Consider this six-pack of rock acts: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Big Audio Dynamite, the Psychedelic Furs, U2, R.E.M. and Julian Cope.
My dream Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Not quite—it’s a list of the first six artists to go to No. 1 on the chart Billboard launched in the fall of 1988, then called Modern Rock Tracks, now called Alternative Songs. The titles of these first six chart-topping alt-rock hits were, respectively, “Peek-a-Boo,” “Just Play Music!” “All That Money Wants,” “Desire,” “Orange Crush” and “Charlotte Anne.” Except for U2’s smash “Desire,” none of these songs made the pop Top 40.
Truthfully, not all of these songs were totally great. But it’s a very respectable list—short of including such ’80s mope-rock favorites as the Cure or Morrissey, this is about as representative a list of what we used to call “college rock” as one could hope for. These acts would form an awfully good vintage Lollapalooza lineup.
Now, regard this sixer: Sinéad O’Connor, Barenaked Ladies, Crazy Town, Nickelback, Coldplay and fun.
Um… next year’s Coachella? Hardly—I doubt you’d pay good money for that lineup. Rather, these are the first six artists in history with songs that reached No. 1 on both the Modern/Alternative chart and Billboard‘s flagship pop chart, the Hot 100. They were, respectively, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (1990), “One Week” (1998), “Butterfly” (2001), “How You Remind Me” (2001), “Viva la Vida” (2008) and “We Are Young” (2012).
This is, to say the least, an odder list. Most of these acts are still with us in some form—O’Connor even released an acclaimed album this year. But even if we could reunite Crazy Town, these acts would front a festival too jumbled even for Bonnaroo.
These two lists of artists and songs say something about where Billboard‘s first chart to track indie-style rock wound up, after a fairly auspicious beginning: sonically coherent at first; later, identity-challenged. Those long gaps between songs that crossed over to the top of the pops suggest that “alternative rock,” however it’s been defined over the years, is pretty parochial and isolated from the larger culture.
Well, at least it was. This week, a seventh song is added to the all-time alt-to-pop crossover list—just one week after the sixth.
Gotye’s devastating breakup lament “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring duet partner-cum-foil Kimbra, moves into the Hot 100’s penthouse after selling a stunning 542,000 digital tracks. In reaching the top of the big chart, the Belgian-Australian born Wally De Backer evicted another Alternative Songs chart-topper, fun.’s megasmash “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monáe, which headed the list for six weeks.
This is the first time we’ve had back-to-back U.S. No. 1 pop hits that were also Alternative chart-toppers—yes, ever. On the Alternative chart, ironically enough, the same two songs did the opposite do-si-do: After seven weeks on top, Gotye’s “Somebody” was replaced by fun.’s “Young.” That happened only last week—so these two songs were added to the all-time list of double-chart-toppers just in the last fortnight.
We’ve been reporting here for a couple of months now how odd it is that any kind of rock music is topping the pop charts, after years of diva-pop and hip-hop dominance. Lest the rock-is-back crowd get too excited, we’ve also pointed out how television has served as a deus ex machinain these chart doings, starting with the fun. song’s appearance in a Chevrolet ad on the Super Bowl. Gotye, in particular, has an industrial-strength dose of boob tube over the past week to thank for his eye-popping download total (the fourth-largest weekly sum in digital music history). His TV exposure came courtesy of Ryan Murphy and Lorne Michaels: a cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know on last week’s Glee, and a live appearance by the man himself on Saturday Night Live four days later.
Even so, it’s hard to overstate how exceptional it is that the big pop chart is commanded by a pair of alt-radio tracks at the same time. Last week, when Gotye was still at No. 2 on the Hot 100 behind fun., veteran chart reporter Paul Grein offered this startling statistic in his Yahoo! Music column: “This marks the first time that the top two songs on the Hot 100 were both #1 (or even top 10) hits on the Alternative chart.”
This doesn’t seem possible. After all, Billboard launched its Modern Rock chart three years before Nirvana broke, kicking off the Alternative Nation decade. Surely there must have been a period, sometime between 1991 and the return of boy bands near the turn of the millennium, where grungy or twee alt-pop songs were crossing regularly from the Modern Rock chart to the Hot 100. How is it that we’ve never, before this year, had a Hot 100 dominated by certified alternative hits?
Like the upset Grammy win last year by the Arcade Fire—a first-time victory for indie rock that felt nice, but about a decade and a half late—alt-rock is being belatedly unshackled, long after we all thought it was spent as a pop force. The reasons this didn’t happen sooner are technical as much as cultural.
For starters, the charts worked differently 20 to 25 years ago. Until the dawn of the ’90s, Billboard didn’t have computer technology powering its charts—the Broadcast Data System counting radio plays, or Soundscan for tracking music sales. Even after these technologies materialized, the magazine phased them in on its charts piecemeal, over several years. The Hot 100 got monitored airplay and Soundscan sales data in late 1991—right around the time Nirvana broke, which helped “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to a No. 6 peak in early 1992 it might’ve struggled to achieve under the old, clubby chart system.
As for the Modern Rock chart, Billboard added computer-monitored airplay to it only in mid-1993, when alt-rock was nearing its peak. That move had a subtle but significant effect. It shifted the chart away from the old-school prepunk and postpunk acts radio programmers had been reporting, like Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel (who, whatever their merits as artists, weren’t exactly on the cutting edge of 1992), and toward younger acts. For example, Juliana Hatfield, the Lemonheads and Tori Amos all scored their first Modern Rock chart-toppers in 1993 and ’94.
If you came of age in the ’90s, these alt-radio acts were pop acts. But their profile on the Hot 100 remained low. A gulf remained between Modern Rock’s hit artists and the pop charts for much of the ’90s. The big difference was that Modern Rock was always a radio chart, and the Hot 100 literally tracked singles—songs had to be released at retail in some form to be eligible for the big pop chart.
With the record industry in the ’90s at the climax of its Great War Against the Single, a majority of alt-rock hits—even the poppy ones—were purchasable by consumers only on full-length albums and ineligible for the Hot 100. This might seem rather technical—but the whole point of charts is to provide a feedback loop: retailers and programmers see what songs are catching on, stock and play them more, and spur further sales and requests. With so many ’90s rock songs missing from the big pop chart, alternative rock’s cultural status was arguably curtailed.
Let’s take just one year from alt-rock’s cultural peak, 1995. Of the 15 songs that reached the Modern Rock No. 1 slot that year, eight, or more than half, weren’t released as singles in America at all: Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” Live’s “Lightning Crashes,” Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” Green Day’s “J.A.R.,” Silverchair’s “Tomorrow” (Billboard‘s top Modern Rock song of that year), Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” Presidents of the United States of America’s “Lump” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “My Friends.” None of these songs were allowed to appear on the Hot 100. Of the seven Modern Rock No. 1’s that year that were released as singles, only two made the pop Top 10: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name” and Oasis’s “Wonderwall.”
As the ’90s went on, the percentage of radio hits that you couldn’t buy a la carte only grew. In 1998, no less than nine out of the year’s 11 Modern Rock chart-toppers didn’t get a retail single release. But by then, the labels were releasing so few singles of any genre—alternative or pop or even R&B—that the Hot 100 couldn’t continue as a pure singles chart anymore. In late 1998, Billboard changed its rules to allow airplay-only songs to appear on the big chart.
That move should have generated more Modern-to-Hot 100 crossover. But by then alt-rock stations were beginning their shift away from female-friendly alt-pop records, toward guy-centric post-grunge, nü-metal and rap-rock. Obvious female participation in a rock song isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, to score a big pop hit. But given the demographics of top 40 radio’s listenership, some amount of female appeal has always been crucial to topping the Hot 100, no matter who’s singing. And eventually, female listeners and mellower guy listeners are going to migrate away from a format that’s all dudes, all the time.
Which is exactly what the Modern Rock chart became starting in the late ’90s: a ballcap-wearer’s ghetto. Women were essentially eradicated from alt-radio playlists—a sad fate considering the Modern Rock chart began its life topped by Siouxsie Sioux. Since 1996, when Tracey Bonham’s “Mother Mother” became the last song by a solo female to top the list, there have been only three No. 1 Modern/Alternative hits that have featured so much as a lead female vocal, all of them a long time ago: Garbage’s “#1 Crush” in 1997, Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” in 1998, and Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” in 2003. And forget about solo females—the closest any woman not backed by dudes has come to the alt-rock top 10 in recent years is M.I.A.’s 2008 crossover smash “Paper Planes,” and it couldn’t get past No. 12 on the Modern Rock chart.
Which brings us back to the present day and our two improbable hits: They’re not just odd-sounding on top 40 radio, they’re even a little weird for alt-rock stations. The female supporting vocals on both Gotye’s and fun.’s No. 1 Alternative hits—Kimbra and Janelle Monaé, respectively—are the only credited women of any kind to appear on a Modern/Alternative chart-topper since Evanescence’s Amy Lee in ’03.
As for the songs’ main artists, Gotye and the guys from fun. surely don’t conform to the stereotype of the alt-rock dominator of the last dozen years. Just recently, alt-rock radio has been shifting back from its bro-rock tendencies toward songs with mellower vocals and clearer pop appeal, from such recent Alternative chart-topping acts as Phoenix, Mumford and Sons, and Foster the People.
What could account for this pendulum swing? Aren’t rock radio programmers going as strongly as ever after an aggro, 18-49 year-old male demographic? Without question. But the only thing more powerful than audience research is hard data. You can’t deny songs that are selling 400,000 to 500,000 copies a week, like “We Are Young” or “Somebody That I Used to Know.” If you, program director, can plausibly play these iTunes megahits on your alt-rock station, you have to.
This is the last piece of the puzzle: Digital music—the biggest millennial change in music charts, and music, period—has given quirky rock songs a new way to upend the system. Song buyers have a more direct way than ever to anoint potential hits. And just as record labels now stumble upon focus-grouped No. 1 pop hits by studying what’s selling at iTunes and promoting accordingly, it would be willful blindness for an alt-rock station director to ignore hundreds of thousands of song-buyers (or, in Gotye’s case, millions of YouTube viewers).
If we extrapolate from these two big hits, we can imagine two scenarios for music fans, positive and negative, wrought by this new bottom-up, consumer-to-radio feedback loop.
The hopeful possibility: For once, rather than focusing solely on advertiser-driven demographic priorities, radio programmers will be keeping one eye on what is spreading virally, regardless of tempo or genre. That was supposed to happen during the Web 1.0 era, a decade or more ago, but only now has the size of digital commerce gotten too big for cultural gatekeepers to ignore.
The dark possibility: Just look at these two Billboard charts, the Hot 100 and Alternative Songs, each dominated by the same two songs. Ubiquity is ubiquity, even if the product is improving. After a year in which Adele’s excellent single “Rolling in the Deep” spread to so many radio formats we began to cry uncle, it’s depressing to envision programmers across the dial chasing after and power-rotating the same iTunes best-sellers.
I choose to remain optimistic—there are still too many hours of the day to fill and plenty of songs to play, and the fact is, these recent digitally-fueled charts have been filled with better songs. To be really Pollyannaish for a moment, the last week of ubiquity by Gotye’s song across radio, TV, YouTube and iTunes resembles nothing so much as the return of the vaunted monoculture—the Michael Jackson-style media-blanketing hit, something my fellow cultural critics thought we’d lost forever in a world of hundreds of niches.
As for alternative rock, that bastardized niche, I wouldn’t go so far as to predict that its recent tonal shift toward poppier sounds presages a return to its Siouxsie-and-R.E.M. heyday. But I would suggest that an Alternative Songs chart that makes room for both Cage the Elephant and fun. is going to be a lot more interesting—and wasn’t “interesting” the whole point of Alternative Nation to begin with?