Lorde and the Alternative Chart’s Hot 100 Moment

Katy or Miley? As I awaited Billboard’s release of the new Hot 100 chart this week, that’s where my head was at, especially given the recent YouTube-fueled tussle between the two über-pop stars. I figured Miley Cyrus would either go a third week at No. 1 with her video-fueled nudity-n-sledgehammers-fest “Wrecking Ball”, or Katy Perry would retake the big-chart penthouse with “Roar”, currently the most-played song on the radio.

What I didn’t see coming is what actually happened: New Zealand newcomer Lorde, who had been cooling her heels at No. 3 for three weeks, slipped past both Perry and Cyrus and took the Hot 100 crown, with her former Alternative chart-topper “Royals”. Lorde has had the best-selling download at iTunes for a couple of weeks now, but with her song still growing at radio, Spotify and YouTube (all key components of Billboard’s flagship chart), it seemed safe to assume she’d stay in the bronze slot another week while the queens of pop fought it out. I guessed wrong.

Unexpected leaps like Lorde’s are what make chart-watching fun. So does this bit of trivia: “Royals”, a former Billboard Alternative chart-topper (after seven weeks, it succumbed this week to Fitz and the Tantrums’ “Out of My League”), now becomes only the eighth song in the quarter-century existence of that chart to hit No. 1 both at Alternative and the Hot 100. Here’s are all the songs that have crowned the big pop chart as well as the chart Billboard used to call Modern Rock Tracks. The list is nothing if not…random:

Sinéad O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2U” (1990)

Barenaked Ladies – “One Week” (1998)

Crazy Town – “Butterfly” (2001)

Nickelback – “How You Remind Me” (2001)

Coldplay – “Viva la Vida” (2008)

fun. featuring Janelle Monáe – “We Are Young” (2012)

Gotye featuring Kimbra – “Somebody That I Used to Know” (2012)

Lorde – “Royals” (2013)

Note the sudden uptick just in the last 18 months, with fun., Gotye and now Lorde all ringing the bell at both charts. That’s about the only pattern to be found in this oddball list. The one-two punch in 2001 of Crazy Town and Nickelback—which were actually separated by about seven months—qualifies as a similar pattern, but with a dozen years’ hindsight that looks like a bit of a fluke.

Perhaps the fun.–Gotye–Lorde triumvirate will also look fluke-like in a few years’ time, but I suspect not. As I proposed a few weeks ago in my piece here at Pitchfork about the 25-year history of the Modern/Alternative chart, we’re living through an alt-to-pop-crossover mini-era—I called it the “Return of the New Wave”—that’s pretty unusual in terms of chart history.

Back in the 80s’ college-rock heyday, artists like R.E.M., the Cure and Love and Rockets populated the Alternative chart, but none of those acts ever topped the Hot 100. And in the mid-90s, when Top 40 radio was playing the likes of Alanis Morissette and Primitive Radio Gods during drive time, the Hot 100 was still dominated by the likes of Mariah Carey and TLC. The current Hot 100/Alternative chart overlap is fairly exceptional.

But here’s the big question: Did alternative radio get poppier, or did Top 40 radio go alt? The short answer is “both,” insofar as pop radio has been more willing to play viral, digital-fueled songs like Alex Clare’s “Too Close” or Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” in regular rotation, and alt-radio has eased up on the bro-rock. The real test will come in the next year or two, when the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Incubus end their current album-release drought; will alternative radio programmers drop Lorde and fun. like a bad habit? Or will Anthony Kiedis and Flea, for once, find themselves on the outside of the Alternative penthouse looking in?

Content retrieved from: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/89-lorde-alternative-hot-100-crossover/.