Has Popular Alternative Music Hit The Wall?

Your 'Popular' Charts are full of zits!  The kind you're constantly squeezing but somehow won't...'Pop'!!!

Your 'Popular' Charts are full of zits!  The kind you're constantly squeezing but somehow won't...'Pop'!!!

Since the sea change that occurred in popular music some 10 to 15 years ago; the rise of Hip Hop, manufactured artists, the death of rock, the rise of MP3's, Napster & other forms of file sharing, iTunes & now streaming music subscriptions; Alternative Music has been given short shrift to almost non-existence in the popular music charts from then to the present. Whether you loved or hated the early to mid 90's Grunge movement, it was the last time Alternative Music dominated the musical conscious of the overall 'popular'/'pop' music. Since that time we've been inundated with boy bands, girl bands, Rap, divas (from Spears to Aguilera/Perry to Gaga/Rhianna to a Bieber), & of course counterfeit country crossing over into pop. I'll spare you & me the laundry list of 'artists' that fall under that umbrella. You more than likely know who they are. While all of this was occurring on the popular charts, Alternative Music was & is nearly absent.

I have a subscription to Rolling Stone. I've had one off & on for decades. I use it to take the pulse of what's popular in music during the two week span before the next issue. But most of all, I peruse the charts on the last page. I'm currently looking at the May 22nd issue with Neil Patrick Harris on the cover resplendent in nothing more than a bow tie & top hat over his knob. Disturbing, but I digress.

                                I want you to feel the same discomfort I did!  Enjoy the cover!  You bloody homophobe! 

                                I want you to feel the same discomfort I did!  Enjoy the cover!  You bloody homophobe! 

Looking at the Top 40 albums for the week, I'm struck by the wasteland that the popular charts are now & have been for Alternative Music. Neon Trees appears at number 6 in the charts on the release of their new LP 'Pop Psychology' which exposes by the title alone that they have no desire to be lumped in with the Alternative crowd any longer. They just prefer to (kinda) look the part. The shocking result is that they're #6 on the charts with meager sales of 19,300 copies of their pop fodder. Next on the chart (#9) trumpeted as the second coming is of course dame Lorde. For nearly a year, this teen has been positioned as a new Siouxsie with pop chops. Something tells me if her hair was blonde & she more prone to exposing a bit of flesh, she'd be nothing more than an angsty Shaikira. Bastille follows at #22 with their LP 'Bad Blood'. For whatever reason, this one has had legs since it was released in mid September last year. I have no idea why. "Pompeii" is a palatable single but I don't think that single alone is enough to keep them on the Billboard Top 40 for over 36 weeks. Imagine Dragons is the next 'Alternative' resident of the Top 40 at #27.  Truthfully, I don't think that ranking gives them enough credit.  If any quasi Alternative band has had a longer stint in the Billboard Top 40 Album chart, I'd love to know who & when.  I'm not doing the fucking research.  I believe they've been in & out of the rankings several times since their LP "Night Visions' was released in September 2012!  Two years later & they're still there. 

A band I love & respect appears at #29. It's Arctic Monkeys. I take some solace there although the L.P., 'AM', is more of an homage to R&B than anything else. They're followed by Beck at #33 with 'Morning Phase'. I dare anyone reading this to justify Beck & this LP's presence in the charts. The last (and I use the term loosely) 'Alternative' act appearing in the Top 40 is Lana Del Rey. Nope. I don't think I'll ever get it.

Why did I spill so many words counting down the Alternative Music currently on the Top 40 charts? Well, I'm slightly buzzed & losing my train of thought. Actually that's only partially true. I'm just buzzed. The reason for the exercise is to show the pallid state of Alternative Music in relation to popular music. Truthfully, neither is in a great state when it comes to physical sales of music. However, there was time in the '80's , through the Grunge era that Alternative Music was well represented on the Pop charts.  At times it actually dominated.  Now, compared to the other genres, Alternative Music & the pop charts barely glance at each other in passing.  There really isn't even a polite handshake.  There's the occasional 'ass-pinch-then run' when The Black Keys, Coldplay, The Killers, Muse, U2 or Arcade Fire grace the masses with a release.  They'll grab your attention & the pop charts for a bit but essentially what those bands are flogging is another song that can be licensed for bumper music to the NCAA, NFL or NBA! 

The reasons for this two decade dearth of Alt Music in the popular charts is somewhat complex but explainable.  First, there really are great Indie/Alternative rock acts suited to sit squarely in the upper echelon of the Billboard Top 40.  Unfortunately, being new, they lack the name recognition.  Occasionally, an MGMT, Kings Of Leon, Vampire Weekend, Shins, Foster The People or someone of that pedigree makes a dent in the popular charts.  Typically it's fleeting but the hype lives until the next release takes the proverbial shit.  Then it's all down-hill from there.  The ones that 'dented' the top 40 did so from a grass roots base.  Usually it happens because of a transcendent single that vaults the fledgling band into the conscious of 'some' of middle America.  I was listening to Foster The People's 'Pumped Up Kicks' a full year before the LP charted based on that song.  Unfortunately, those sorts of grass roots  phenoms have a very hard act to follow--themselves.  Foster The People's follow up LP, although buoyed by the fact the band now had a known name, barely charted the week of its release & was & has been gone the following week & ever since. 

Secondly, without the established cache of the Alt artists mentioned previously, the leash for bands that do break through is significantly shorter.  Kings of Leon, after their breakthrough LP, Only By  The Night, can't get arrested for a homicide now that the follow up LP went nowhere.  Ditto MGMT.  The inevitable drift into pop music irrelevance suddenly becomes an ugly reality.  The reality of the new 'Pop World Order' is if you can't maintain some sort of status in the charts, you don't have a chance.  If an Alternative act can't follow up a bit of success with a bit more, well...trivial obscurity is your resting place. 

That means you, Katy, Rhianna, Biebs, Beyonce, Gaga, Shakira, Bruno, Swift...ummm...Have I forgotten anyone?

That means you, Katy, Rhianna, Biebs, Beyonce, Gaga, Shakira, Bruno, Swift...ummm...Have I forgotten anyone?

Finally, Pop Music charts target people between the ages of 12 to 28.  I'm not saying that that Billboard or any other chart is intentionally targeting that demographic but that's been the music buying demo since the appearance of Rock 'N Roll over 50 years ago.  That age range typically has an interest, time & the disposable income to actually purchase or at least stream music today.  An old fogey like me, who works a solid five days week has little time to find or buy music.  People my age aren't represented because we don't buy or listen to music.  Even the Alternative Music loving audience on this site.  Coldplay will do well this weekend because they're Coldplay.  They've crossed the great Alternative divide.  They can now 'feature' whatever pop act is currently inseminating the charts on one of their singles.  Success!    

Now is the time for me to admit that I've wasted your time if you've read this far.  Who gives a fuck about Alternative acts placing in the charts other than me?  Lusting for the days when Depeche, The Cure, Spandau, or every Alternative band who charted in the '80's & early 90's is useless.  But if the charts were even slightly prone to an actual band that wrote their own songs, here are bands that I think would be topping the charts if they had a chance:

I guess I'm just the grumpy old man yelling at the kids, "Get off my lawn!"  But I'd like to think I'm the grumpy middle-aged man shaking his fist & yelling, "This is what you're missing!"  The pop charts will probably never be the province of Alternative Music while I'm still above ground.  I just hope that music lovers both young & old (me included) don't miss the next great neglected Alternative act. 

 

J. Rotten