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Both fun.’s “We Are Young” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know.” topped the Hot 100 and the Alternative Songs chart, and did so in quick succession. The success of both those songs after a number of years when songs from the Alternative Songs chart seemed to be almost completely absent from pop radio might portend a cultural sea change, or at least the instant impact of Billboard beginning to factor Spotify streams into its formula for calculating the Hot 100.
Will a third alt-rock crossover rise to No. 1 this year? Will fun. and/or Gotye score big follow-ups, or begin to accrue the “one-hit wonder” stigma? I don’t doubt that both will enjoy a healthy afterglow from their respective smashes—fun.’s “Some Nights” has already climbed to No. 8 on Alternative Songs and No. 41 on the Hot 100. But the future reception of those singles is up in the air. Will they continue to dominate both pop and alternative radio, or will they settle in one format? Both acts had followings prior to these songs—internationally in Gotye’s case, and in the American indie/emo underground in fun.’s case—but neither had any previous Alternative Songs hits to establish that chart as their home base.
Ever since becoming a significant force in mainstream music in the early ’90s, so-called “alternative rock” has struggled with an identity crisis about what, exactly, it’s an alternative to—especially after it began to compete commercially with hard rock and metal. But even at its peak as a sales force, alt-rock has always been a relatively minor presence on the pop singles charts—Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit No. 6 on the Hot 100, but that victory helped open the floodgates for the band and its contemporaries to dominate album charts and rock airwaves. Hot 100 success remained elusive.
Billboard created the Modern Rock singles chart (long since renamed Alternative Songs), to track the then-burgeoning radio format, in mid-1988. In the Year-End Hot 100 chart for 1989, the first full year of the Modern Rock chart’s existence, only seven alternative hits were among the 100 biggest pop hits. That number dropped to 5% in 1990, but then 13% of the 1991 Year-End Hot 100 were also Modern Rock hits. Of course, ‘alternative’ radio would soon change and get quite a bit more guitar-heavy in Nirvana’s wake, but it wasn’t very punk in “the year punk broke”: alternative crossover hits then included such badasses as Enigma, Seal, Chris Isaak and Sting.
From 1993 to 2007, the presence of Modern Rock hits in the Year-End Hot 100 hovered pretty steadily in the 10-15% range, peaking at 20% in 1996. Around that time, grunge had waned, and female singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Joan Osborne united alternative radio with adult contemporary and pop stations, as did softer bands like Hootie & The Blowfish, the Goo Goo Dolls and Collective Soul. In their wake, even slicker acts like Sugar Ray, Smashmouth and Third Eye Blind followed. By the end of the ’90s, those acts had generally either vacated rock radio for Hot AC, or had fallen off the charts entirely. Their hits have generally also vanished from recurrent playlists on modern rock stations, save Morissette’s angry breakup anthem “You Oughta Know.”
Over the next decade, the sound of alternative radio continued to change as the format’s listenership dwindled, but its presence on the Hot 100 held strong until just a few years ago. As with any recent change in the makeup of the Hot 100, it’s tempting to attribute the shift to iTunes. But the percentage of alt-rock hits in the year-end Hot 100 actually went up initially after Billboard began factoring iTunes sales into the chart in 2005: 15% in 2006 and 14% in 2007. That number plummeted to 8% in 2008 and hit an all-time low in 2010, when only Neon Trees and Kings of Leon made the year-end Hot 100. In 2011, it went up slightly to 3%; “Animal” by Neon Trees appeared for the second year in a row, and alt-rock breakout Foster The People and multi-format champ “Rolling In The Deep” by Adele charted as well.
“We Are Young” and “Somebody That I Used To Know” are locks to appear in the 2012 Year-End Hot 100, but it’s hard to say what else could help those numbers go up; no song makes that list off of rock radio airplay alone. The Black Keys may be the biggest “new” band on alternative radio the last few years but their biggest hit, the late-breaking 2011 single “Lonely Boy,” never got higher than No. 67 on the Hot 100.
So who else stands a chance of following fun. and Gotye to crossover glory this year? The best candidate at the moment is Grouplove, whose “Tongue Tied” recently supplanted “Somebody That I Used To Know” at the top of Alternative Songs. The song broke through to the mainstream a few months ago via a TV ad for the iPod, a path that has previously helped acts like Feist and Jet make big splashes on the Hot 100. So far, “Tongue Tied” has only crossed over a little, climbing to No. 31 on the Pop Songs chart, but it’s one of only a small handful of songs this year with any presence on both the pop and alternative charts. Another is the Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks,” which isn’t nearly the major hit that “Animal” was a couple years ago.
Of the current Alternative Songs hits that haven’t crossed over to pop radio, only a handful show much potential to do so. Walk The Moon’s “Anna Sun” has the same Killers-esque uptempo sound that worked out so well for Neon Trees (and, uh, The Killers), as well as the ____ The ____ band name format that’s already birthed recent success stories Foster The People, Young The Giant and Cage The Elephant. “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons and “Little Talks” by Of Monsters And Men are both catchy and soft-edged enough to follow in Gotye and fun.’s footsteps, even if they don’t feel like predestined international chart-toppers.
Some bands currently doing well on the Hot 100 were, once upon a time, played on alternative radio. Maroon 5’s first single “Harder To Breathe” appeared on the rock charts; Train had several alternative hits early on. Even Katy Perry got alt-rock airplay for “I Kissed A Girl” during her Warped Tour days. Since the late ’90s, that’s been the pattern: bands like Matchbox 20, or Sugar Ray, or Lifehouse, or the All-American Rejects initially thrive on both alternative and pop radio, but soon loss the support of rock stations. A few acts have mastered the balancing act of catering to both rock and pop radio, particularly Coldplay, Linkin Park and Nickelback, but none have crossed over with recent hits as much as they did.
One act that seemed to move from alternative to pop radio more deliberately than others was No Doubt. Although they crossed over relatively early in their career with “Don’t Speak,” from their 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, they remained alt-rock radio fixtures throughout the singles for 2000’s Return of Saturn. It was only in 2001, when the band emphasized its reggae and dance music influences on Rock Steady, that No Doubt were suddenly purely darlings of pop radio. That carried through to frontwoman Gwen Stefani’s hugely successful solo career, which in retrospect seems to have carved out a path for the likes of Katy Perry and Ke$ha. Will they attempt to win back alt-rock radio later this year when they release Push And Shove, or will they continue down the path they chose on Rock Steady? With the lead single coming any day now, we should at least have an idea pretty soon.