It’s at least a little bit insane to write a column called The Week In Pop this week and not write it about Taylor Swift. A lot of times we use this space to tackle one of the week’s biggest pop releases, and Swift’s new 1989 is as big as they come in 2014. It’s about to become the year’s first platinum album. It will easily chart as her third straight #1 LP. The Week In Pop belongs to her, and really, so does The Year In Pop. Even after running a humongous review on Monday, even after analyzing “Shake If Off” when it debuted two months ago, not writing about Swift in some capacity this week still seems crazy. You know what else is crazy, though? Until Swift ruthlessly shoves them out of the way next week, Slipknot have the #1 album in America.
In one sense, Iowa’s foremost mask-wearing freaks topping the chart with the somewhat comically titled .5: The Gray Chapter is entirely reasonable. They’re a known name brand, they haven’t released an album in six years, and they remain popular enough to throw their own two-day music festival, last weekend’s Knotfest, “A Happening That Will Awaken Your Darkest Senses.” Hell, throwing the festival the same week they released the album probably contributed to The Gray Chapter’s chart success. Like any artist that survives the death of their scene, Slipknot are hacking out a respectable career by making smart decisions and playing directly to their cult. (Debuting their new masks on Buzzfeed probably didn’t hurt either.) Still, the scene that birthed Slipknot is most definitely dead. Even in 2008, when they topped the chart with All Hope Is Gone, the thought of a nu-metal band outselling all comers seemed somewhat zany. These days it verges on absurd.
Slipknot came to prominence at a time when humongous metal package tours like Ozzfest and Korn’s Family Values Tour were a seismic cultural force. Every day on Total Request Live, the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Staind battled it out with Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears for the hearts of teenage America. It was very much a youth movement, and very much mainstream. As someone who was way into that scene at the time, rock radio was constantly feeding my hunger for bands like Deftones (the only act from that era I still return to), Incubus (whose early records were way more inventive than they get credit for), and, um, Static-X. From MTV to radio to the package tours, there was a whole infrastructure behind that wave of hard-rock bands. But within a few years, the wave crested. Rap-metal went out of style. The likes of Creed and Nickelback crossed over to a pop audience and eventually spawned lesser imitators (if you can believe that) that drove hard rock further into Extreme Makeover: Home Edition territory and further out of the public eye. Some of the kids who grew up on nu-metal and pop-punk moved on to Warped Tour metalcore. Meanwhile, the “new rock revolution” and The O.C., paved the way for indie rock to take hard rock’s place in the mainstream — or whatever was left of the mainstream.
A decade later, the major players of rock radio’s late ’90s surge are more likely to get attention for something other than music (the filmmaking careers of Rob Zombie and Fred Durst) or for venturing into different genres: See Marilyn Manson pushing his glam-rock tendencies into Afghan Whigs territory with this week’s “Third Day Of A Seven Day Binge” or Staind frontman Aaron Lewis — the guy who messed up the national anthem this week — carving out a second career as a country singer slinging tunes like “Northern Redneck.” (It’s about how you can be a redneck even if you’re from the North.) Former scene leaders Korn continue to kick out records and play to their constituency, but it all feels distinctly minor-league, especially in light of what it used to be.
Bands like Korn are playing out the standard life cycle of a past-its-prime rock band; they’ll work their way into the county fair circuit soon enough. It’s normal for acts that once ruled the radio to age out of relevance. The curious development here is that no new wave of hard rock bands has risen up to reclaim the genre’s former cultural dominance. The well of new stars has dried up, and rock radio has dried up along with it. I recently spoke with a radio programming director who oversees the playlists for pop, hip-hop, and oldies stations in my town. He noted that whereas top 40, urban, alt-rock, and country are growth markets because they continue to evolve and generate new stars, hard rock radio — or “active rock” as it’s referred to in the radio business — is still relying on the same big names from 15 years ago. Take a look at Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart. It mostly comprises acts in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — Foo Fighters, AC/DC, Slash, Nickelback, Seether and the like. Aside from Royal Blood and (just barely) Five Finger Death Punch, not one band in the top 10 was formed within the last decade. As for that handful of younger bands, nobody’s going to argue that they have anywhere near the cultural imprint the Family Values Tour had back in the day, and they’re certainly not resonating like AC/DC used to. The genre is going extinct.
Slipknot are no longer in step with the times either, but here they are selling six figures anyway hawking the same downtuned riffs and frustrated aggression as ever. At the peak of the band’s popularity, with the likes of Spears and Eminem routinely moving a million copies in a week, 132,000 in sales wouldn’t have come close to topping the chart. But on the flattened playing field that is 2014, it all but guarantees a #1 debut. At a time when many legacy acts can barely muster 50,000 on their first week, Slipknot’s numbers are undoubtedly impressive. Still, The Gray Chapter’s strong showing doesn’t herald a big comeback for nu-metal as much as it affirms that nu-metal has become the province of an aging demographic.
Give or take a Beyoncé or an Eric Church, the albums chart isn’t very zeitgeisty in 2014. There have always been album artists that don’t make a dent on the radio, but this is different. Lately we’ve seen an especially large influx of old musicians (Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Annie Lennox, Neil Diamond, Bob Seger, Prince) in the top 10, many of them moving units by singing old standards. The Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack, literally a mixtape of decades-old hits, is one of the year’s best sellers. Most of these legacy artists are not sending ripple effects through the radio, nor are they capturing the imagination of a new generation. But their loyal core of fans are old enough that they still buy records, so they storm their way to the top of the charts.
As odd as it is to think about Slipknot in the same terms as Streisand, neither artist’s signature sound carries any cultural heft anymore. Yet both have survived where their peers have fallen off, to the extent that those peers can no longer be considered “peers” at all. (Korn’s last two albums combined didn’t sell as much as The Gray Chapter in their first week.) The bands that opened the doors to the mainstream for Slipknot are distant memories or bad jokes (System Of A Down, Limp Bizkit, respectively) and the bands they inspired are long forgotten or relegated to extreme-niche status (Mudvayne, Mushroomhead). But Slipknot have persevered and thrived. Why? I reckon it’s a combination of these factors: (1) It’s hard to become a parody of yourself when you’ve been a cartoon from the beginning. (2) Age doesn’t show behind those masks. (3) The quality-control has been relatively high over the years. Whatever the reason, Slipknot have aged gracefully(!) where nu-metal at large hasn’t. They have slipped not, and it might be enough to make them the last hard rock band standing.
WHO ARE ECHOSMITH?
If you’ve listened to top 40 radio lately, you’ve probably noticed the song that goes, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids.” Perhaps you looked upon it with scorn, or you felt pity for the poor girl, or maybe it caused you to weep bitterly and cry, “So do I! I, too, wish that I could be like the cool kids!” Whatever your response to the song — which is called “Cool Kids,” and which is threatening to breach the top 10 more than a year after its release — you probably wondered who it was by. I’m here to tell you it’s the work of Echosmith.
The main thing to know about Echosmith is that it’s a family band. The four members are siblings aged from the Toluca Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles. Jamie (15), Sydney (17), Noah (18), and Graham Sierota (21) teamed up in 2009, when they were even younger than they are now (because that’s how time works). They signed to Warner Bros. in 2012 just in time to get their song “Tonight We’re Making History” in one of NBC’s Olympics promos that year. Their band name appears to be a portmanteau combining Echo & The Bunnymen and the Smiths, both of whom they’ve cited as influences. They’ve been on Warped Tour the past two years, where I can’t imagine “Cool Kids” was particularly well received. They have a shit-ton of middle names, which includes all three of the guys bearing the name “Jeffery David” somewhere in there. Check this out:
Jamie Jeffery David Harry Sierota
Noah Jeffery David Joseph Sierota
Sydney Grace Ann Sierota
Graham Jeffery David Sierota
Anyway, as for subjective insights you can’t glean from Wikipedia, “Cool Kids” reminds me of a million other songs about being a dorky kid and wishing you were cool, though its most direct antecedents seem to be Taylor Swift’s 2008 hit “You Belong With Me” (a country song that was secretly a pop song) and Saving Jane’s 2005 hit “Girl Next Door” (a pop-rock song that would only fly on the country charts these days). The difference is that rather than yearning for the love of a particular mate, Echosmith are exhibiting a more generalized strain of jealous angst. Sydney Sierota is longing not to lure some dreamboat into her dork-world, but to play the part of Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. It’s an incredibly potent, widespread sentiment, and “Cool Kids” captures the mood perfectly, which is why it’s becoming a hit despite not being a particularly good song from a musical perspective. As for the video, I’d call it a more melodramatic take of Swift’s “Shake It Off” video if it hadn’t come out way, way before “Shake It Off.” In fact, are we sure Mark Romanek didn’t see this before teaming up with Swift?
As referenced above, Slipknot topped the albums chart by selling 132,000 copies of .5: The Gray Chapter last week. It’s their second #1 album after 2008’s All Hope Is Gone, which sold 240,000 in its first week — almost double the new album’s pace. The next three spots are debuts too: T.I.’s Paperwork (#2, 80,000), Neil Diamond’s Melody Road (#3, 78,000), and Logic’s Under Pressure (#4, 73,000). Billboard notes that Under Pressure benefitted from a $3.99 sale price at Google Play. Two former #1 albums by country acts are next: Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes (#5, 59,000) and Jason Aldean’s Old Boots, New Dirt (#6, 56,000). That’s followed by even more country, as Little Big Town’s Pain Killer enters at #7 with 42,000 sold. (Little Big Town’s figures are way from from 2012’s Tornado, which debuted at #2 with 113,000 sold, despite the awesomeness of recent single “Day Drinking.”) Barbra Streisand’s Partners is at #8 with 40,000, then it’s two more debuts to round out the top 10. Pentatonix’s holiday album That’s Christmas To Me — the one with the questionable Fleet Foxes cover — sold 32,000 to debut at #9, and Annie Lennox’s standards album Nostalgia opens at #10, also with about 32,000.
This is kind of unbelievable, but Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” is #1 again on the Hot 100. This makes eight straight weeks on top for Trainor, and even as someone who publicly called it “a great song,” I’m fucking sick of the thing. Idolator notes that Trainor’s eight-week run is the best this year by a female, beating out the likes of “Fancy,” “Dark Horse,” and “Shake It Off.” If she can hold on for two more weeks, she’ll match Pharrell’s 10-week run with “Happy,” which seems like an eternity ago but actually happened during this calendar year. Here’s another notable stat: Billboard points out that “All About That Bass” is now the longest-leading #1 single in Epic Records history, surpassing Michael Jackson’s pair of seven-week #1s, “Billie Jean” and “Black Or White.” That’s just wrong!
What else is going down on the singles chart? Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” remains at #2, also for an eighth straight week, after initially spending two weeks at #1. With “Out Of The Woods” charting at #18 last week and “Welcome To New York” debuting at #48 this week, Swift now has 62(!) Hot 100 hits, bested only by Aretha Franklin’s 73. Tove Lo’s great “Habits (Stay High)” reaches a new peak at #3, while the Jessie J/Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj hit “Bang Bang” slides to #4. Maroon 5’s “Animals” climbs to #5, ending a seven-week streak of female-only top 5s. Up next at 6-7-8 are Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora’s “Black Widow,” Jeremih and YG’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” and Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Boy.” Hozier makes a huge leap from #33 to #9 with “Take Me To Church,” largely because it’s featured in LeBron’s new Beats By Dre commercial. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is at #10 and on the brink of departing the top 10, though follow-up “I’m Not The Only One” is up to #16 this week and could soon replace “Stay With Me” in the chart’s upper rungs.
Calvin Harris – “Open Wide” (Feat. Big Sean)
Like Future and Wiz Khalifa, both Big Sean and Calvin Harris went through nasty, high-profile breakups this year. Sean and Calvin’s collaborative fuck-you is a lot more fun than “Pussy Overrated,” though. Between this and “I Don’t Fuck With You,” the end of Sean’s engagement to Naya Rivera is proving to be artistically fruitful, even if the booming EDM section of the song leaves a bit to be desired. Not sure if I laughed more at the absurdity of the video (which depicts a graceful modern dance routine in the middle of a desert gunfight) or Sean’s line, “This goes out to — uh, you know who this goes out to.”
Fifth Harmony – “Sledgehammer”
Fifth Harmony’s new single “Sledgehammer” was written by reigning #1 hitmaker Meghan Trainor, and it sounds kinda like something from Taylor Swift’s soon-to-be-#1 album 1989, so maybe it will perform better than the criminally slept-on “BO$$,” easily one of the year’s 20 best singles. “Sledgehammer” isn’t in that class, but it doesn’t namecheck the First Lady either, so maybe it has a shot.
Ingrid Michaelson – “Afterlife”
Longtime pop-rock singer-songwriter type Ingrid Michaelson once struck me as a poor man’s Sara Bareilles, which isn’t saying much. But her stupendously hook-laden single “Girls Chase Boys” routinely had me turning up my radio dial last summer and pondering who the singer might be. I finally remembered to Google the lyrics and was stunned to find out it was a Michaelson jam. Thus, she has my attention with this new single. Alas, she’s back to her poor-man’s-Bareilles tricks with “Afterlife.” She should have covered Arcade Fire instead!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Calvin Harris’ new album Motion is streaming in full. [iTunes]
- Another good Kelly Clarkson cover of a current top-10 hit: This time she took on Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” [YouTube]
- Speaking of Swift, her instantly-platinum 1989 is available for just 99 cents via Microsoft’s music deals app. [The Verge]
- Pitbull is working on not one but two reality shows. [Deadline]
- A Beyoncé biography is in the works. [The Hollywood Reporter]
- Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando” has topped Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart for a record 26 straight weeks, surpassing Shakira’s 25-week run with “La Tortura” in 2005. [Billboard]