Radio Hits One: The Foo Fighters Foster The Alternative Generation Gap
The Foo Fighters' seventh album Wasting Light became the band's first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 upon its release in April, following a mountain of pre-release hype that included some of the best reviews of the band's career, a documentary about the making of the album, and the inevitable publicity surrounding Dave Grohl collaborating again with Nirvana-era pals Butch Vig, Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic. But there is one respect in which 2011 may not represent the apex of the Foo Fighters' career: "Rope," the first single from Light, couldn't quite beat the record for most weeks at the top of the Alternative Songs chart, which is still held by the band's own "The Pretender." That track, from 2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, topped the chart for 18 weeks.
Last week "Rope" was dethroned after 13 weeks at the top spot by an unlikely newcomer, Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks." If the Foo Fighters represent '90s alt-rock survivors, Foster The People are decidedly new school: the L.A. band has turned its debut single into a chart-topper less than two years after playing its first show. Even the sound of "Pumped Up Kicks" is like a quick tour through 21st-century indie-crossover success, with Muppety vocals reminiscent of MGMT (on a chorus that prominently features the word "kids," no less) and a whistling hook that recalls both the Black Keys' recent Alternative No. 1 "Tighten Up" and Peter, Bjorn & John's "Young Folks."
Foster The People, who like MGMT are signed to Columbia, belong to a new class of radio-friendly major-label bands with an aesthetic that owes heavily to contemporary indie. (See also: Cage The Elephant, Airborne Toxic Event.) They share the airwaves with bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Phoenix, who built enthusiastic followings among critics and cool kids for years before breaking through to rock radio in a big way, as well as critical faves and minor chart presences like TV On The Radio and the Arcade Fire. Meanwhile, the Silversun Pickups and The Dirty Heads have in recent years become the first bands to top the Alternative chart with independent-label releases since the '90s. Although it's important to note that bands with indie entanglements, whether in terms of business or aesthetics, are still generally outnumbered on the charts by nu-grunge bands like Seether and the surprisingly resilient Shinedown.
The Foos are still on a record-breaking run on the Rock Songs chart; there, "Rope" became the second song to debut at No. 1 and it hasn't budged for 17 weeks and counting. But it's less impressive to set records on that chart simply because Billboard founded it in 2009; compare that to the 23-year history of the Alternative Songs chart (formerly the Modern Rock chart; it was renamed when Rock Songs came along).
The Alternative/Modern chart has been the king of chart inertia on Billboard in recent years as the format has gradually been drained of listeners and excitement, which means that it's easy for a band like Foo Fighters to get to the top of the Alternative chart and stay there for a while. Over the last decade, the Foos have occupied the Alternative chart's No. 1 slot 12.5% of the time65 weeks in total since June 2001. That accomplishment is eclipsed only by Linkin Park's 71 weeks, although the Foo Fighters could easily take the lead by the end of Wasting Light's promotional cycle. Not far behind them are two other bands from the '90s alt-rock era: the Red Hot Chili Peppers (40 weeks) and Green Day (31 weeks). In fact, there haven't really been any blockbuster rock acts to rise to prominence since 2001, the year that Linkin Park, Nickelback and arguably the White Stripes scored their first major hits. Muse or The Killers or (gulp) 30 Seconds To Mars may yet prove themselves to be consistent arena-fillers over the course of more than a couple of album cycles, but at the moment few young rock acts seem capable of achieving the dominance of the Foo Fighters, let alone a cultural institution like U2.
Personally, I would've liked to see the Foos knocked out of the top spot by Coldplay's "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall," if only because it would be so perfectly timed to Dave Grohl scowling at a car with a Coldplay bumper sticker in the Falling Down-themed video for the "Rope" follow-up "Walk." But Foster The People's insurgency makes for a nice changing of the guard narrative, a shift away from the '90s alternative explosion that the Foo Fighters (and especially their frontman) represent. That's not to say Foster is going to become as big as the Foos anytime soontheir second single may flop faster than you can say "Sex And Candy." But in a rock radio climate still cluttered up by the bizarrely persistent careers of bands like 311 and Cake, any new blood is welcome.
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