The Week In Pop

Do You Remember Rock On Pop Radio: Why Green Day Aren’t Crossing Over Anymore

Once upon a time it was weird to hear Green Day on pop radio. At this late date, when they’ve long been one of rock’s definitive crossover bands, it’s nearly as strange to see them release new music without pop radio support. Yet that’s where we stand on the eve of Revolution Radio, the trio’s 12th full-length album — or 10th if you count ill-fated 2012 trilogy Uno!, Dos!, and Tres! as one drawn-out triple-LP.

Those three discs contained 37 songs, yet only the most zealous Mike Dirnt aficionado can probably name a single one of them. Blame it on Billie Joe Armstrong checking into rehab around the time of release, which overshadowed and ultimately sunk the promotional campaign. Or credit the absence of an unstoppable world-devouring anthem on the level of “Basket Case” or “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” or even “Brain Stew.” Or, relatedly, you can join Armstrong in decrying Green Day’s ever-escalating grandiosity, a condition that drained all the fun out of a group who once named their breakthrough album (and the one before it!) after feces. But when have rehab, pomposity, or even a decline in quality kept legacy b(r)ands from getting on the radio?

Green Day’s endless climb out of the toilet is over now, though Revolution Radio is hardly a return to the days of secret tracks about jerking off. Despite a vaguely political edge more directly expressed in Armstrong’s recent interviews, the album presents a pleasantly familiar Green Day, one that bashes out quick, catchy rock songs with near-mechanical efficiency. A lot of the tracks could be mistaken for Nimrod outtakes. They’re the same band as ever, they’re just not moving the needle like they used to, back when every last American idiot could sing along with “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life).”

Twenty-two years on from Dookie and 12 years past American Idiot, pop radio has moved on from Green Day. Let’s explore three possible reasons why:

(1) Pop radio is getting narrower.

Theoretically, top-40 radio presents a diverse collection of the most popular music in the country. Obviously, that’s never been exactly true — pop radio has always skewed safe, soft, and white — but the breakdown of the monoculture has forced radio programmers to cultivate a narrower aesthetic and become as much of a niche market as rock, rap, and country. More than ever “pop” has become a distinct sound, and aspiring crossover artists increasingly have to fit within the parameters of that sound rather than simply bum-rushing the mainstream.

I’ve written a lot about what I call the monogenre, the convergence of all musical styles into a unified aesthetic. That’s basically where pop radio lives now, and a willingness to venture into it is why Fall Out Boy, Fetty Wap, and Florida Georgia Line have been able to edge their way into top-40 rotation in recent years. You’d think that merging an array of popular styles would make for a broader definition of pop, but instead all the various genre quirks get smoothed into a monolithic sound of the moment.

That sound morphs with time, but it’s usually pretty clearly defined at any given moment. And by going back to their streamlined pop-punk roots, Green Day don’t fit within that sound at all. Like their fellow pop-punk veterans Blink-182, they’ve been relegated to the hard rock and alternative stations from whence they came — just like Usher can’t score pop hits by making straight-up R&B and Luke Bryan can’t escape the very strange box that is modern mainstream country.

(2) Pop radio is getting softer.

About two years ago, when thumping EDM and stomping, clapping Mumford-folk had pushed the sound of pop in an especially aggressive direction, rock bands needed humongous, shout-along gang choruses to break through in the pop milieu. “Turn Down For What” turned out to be the most extreme example of pop’s urge to surge, and ever since that track peaked in 2014 we’ve been seeing the sound of pop radio react against the hard-hitting excesses of this decade’s early years. EDM fatigue was actually setting in even before DJ Snake and Lil Jon refused to turn down: 2014 is when we saw the rise of Sam Smith, Meghan Trainor, MAGIC!, Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande. We bore witness to John Legend’s irrepressible “All Of Me” and DJ Mustard’s even-less-repressible hip-hop minimalism. Pharrell’s “Happy” was the biggest single of the year.

Since then, the reigning electronic production style has evolved from hard-hitting electro, house, and trap toward tropical house, faux-dancehall, and — in the case of this nation’s #1 song for the past seven weeks, the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” — something that resembles adult contemporary. Speaking of adult contemporary, Adele came back. Hits by the Justin Bieber/Major Lazer/DJ Snake axis have helped make pop smaller and breezier. Shawn Mendes is doing blockbuster numbers right now in the zone between John Mayer and Ed Sheeran. The Weeknd did manage to sneak something as dark as “The Hills” into rotation, but only by first contributing a milquetoast ballad to the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack.

In that environment, there’s barely any room for rock at all on the pop airwaves. Among the top 20 spots on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, which measures top-40 radio airplay, there are only three songs that could ostensibly be classified as rock. Two by Twenty One Pilots, a band that intentionally avoids guitars and fits squarely in that amorphous monogenre zone. The other is by Coldplay — perhaps the softest rock band of the past two decades, and one that made a concerted lunge toward pop on their last album — and even that song is a team-up with Beyoncé.

On Revolution Radio, Green Day have not catered to those cultural currents, so of course they’ve lost their foothold in the pop world. It’s not hard to imagine the power ballad “Still Breathing” crossing over during a more sonically violent era — and we’ll surely see a period like that again when the pendulum swings again someday — but that song’s churning guitars and pounding drums are incongruent with the current landscape. Releasing acoustic album-closer “Ordinary World” as a single and praying for a repeat of “Good Riddance” is their only shot at mainstream airplay in 2016.

(3) Pop radio is getting younger.

Pop is a young person’s game almost by definition, and it only seems to be getting younger. Call it ageism or a keen awareness of what sells, but you just don’t see many stars continuing to make hits well into middle age. The Disney Channel farm system is still churning out lots of teenage stars, and thanks to YouTube, Vine, and musical.ly we’re seeing adolescents skip that system altogether, like high school basketball prospects used to jump straight to the NBA. So there’s no shortage of beautiful young entertainers to foist onto the public, and labels are taking full advantage. Besides Sia — who notoriously covers her face while performing and uses a pre-pubescent dancer as a sort of avatar — who over 40 is getting top-40 airplay?

This phenomenon is especially true for rock bands. In fact, when was the last time an artist in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame cracked the pop charts without Kanye West and Rihanna’s help? Actually, the getting inducted into the Rock Hall might itself be a death knell for pop radio aspirations. Consider U2, who have been desperately seeking a genuine pop hit for more than a decade. Their last big splash at pop radio was “Vertigo” in 2004. The following year they were inducted into the Rock Hall, and they’ve never been able to replicate that success again.

You may recall that Green Day were welcomed into Jann Wenner’s music museum last year, too, which essentially marks them as a classic rock act for the rest of their lives. If they ever made sense as pop stars, those days are gone now, and no amount of eyeliner can change that. It’s like good old Wooderson told us: Green Day gets older, but pop stars stays the same age.

CHART WATCH

Shawn Mendes scores his second #1 album this week, with Illuminate earning an impressive 145,000 equivalent units and 121,000 in traditional sales. Mendes just turned 18 back in August, and per Billboard, only five artists have accumulated two #1 albums at his age: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, and LeAnn Rimes.

Illuminate essentially sold three times as well as any other album last week; Drake’s Views and the Suicide Squad soundtrack finish at #2 and #3 with only 50,000 and 42,000 respectively. There were a few more top-10 debuts, though. Farm Tour… Here’s To The Farmer EP enters at #4 with 34,000/32,000, becoming Bryan’s ninth top-10 album. And Bruce Springsteen’s book companion Chapter And Verse starts at #5 with 29,000/27,000, giving Springsteen his 19th(!) top-10 album.

The more interesting action this week is at the top of the Hot 100, where a battle for #1 is brewing. The Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” stays at #1 for a seventh straight week, which is kind of insane. Twenty One Pilots hold at #2 with “Heathens,” though don’t be surprised to see them land their first #1 single due to a bump from performing on Saturday Night Live this weekend. The only one who may be able to stop them is the Weeknd, whose “Starboy” soars from #40 to #3, giving Abel Tesfaye his fifth top-5 single, possibly also due to an SNL bump. I’m legitimately amped to see who prevails next week.

POP FIVE

Lady Gaga – “Million Reasons”
Lighters up!

Kid Cudi – “Surfin” (Feat. Pharrell)
Get well soon, Kid Cudi. This song is a lot of fun, except the “welcome y’all to the enema” part.

The Chainsmokers – “All We Know” (Feat. Phoebe Ryan)
When I wrote about EDM’s soft-rock phase back in May, I didn’t realize the Chainsmokers were gonna be it’s poster children. And when I wrote in February that the Chainsmokers didn’t suck anymore, I didn’t realize they were going to become the pop success story of the year. Yet here we are!

Daya – “Cool”
Speaking of the Chainsmokers, they did more than anybody besides Daya to put Daya on the map, and for that I am thankful. “Sit Still, Look Pretty” was a decent feminist pop jam, and this misty, understated groove is even more appealing.

DNCE – “Body Moves”
While Nick Jonas is wasting his time trying to be Miguel or whatever, Joe Jonas is pursuing a much more attainable goal: becoming the next Adam Levine.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Bruno Mars announced a new single “24K Magic” out on Friday. (It’s pronounced “twenty-four karat magic.”) [Twitter]
  • The Weeknd has announced PumaXO, a show and clothing line coming next year. [Twitter]
  • Fifth Harmony’s Ally Brooke was attacked by an overzealous fan onstage in Mexico. [Twitter]
  • Kidz Bop 33 is out next week, covering the latest hits from Twenty One Pilots, Sia, Daya, Calvin Harris, & more. [YouTube]
  • Adam Levine, the Weeknd, Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Calvin Harris, and LL Cool are among the artists who invested $200K each in a fundraising round for the UFC. [ESPN]
  • A Florida judge is ordering Justin Bieber to sit for a deposition as part of a lawsuit filed by a photographer who says the singer’s bodyguard tripped him in 2014. [Refinery29]
  • John Legend has been cast as Frederick Douglass in WGN America’s drama series Underground. [Variety]
  • Iggy Azalea explained the delay on her new album Digital Distortion: “I mean, you wake up one morning and your fiancé is having a baby with someone else, you’re going to need some time, right?” [People]
  • Demi Lovato reportedly took a shot at Taylor Swift, saying, “I think that having a song and a video about tearing Katy Perry down, that’s not women’s empowerment.” [Yahoo]
  • President Obama appears in conversation with Macklemore in the MTV doc Prescription For Change: Ending America’s Opioid Crisis airing Tuesday night. [The Fix]
  • Luke Bryan cancelled his Farm Tour kickoff due to Hurricane Matthew. [Taste Of Country]
  • On the “Purple Lamborghini” video set, Jared Leto brought Skrillex “the biggest dildo” he’d ever seen, along with “a bunch of weird shit in a box.” [The Wrap]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME