W.A biopic of the same name), older songs brought back by movies and TV were all but invisible on the chart. And it’s only really this year, with the revitalizations of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” (which charted at No. 46 on the Hot 100 following its use in The Batman), that they’re again becoming any kind of regular presence on the chart.
What happened that could explain why these type of chart resurrections were so common at the turn of the ’90s, and then so rare almost immediately afterwards? For help understanding, we turn to Ross on Radio editor and longtime chart and radio expert Sean Ross, who also wrote about Kate Bush’s history on the stateside airwaves this week.
Ross points to a different TV bump as the moment that kicked off the late-’80s era of oldies being brought back as new hits — albeit with a song that sounded older than it actually was. “At This Moment” was a ’60s soul-style ballad originally released by Billy Vera and the Beaters in 1981, when it became a very minor chart hit, peaking at No. 79 on the Hot 100. But the song was used multiple times by the hit TV show Family Ties in 1985 and 1986, becoming a romantic theme for the characters of Alex (Michael J. Fox) and Ellen (Tracy Pollan). It was ultimately reissued as a single in 1986 and took off from there, topping the Hot 100 in early 1987.
“I think ‘At This Moment’ had a lot to do with starting the trend,” Ross says. “[It] established a route to radio for songs that weren’t of a piece with what else was on the radio.”
And the resurrection of minor hits from the not-too-distant past also became prevalent around this time, even without significant syncs to spur them on, thanks to various stations with enterprising DJs and programming directors — which Ross refers to as “the whole ‘Brat Pack’ of CHR [contemporary hit radio] programmers of that era” — kicking off their revivals.
UB40’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” reached No. 34 on the Hot 100 in 1984, but after the Guy Zapoleon-programmed KZZP Phoenix started to pick the song up again, it shot all the way to No. 1 in 1988. The next year, PD Brian Phillips’ stations in Minnesota (KDWB) and Milwaukee (WKTI) brought back Sheriff’s “When I’m With You,” which fizzled at No. 61 back in 1983, and it also spread widely enough for the song to top the chart. Even Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night,” a No. 11 hit in 1980, returned to the top 20 in ’89 when famed radio personality Scott Shannon was inspired by an Arizona station’s “Where Are They Now?” segment on Mardones to put “Night” back in rotation, prompting a national surge in interest in the singer and his signature hit.
All of this dovetailed with the resurrection of those “bringback” hits from movies, many of which were championed by the same kind of programmers. But as the power and prevalence of CHR started to hit a lull in the early ’90s — with many prominent stations folding or switching formats, as pop music in the ’90s splintered with the prevalence of less top 40-friendly genres like G-funk and grunge, and pop-oriented Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) rose to prominence as a dominant format — so did the presence of these movie-resurrected oldies.
“The trend ends in 1992 because that’s when CHR really started to dissolve,” Ross explains. “A lot of the stations that had been key in “bringbacks” (whether from movies or whether “When I’m With You”) switched format to Hot AC. Many of the PDs moved on to other formats. Many markets didn’t have a CHR [station]. There was no vehicle for that kind of revival.”
CHR didn’t stay down for long, but by the time the format regained its strength in the late ’90s — during what would end up being the last great commercial boom period of the pre-digital era in the music business — the room for “bringback” hits had disappeared. “When Top 40 came back in 1997, there was so much excitement about new music,” Ross says. “There wasn’t really the impetus to go back and look for old music.” (Following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which helped clear the way for for Clear Channel’s radio takeover, there was also less room for individual programmers or DJs or even individual stations to spearhead such revivals.)
This, of course, was all during the era where radio was the unquestioned market leader and primary driving force on the Hot 100 — particularly with single sales dwindling, as the industry fully shifted to prioritizing album sales. But with the rise of iTunes and digital song sales as a major force in the mid-’00s, you might think you would get a “bringback” hit through the use of a classic old song in a popular TV show like The O.C. or Grey’s Anatomy, which helped drive the commercial success of so many new songs and artists in the ’00s.
However, Ross says that once labels recognized the commercial power of the sync, their full force was spent pushing newer artists in the hopes of getting them to the next level, rather than giving their proven artists temporary bumps. “Labels didn’t want to use the power of syncs on catalog, they wanted to use it to break Snow Patrol or The Fray,” Ross says.
What’s more, with the fragmentation of the monoculture over the course of the early 21st century, there were fewer opportunities for movies and shows to experience such a pronounced immediate impact: Even a sync as major as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous or Journey’ s”Don’t Stop Believin’” in The Sopranos couldn’t really succeed on the Hot 100 without radio’s help, because Almost Famous was more of a cult success than a commercial one, and only 12 million people watched the Sopranos finale when it originally aired, with HBO subscriptions still being at a relative premium at the time.
And when the the culture did connect widely enough in the ’00s with massively viewed TV programs that pushed older songs, it was usually with covers. American Idol contestants scored on the charts with their commercially released renditions of classic hits, like Blake Lewis’ No. 18-peaking version of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” in 2007. And the musical dramedy Glee saw its official Glee Cast became the artist with the most hits in the history of the Hot 100, thanks to regular sales of cast covers of pop standards released on iTunes with every new episode (including, of course, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which was the show’s highest-charting hit, reaching No. 4 in 2009).
When “Compton” finally broke the streak in 2015, it was at the dawn of the streaming era, when fans no longer had to spend money to reconnect with an older song they were reminded of (or heard for the first time) thanks to a movie or TV sync — and could continue to help its chart numbers by playing it over and over again — a change in consumption that also made it possible for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to chart for a third time (this time at No. 33) in 2018. Then, of course, came TikTok, which blew the doors open for catalog songs to re-emerge as current hits, sometimes spurred by a major media sync, but sometimes emerging from its own ecosystem — as when, most famously, a viral video from user Doggface208 propelled Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Hot 100-topper “Dreams” back to No. 12 on the chart in October 2020.
With streaming now officially paramount in the marketplace, and the arrival of TikTok making older songs a bigger part of the contemporary pop sphere than any other time in recent memory, it seems like we may be at the dawn of a new golden age of these “bringback” hits — with or without any such major media syncs. “Now, you don’t need a sync — just streams — to find a spot on the ‘eternal jukebox,’” Ross says.