This summer, a total of four songs by rock bands (or, more precisely, pop/rock bands) have appeared in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100: Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” OneRepublic’s “The Good Life,” Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight,” and Maroon 5’s Christina Aguilera-assisted “Moves Like Jagger” (which moved up to No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week) all rose into the chart’s upper reaches during July and August. That may not seem like a large number, but when “Moves” debuted at No. 8 in July it broke a 13-month drought of rock bands of any kind reaching the Hot 100’s top 10. This puts 2011 firmly ahead of 2010, when “Hey, Soul Sister” made Train the only rock band to crack the top 10 for the entire year.
Obviously, none of these songs are exactly hard rock anthems; the most memorable riffs in both “Pumped Up Kicks” and “The Good Life” are whistled, not strummed on a guitar. And of the four acts, only Foster The People have been played on rock stations, and not adult contemporary and Top 40 charts. But this quartet illustrates just how rare it is these days for any kind of rock band to climb up the Hot 100 these days, and exactly what kind of success it takes to achieve that feat.
The scarcity of instrument-playing pop/rock combos in the Hot 100 is hardly a recent development. The Beatles and their contemporaries may have bombarded the American singles charts in the ’60s, but over the past four decades pop, R&B, singer-songwriters, disco, dance and hip-hop have generally ruled the Hot 100, while rock stars have had to settle for multi-platinum albums, arena tours, and domination of the critical discourse. The last decade, though, has been an especially fallow period for the commercial relevance of rock music, with all those other genres horning in more and more on album sales, ticket sales, and attention from critics.
The best time for rock bands on the Hot 100 in the last 40 years probably occurred in the mid-’80s, when hard rockers perfected the power ballad formula and a variety of British and American pop/rock acts adapted to the MTV era with shiny hooks and flashy videos that didn’t feel so out of place next to Michael Jackson and Madonna. And that feels like history’s closest parallel to 2011’s bumper crop of top 10 bands, who sound like they’re working hard to fit into a pop landscape dominated by the vaguely rock-derived but decidedly pop stylings of Katy Perry and Bruno Mars.
In late 2009, Billboard assembled its end-of-decade Hot 100 list, and of those 100 most successful songs since 2000, only 15 were by rock bands. (And this defines “rock” very broadly; it includes the Timbaland/OneRepublic collaboration “Apologize” and the Santana/The Product G&B track “Maria Maria.” Only about half the “rock” songs on the list were actual rock radio staples.) Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” was the fourth-biggest song of the decade, and it could be argued that “Remind” was the last full-on guitar rock track to top the Hot 100 back in 2001; Coldplay hit No. 1 with their string-driven “Viva La Vida” in 2008. Hits by the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne were essentially slicked-up rock songs, but being as they were ignored by rock radio and credited to female pop singers, that’s a gray area that for the sake of this discussion doesn’t count.
Foster The People’s genuine crossover from rock radio to pop chart dominance is rare, but it wasn’t that long ago that such a path was more commonplace. In 2009, Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” and Shinedown’s “Second Chance” were huge rock radio hits that gradually became the bands’ first songs to climb near the top of the Hot 100, while crossover vets Linkin Park’s “New Divide” jumped into the top 10 thanks to the iTunes bump it got from being a non-album soundtrack single. But since then, the few rock acts in the top 10 have peddled softer sounds: Train has their ukulele; Hot Chelle Rae sounds like the band from the FreeCreditScore.com ads; Maroon 5 got a diva boost from Adam Levine’s Voice co-judge Aguilera; and OneRepublic serves as a thinly veiled star vehicle for Ryan Tedder, who’s penned hits for Beyoncé and Leona Lewis. Even “Pumped Up Kicks,” which may be the most aesthetically “indie” song to crack the top 10, is one of the mellowest songs on rock radio this year.
Up until about 2007, at least a half a dozen or so rock hits—by the likes of Nickelback, Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Linkin Park and Evanescence—would rise into the top 10 each year. Top 40-friendly pop/rock bands like Maroon 5 and The Fray were in the mix as well, but were a relative minority. All those rock radio fixtures are still recording and dominating their corner of the charts, some of them with current singles. But even though they might sell out shows and notch impressive debuts on the Billboard 200, none of them are climbing up the Hot 100 like they used to.
Earlier this year, when Foster The People first replaced the Foo Fighters at the top of the Alternative Songs chart, I speculated somewhat facetiously that Foster The People could represent the changing of the mainstream rock guard. Now I feel like perhaps I didn’t know how right I was.