Alice Merton Is Ruling Rock Radio. Is A Pop Crossover Next?
Do you remember where you first heard “Royals”? Almost any guess could be correct — and not just because the song achieved the sort of ubiquity you’d expect from a #1 hit.
Lorde’s breakthrough single was a sonic prism that could pass for many different genres depending on the angle you heard it from. Its stylish minimalism was so adaptable and intersectional that it ended up spanning more radio formats than you can count on one hand. At the height of the song’s reign I even heard it on rap and R&B stations despite only tangential connection to the rest of their playlists. Yet even before “Royals” was blowing up at top-40 radio, it got its start at rock and alternative stations, where it was topping airplay charts several months ahead of its triumph on the Hot 100.
Like its indie-rock feeder system, the prevailing sound of alternative radio has gravitated toward the pop mainstream over the past decade or so. As pop’s boilerplate has evolved into a sort of composite of every genre, many of those genres have drifted toward the middle. But whereas indie bands who’ve gone pop have had trouble crossing over to an actual pop audience, alternative radio has a long track record of launching pop mega-hits.
Some singles from this decade that topped Billboard’s Rock Airplay and/or Alternative Songs charts months before they crossed over to a pop audience and became top-10 hits on the all-inclusive Hot 100 chart: Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” Fun. and Janelle Monáe’s “We Are Young.” Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Capital Cities’ “Safe And Sound.” Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance.” Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.”
Even if you like some of those songs, you’ll notice that they add up to the corporate festival lineup of your nightmares. That milquetoast iTolerateRadio vibe is typical of this particular cross-section of the airwaves, where so-called alternative songs realize their pop ambitions. “Royals” was a rare example of a full-scale crossover hit that got to the top by appealing to the public’s good taste rather than our basest impulses. Yet regardless of whether these tracks elicit enjoyment in you, the balance they strike is impressive. Are they pop songs that pass for rock? Rock songs that pass for pop? Appealing to both audiences is harder than you think. (Just ask Rivers Cuomo.)
Pardon all my rambling. Here’s the point: Congratulations are in order for one Alice Merton.
Geographically speaking, Merton’s hit single “No Roots” is true to her life. The 24-year-old singer was born in Frankfurt to German and Irish parents, briefly relocated to Connecticut, spent most of her childhood in Canada, finished out her adolescence in Munich, spent some time in London, and as of now is based in Berlin. In a video for Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, she counts 12 moves total — hence her song’s ceaseless refrain, “I’ve got no roots!” She has lived so many places that none of them feel like home.
So it’s either poetic or a little on-the-nose that “No Roots” has been such a smash in so many places. The song has spent the past year making Merton a star overseas; it was a top-10 hit in Germany, France, Poland, Austria, Belgium, and Croatia and performed well in Italy and Switzerland. Weirdly, it hasn’t had a similar impact in the UK yet, but halfway through 2017 it began making headway in North America, where it’s now enough of an entity to yield a Tonight Show gig. Like Merton herself, “No Roots” apparently knows no borders.
But judging by what little we’ve heard so far, Merton’s music definitely has a native environment. With its soulfully snarling lead vocal, jarring guitar stabs, and especially that heavy bass groove, “No Roots” is unmistakably built to flourish on rock and alternative stations. And flourish it has: This week Merton became the first woman to top the Rock Airplay chart since Lorde did it with her “Royals” follow-up “Team” in 2014 and the first woman to go #1 on the Alternative Songs chart since Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” in 2015.
“No Roots” swaggers along like something cooked up by Jack White and Dua Lipa, gritty and anachronistic and topped off by an insidiously hooky bellow, so it’s no surprise that the song has taken over rock radio. The bigger question is whether it can win over pop listeners. Despite its undeniable kick, all of the song’s rock signifiers are muted enough not to terrify anyone who might cower at the sound of, say, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This week the song cracked into the bottom reaches of Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart, so pop stations are at least toying with letting it cross over.
It’s also a mainstay in the top 40 on iTunes, which suggests there’s at least some audience reciprocation and this song’s success is not just the product of someone in the industry leaning on radio programmers — something I feared when I realized “No Roots” has never cracked the global top 200 on Spotify. Traditionally rock and country don’t perform as well on streaming services as pop and rap, but if “No Roots” is to become the next smash hit forged by alternative radio, support from Spotify and Apple subscribers (and, relatedly, the folks who program their playlists) would certainly help.
Then there’s the question of where Merton goes from here. Besides “No Roots,” her only songs on Apple Music are features with two German bands: “Home Under The Sky,” a dreamy collaboration with “nature-pop” combo Fahrenhaidt, and “The Call,” a ’70s prog throwback by Eloy. There are musical miles between those poles, but unsurprisingly, her only other solo single so far hews closely to the formula that has caught fire all over the Western world. Like the last one, it’s a punchy, back-to-basics rock track with a chorus so repetitive it can’t help but get stuck in your head, and once again its title is true to Merton’s own life circumstances: “Hit The Ground Running.”
Not long after we learned Black Panther was America’s #1 movie (as expected), we learned Black Panther was America’s #1 album (also as expected). The soundtrack, which amounts to a Kendrick Lamar album of sorts — or at least Kendrick’s version of Drake’s star-studded “playlist” project More Life — tallied 154,000 equivalent album units and 52,000 in traditional sales in its opening frame, the biggest week for a soundtrack since Suicide Squad: The Album two summers ago. It’s also the largest streaming week ever for a soundtrack, with 138.9 million on-demand audio streams equating to 93,000 album units. Black Panther would be Kendrick’s fourth #1 album if Billboard was counting it as a Kendrick album, but it seems they aren’t.
In its second week, Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods falls to #2 with 74,000 units. The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack is at #3 with 72,000, while Migos’ Culture II is at #4 with 68,000. The Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack clocks in at #5 with 58,000, putting three soundtracks in the top 5 for the 10th time in Billboard history. The only other time it happened in the last decade was May 2015, when Pitch Perfect 2 was #1, Fifty Shades Of Grey was #3, and Furious 7 was #5. The rest of the top 10 comprises Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Post Malone, Kendrick Lamar (yes, DAMN. is still hanging around), and Camila Cabello.
Over on the Hot 100, Drake’s “God’s Plan” rules for a fourth straight week. Billboard reports that the song’s 75.5 million US streams represent the seventh best streaming week in the chart’s history, which means “God’s Plan” has now tallied four of the seven biggest streaming weeks ever. With the release of a highly circulated music video last Friday, don’t expect its streaming numbers to go down any time soon.
Drake also enters at #6 as a featured artist on the BlocBoy JB collab “Look Alive.” It’s Drake’s 23rd top-10 hit, extending his record among rappers. “Look Alive” is the first top-10 hit and first Hot 100 single overall for BlocBoy, who becomes the first act to debut his first Hot 100 single in the top 10 since Harry Styles. It’s the second time in four weeks that Drake finds himself with two singles in the top 10 (when “God’s Plan” debuted at #1, it was joined by “Diplomatic Immunity” at #7).
Back to Black Panther: Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All The Stars” makes a huge leap from #31 to #9, largely thanks to the soundtrack’s big week, resulting in Kendrick’s seventh top-10 hit and SZA’s second following the Maroon 5 collab “What Lovers Do.” (Kendrick’s sixth top-10 hit, “Pray For Me” with the Weeknd — also from Black Panther — falls to #11 this week.) And now for a take:
Critical consensus seems to be that the pop songs on the Black Panther soundtrack (specifically "All The Stars" and "Pray For Me") are Not Very Good, but after weeks of compulsive listening I'm here to tell you they are Very Good
— Chris DeVille (@chrisdeville) February 20, 2018
As for the rest of the top 10: Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” at #2, Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” at #3, Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” at #4, Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” at #5, Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be” at #7 (a new peak), Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” at #8, and Migos’ “Stir Fry” at #10.
Janelle Monáe – “Make Me Feel” & “Django Jane”
Two very strong singles to kick off the Dirty Computer rollout: one a masterful Prince homage co-written by Julia Michaels, the other a graceful and grandiose showcase for Janelle Monáe’s mic skills. I’m excited. Are you excited?
The Chainsmokers – “You Owe Me”
In case you thought “Sick Boy” was a one-time dealio, the Chainsmokers are really out here trying to rebrand as Twenty One Pilots while Twenty One Pilots are away. Make of this what you will, but “You Owe Me” gets way more interesting when the EDM drops hit during the bridge — around the time the video takes a similarly intriguing turn.
James Bay – “Wild Love”
I’ve done my best to ignore James Bay up to this point, but it appears he’s playing SNL soon and has recruited Natalia Dyer (bka Nancy from Stranger Things) for his video, so I guess it’s time to tune in. The good news is that as futuristic adult contemporary synth-pop songs go, “Wild Love” ain’t half bad.
Betty Who – “Ignore Me”
Imogen Heap computer vocals transplanted into an E•MO•TION-style ’80s synth-pop jam? Sign me up!
Kim Petras – “Heart To Break”
If you pride yourself on being woke, let me know your calculus on a proudly transgender pop singer who works with Dr. Luke. As for the song itself: very good!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Seemingly confirming widespread speculation, Lorde and Jack Antonoff were spotted canoodling in New Zealand. [Daily Mail]
- Tyga wants a DNA test to prove he’s the real father of Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner’s new baby. [Vogue]
- Troye Sivan recorded some tracks with Carly Rae Jepsen, but apparently none of them are on CRJ’s upcoming album. [Billboard]
- After years in the wilderness, 5 Seconds Of Summer will release a new single called “Want You Back” tomorrow. [Idolator]
- Apple has renewed its Carpool Karaoke web series for a second season. [THR]
- Portugal. The Man enlisted Tycho for two remixes of “Live In The Moment.” [Link]
- On Chinese New Year Jessie J sang “Purple Rain” (with some Chinese) on a Chinese TV game show. [Twitter]
- Lil Yachty played a Bar Mitzvah. [YouTube]
- Also, Yachty’s Lil Boat 2 arrives 3/9. [Twitter]
- Zayn teased new music in a series of Instagram posts. [The Fader]
- Kesha had to cancel some tour dates because she tore her ACL. [People]
- Post Malone announced a tour with “Rockstar” costar 21 Savage. [Post Malone]
- Jay-Z racked up an $80k bar tab and tipped a normal amount. [Spin]
- Justin Bieber is about to have a new baby half-sister. [TMZ]
- Brace yourselves: Zedd hit the studio with Muse’s Matt Bellamy. [Billboard]
- Dua Lipa enlisted Charli XCX, Zara Larsson, MØ, and Alma for an all-star performance of “IDGAF” at the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- Camila Cabello addressed that moment from the Grammys when Blue Ivy told her famous parents to stop applauding: “I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ I’m not gonna go into this wormhole of, ‘So you think she didn’t like my speech?'” [YouTube]
- Ed Sheeran is bucking tradition by wearing an engagement ring. [TMZ]
- Finally, here’s “Mother,” one of the new songs to be featured in the Broadway version of Frozen. [NYT]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Who saw Fergie's national anthem performance at the NBA All Star Game? I think mine was better lowkey
— Roseanne Barr (@therealroseanne) February 19, 2018