The Week In Pop: Where Do Rock Music And Pop Radio Intersect In 2015?
Fall Out Boy will release their latest album, American Beauty/American Psycho, next week, and they’ll do so with the kind of saturation most musicians can only dream of. Their stadium anthem “Centuries” was inescapable during ESPN’s coverage of the College Football Playoff (the highest-rated event in the history of cable), it’s #6 today on the iTunes singles chart (followed at #7 by another Fall Out Boy song, “Uma Thurman”), it’s up to #15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (where yet another Fall Out Boy single, “Irresistible,” just debuted at #77), and at #17 on Spotify’s US singles chart. “Centuries” is even getting spins on my local top 40 radio station here in Columbus, 97.9 WNCI-FM, which booked Fall Out Boy to headline its annual Jingle Ball last month. Pete Wentz and company are pulling off something very few rock bands can claim anymore: infiltrating pop radio.
It bears mentioning that rock music has rarely had a prominent place on Billboard’s year-end singles charts since the ’70s, and even then the upper reaches of the charts didn’t get much harder than Wings or Elton John. While honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roll had produced lots of chart mainstays throughout the ’60s (the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” for instance, was the #1 song of 1969), in the ’70s smooth California sounds from the likes of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Doobie Brothers helped develop a precedent that only the softest rock had a place on pop radio, leaving the harder-hitting stuff to funk and disco acts. This is somewhat cyclical, of course; rock has made headway at pop radio a few times in recent decades. Usually a few years after a major underground movement takes hold, more user-friendly versions of the innovators achieve chart success. For instance, trickle-down from punk and New Wave plus misguided anti-disco sentiment helped the Knack, Blondie, the Police, Joan Jett, and the Cars score major hits as the ’70s crossed over into the ’80s. Hair metal kept a strong presence via bands like Poison and Bon Jovi in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And in the mid”90s, several years after grunge reached its cultural peak, the lineup at New York pop station Z100’s Jingle Ball almost entirely comprised friendlier versions of that movement — Alanis Morissette, Bush, Collective Soul, and Goo Goo Dolls among them — all of whom helped rock’s presence on pop radio peak around 1996.
Compare that 1995 list to last month’s Z100’s Jingle Ball lineup — dominated by names like Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, and Ariana Grande — and you’ll see that rock isn’t exactly ruling the radio right now. Setting aside nu-metal’s dominance on TRL (which didn’t ever really manifest on pop radio), the charts over the past 20 years show only a few kinds of rock music gaining any traction in the pop mainstream: Bloated post-post-grunge arena rock (Creed, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Hoobastank), former rap-rockers embracing a more melodic sound (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Kid Rock, Linkin Park), and pop-punks shifting their weight toward the pop side of the hyphen (blink-182, No Doubt, Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, and especially Green Day).
Fall Out Boy were part of that pop-punk-goes-pop continuum. When they broke through to a mainstream audience in 2006 with “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” they were the most promising of their generation — harder than the All-American Rejects, but not as painfully jagged as Panic! At The Disco. They lived up to their potential, getting more interesting the more they hybridized their sound on their last two pre-breakup albums, 2007’s Infinity On High and 2008’s Folie à Deux. They went away for a while after that, but when they returned in 2013 with Save Rock And Roll, they went right back to being one of rock’s primary ambassadors to the top 40 with top-20 single in “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up).” Like “Centuries,” it’s a gargantuan tune that could also be classified as a jock jam for the way its chorus evoked soccer and football chants.
Fall Out Boy have been sharing a bunch of songs from the new album on YouTube in the past week, and they demonstrate this band doing what they’ve always done: turning pop-punk into weapons-grade arena-rock pimped out with all kinds of mad-scientist genre accents. “Uma Thurman” builds around the surf-rock theme from The Munsters (which sounds a lot like the Dick Dale song from Pulp Fiction, get it?) and sounds like nothing else they’ve ever done. “Novocaine” begins with a gnarly low-end talk-box riff that reads like a twisted version of “Uptown Funk!” The verses in “Immortals” ride a funky Eastern groove that could almost pass for an M.I.A. song. They’re all admirably weird while still making a baldfaced bid for radio airplay; another great example is “Irresistible,” which bears the marks of everything from Drake’s “Trophies” to Calvin Harris’ many EDM-pop hits to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”
Speaking of “Radioactive,” it does that same soccer-chant thing and sounds infinitely better as performed by a marching band at a football game. “Come With Me Now,” last year’s late-breaking breakout hit by South African rockers Kongos, pulls a similar shout-along trick, as does pretty much every big hit by Mumford & Sons’ and other bands of that ilk. Fun.’s two 2012 triumphs “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” fit the profile, too. And really, despite their teeny-bopper foundations, you can count One Direction’s “Steal My Girl” and 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “She Looks So Perfect” among that same class of rock songs built around massive gang-vocal sing-alongs by dudes (always dudes).
These days, it seems the best way to get your rock song into the pop mainstream is to give it a sledgehammer chorus like that, something you can shout along with at the pub as your favorite team charges to victory. Not much rock music is making headway in the top 40 otherwise, unless you count soulful troubadours like Hozier and Ed Sheeran (I don’t) or pop bands that barely even classify as rock like Maroon 5, MAGIC!, or OneRepublic (I really don’t). I’m not sure whether the popularity of the nuclear-powered gang chorus has to do with populism — the power of many voices joining together — or if it’s some kind of masculine response to an era when females have been building a historic stranglehold on the airwaves. Or maybe you just have to sound like a stadium full of people in order to be heard over the walloping compression of most modern pop. Whatever’s driving it, the results are as mixed as with any recent trend from EDM-pop to retro soul to DJ Mustard ripoffs. Fall Out Boy aren’t the best or the worst of rock’s modern jock-jammers, but their adventurous approach to being one of the biggest bands in the world at least makes them the most interesting.
Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ wondrous “Uptown Funk” is on top of the Hot 100 for a second straight week, and Billboard notes that it may be set for a long reign as its numbers are only going up. That’s great because “Uptown Funk” is great. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” holds at #2 for a second week, followed by Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” and Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” is back up to #5, while Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin” is down to #6. Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” reaches a new peak at #7, and the Ariana Grande/the Weeknd collab “Love Me Harder” climbs back to #8. Rounding out the top 10 are two former #1s, Swift’s “Shake It Off” (#9) and Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (#10).
Swift’s 1989 remains the only #1 album of the young year, moving 155,000 units (111,000 of which were album sales) to far outpace all competitors on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Ed Sheeran’s x climbs to #2 with 76,000 units, only 34,000 of which are album sales, demonstrating how much Sheeran is benefiting from Billboard’s new scoring system, which accounts for streaming. Nicki Minaj’s #3 The Pinkprint (60,000 units, 34,000 sales) and Sam Smith’s #4 In The Lonely Hour (57,000 units, 30,000 sales) also enjoy a streaming boost. The only debut in the top 10 — or the top 30, for that matter — is Rae Sremmurd’s fantastic SremmLife, which tallied 49,000 units (34,000 in sales) to start at #5. That means the rest of the top 10 comprises familiar names: Hozier’s self-titled debut (#6, 49,000 units, 20,000 sales), J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (#7, 45,000 units), the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack (#8, 35,000 units — all of them sales, incidentally), One Direction’s Four (#9, 32,000 units) and Ariana Grande’s My Everything (#10, 28,000 units and only 7,000 of them from sales). Note that Rae Sremmurd would have debuted one or two spots higher based on pure sales and J. Cole would be two or three spots higher; seems like the new rules are hurting rap albums.
Kelly Clarkson – “Heartbeat Song”
Clarkson’s music has always been generic in a sense. Even the timeless “Since U Been Gone,” which notoriously incorporated sounds from the reigning indie-rockers of the day, could hardly be described as anything but a shot down the middle. Still, this faceless comeback single — which borrows even more liberally from Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” as “Since U Been Gone” borrowed from “Maps” — is a disappointment coming from her. It might be a hit anyway on the strength of sheer force; this thing is a tidal wave of compressed guitars, synthesizers, and drum machines, impervious to resistance.
Maroon 5 – “Sugar”
Apparently people think this (obviously fake) surprise-wedding-band shtick is real. It’s not. That’s obnoxious, but the song itself is surprisingly palatable by Maroon 5 standards — kind of a lesser sequel to Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (TGIF),” itself a lesser sequel to Phoenix’s “One Time Too Many.”
Ne-Yo – “Coming With You”
I recently complained that Ne-Yo had given up what set him apart — his loyalty to charmingly sentimental throwback R&B — and assimilated with pop’s lowest common denominator in pursuit of hits. “Coming With You” is his best single in a minute, a fine example of how he can maintain his former style while still making concessions to the sonic climate.
T-Pain – “Say The Word (I’m Gone)”
T-Pain’s campaign to prove he can actually sing without Auto-Tune rolls on, and yep, he can still sing. People who shit on Auto-Tuned singing might as well be shitting on distorted guitars — it’s the height of self-satisfied ignorance — but this monster ballad definitely benefits from the barebones vocal approach.
Tove Lo – “Talking Body”
Those of us who’ve long been loving Tove Lo’s Queen Of The Clouds are well acquainted with this song, but the rest of you should get familiar. I still consider Tove Lo’s debut the best pop album of 2014, and “Talking Body” is a big reason why — as catchy, colorful, and boldly salacious as previous singles “Habits (Stay High)” and “Not On Drugs.”
Sevyn Streeter – “Don’t Kill The Fun” (Feat. Chris Brown)
Streeter is one of mainstream R&B’s secret weapons. It’s a pity she only gets on the radio when Brown guests on her songs (see: “It Won’t Stop“).
David Guetta – “What I Did For Love” (Feat. Emeli Sandé)
Just wait till the chorus hits.
Kongos – “I Want To Know”
These South Africans scored a major hit with “Come With Me Now,” one of the more obnoxious rock songs to infect top-40 and alt-rock radio in recent memory. Surprisingly, their chilled-out reggae side is more appealing.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber is apparently working with Rick Rubin. [Instagram]
- Keith Richards, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with Bieber despite Bieber’s best attempts. [Us Weekly]
- Songwriter Sean Douglas (Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack”) has been getting a lot of attention this week ever since Michael Keaton shouted him out in his Golden Globes speech and people realized they were father and son. [THR]
- It’s official: Mariah Carey has announced a residency at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. [Billboard]
- Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee slammed President Obama for letting his daughters listen to Beyoncé. [NY Post]
- Drake and A$AP Rocky are rumored for Lollapalooza. [Fake Shore Drive]
- Lupe Fiasco quit Twitter after he tweeted some year-old lyrics of his and people finally noticed their controversial nature. [Billboard]
- Florence + The Machine are working with the choreographer behind Sia’s “Chandelier” video. [Idolator]
- Willow Smith released a new mixtape/EP thing called Interdimensional Tesseract because of course she did. [Complex]