Saturday, September 28, 2013

25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock Chart

Chris Molanphy's article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock/Alternative chart is tremendous and an essential read for anyone who grew up on the version of "alternative" music as defined by that Siouxsie and the Banshees-topping first chart back in 1988.  We're basically talking about people born between 1968 and 1976 who remember "alternative" music when it was a catch-all phrase for a genre-spanning (but mostly rock-based) collection of countercultural music that rarely found a way to sniff the "real" charts, rather than a genre unto itself (i.e. a euphemism for grunge and everyone who rode grunge's coattails to stardom).

Molanphy's breakdown of the chart into six "eras" is spot on.  Anyone who was listening in the "British Empire" era (1988-1993 according to Molanphy) but still paid attention after that to the general happenings in the pop charts probably had a moment around era number four or five (2000-2008 or so) where they were surprised to see that the chart was still around.  Like me, they probably glanced at Billboard, saw RCHP or Foo Fighters topping the chart in the middle of one of their many 10+ week runs at the top, and wondered what the hell happened and what was even the point of this chart anymore.

Three comments related tangentially to Molanphy's article:

1) Although the article gamely attempts to accord some kind of overall historical meaning to the chart, the fact is that nobody, probably including musical artists, has ever given a crap about the Modern Rock chart.  Molanphy is certainly not blind to this -- he more or less defines it as "a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn't want to be charted -- but I'm hard pressed to think of a major national music chart that has had less impact or sense of worth to the artists and fans involved.

2) The "coming full circle" narrative of the article, where the awful rap-metal and rock of the 00's is symbolically phased out and a woman reaches #1 again on the chart, is a bit forced and artificial.  It's been a male-dominated chart for the past fifteen years, no doubt, but Evanescence, Hole, Chumbawamba, and The White Stripes have all been to #1 for multiple weeks since then, and all feature female members in prominent roles (including lead singing roles, with the exception of The White Stripes).  True, none of them were solo female artists, but it wasn't a total dead zone for female artists as the article implies (not even mentioning Gotye f. Kimbra from just last year).  And in the two years prior to Tracy Bonham having the last #1 by a solo female artist until Lorde earlier this month, Tori Amos, The Cranberries, and Alanis Morissette had #1 hits and sold zillions of records at the height of alternative music's commercial peak.

"Somebody That I Used To Know" being recognized as the Billboard Hot 100 song of the year and Alternative song of the year is impressive, but not as impressive at it would seem considering that the music industry virtually killed off the single in the early 90's.  Albums were what counted in the 90's unless you were Mariah Carey or a friend/collaborator of Mariah Carey.  In 2013, the balance is tipped in favour of songs again, there are no more Cakes and Smashmouths having minor hits and selling millions of albums.  Now, if your album went platinum then you almost certainly had a huge hit on the Hot 100.  Alanis Morissette's songs were everywhere in '95-'96, and as it stands she had arguably the biggest album of the 90's.  In the current climate she almost certainly would have had a few #1's on the Hot 100 as well.

To me, the most amazing thing about Gotye's success is that for more than a decade, there wasn't a single #1 on the Hot 100 that could even be remotely considered as an alternative crossover hit.  Nobody fluked into a #1 until Owl City managed it in 2009, and since then the #1 spot on the Hot 100 has been more or less a steady stream of proven singles heavyweights.  Nobody paved the way for "Somebody That I Used To Know" to break through, it was a truly unprecedented smash hit.  The previous Hot 100/Alternative crossover smash hit was probably Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", which hit #1 on the Modern Rock and Hot 100 in 1998 (but not simultaneously, strangely enough).

3) Perhaps the most glaring omission in the article is any mention of the Hot 100 changing from a "singles" chart to a "songs" chart in 1998.  For instance, Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" was inescapable in 1998, but wasn't eligible to chart on the Hot 100 because it wasn't originally released as a single.  But the time it finally received a single release, the song had peaked in real, popularity terms with five weeks at the top of the Modern Rock chart and eighteen weeks (still a record) at the top of the Hot 100 Airplay charts. So for all intents and purposes, Goo Goo Dolls should have had a smash crossover #1 hit, and you could say the same for No Doubt's "Don't Speak" and many other songs during the mid-90's. Molanphy's 1997-1999 "faux-ternative" era comes off as a tepid placeholder between the decline of the grunge giants and the resurgence of the 2000's brand of cock rock.  Like them or not, the faux-ternative bands were a hugely successful brand of pop music, more so than any "alternative" bands that came before or since.

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