Modern Rock Programmers Ponder What They’ve Done In 2007

jumpforlinkinpark.jpgSince many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley (a.k.a. Idolator commenter GovernmentNames) examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around he takes a look at Billboard‘s Top 40 Hot Modern Rock Songs Of 2007 to see just what “rock” meant to radio this year:

Billboard‘s end-of-year lists, as always, provide a feast for those of us who care to painstakingly analyze not just popular music, but exactly what was the most popular and why. While Chris Molanphy made a meal out of the stats–including the Modern Rock numbers–last week, he left plenty of meat on the bones for me to dig into. And the Top 40 Hot Modern Rock Songs of 2007 chart is a mix of the usual suspects with some intriguing surprises.

As is generally the case with Billboard‘s year-end charts, which start in December of the previous year and end in November, this one heavily favors hits from the first half of the year and holdovers from 2006. Pretty much the entire Top 10 had impacted radio by the spring, giving the shaft to songs that have been inescapable over the last few months like the Foo Fighters’ “The Pretender” and Paramore’s “Misery Business,” which had to settle for Nos. 14 and 25, respectively. Unsurprisingly, if depressingly, the top spot is held by Linkin Park’s “Another Version of ‘Numb,’ This Time Without Jay-Z,” with Finger Eleven’s unlikely dance-rock smash “Paralyzer” (a personal favorite) taking runner-up status.

By far the most unexpected and inexplicable stats on the chart are the respective placements of Nine Inch Nails’ two hits from Year Zero. “Survivalism” landed at No. 37, with “Capital G” coming in eight spots above it at No. 29. “Survivalism,” the album’s lead single, was out longer and peaked at No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart. But follow-up “Capital G,” released just before Trent Reznor began his very public divorce from Interscope, didn’t have a video or even a remix single with a “halo number”; it peaked at No. 6, making it the first NIN single to not top the Modern Rock chart since 2001. And the song itself, aside from a drum pattern that was eerily similar to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” sure didn’t smell like a hit, with Reznor’s goofy vocal delivery and heavy-handed indictment of the Bush administration. I’m totally open to any theories on how this song, which I scarcely remember hearing on the radio at all, not only racked up more airplay than “Survivalism,” but apparently became one of the biggest rock hits of the year. Perhaps it became a favorite on West Coast stations I don’t listen to, or a few liberal DJs got a kick out of playing the song as much as possible during graveyard shifts? I’m stumped.

What the list demonstrates most is that modern rock radio in 2007 operated in its own sphere, with a limited amount of pop culture crossover. Fall Out Boy may have been crowned by media outlets like MTV as the biggest (or at least the most visible) young band in the world this year, but their tabloid-fodder relationships and numerous hip-hop collaborations cemented them as pop stars, not rock stars. Their sole entry on the list, “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” (No. 26), reflects the fact that this year’s Infinity On High skewed far more pop than their 2005 breakthrough, From Under The Cork Tree. All of Infinity‘s singles peaked higher on the Pop 100 and iTunes sales charts than on rock radio, and only “This Ain’t A Scene” scraped the Modern Rock Top 10, at a lower peak than earlier hits like “Dance, Dance” or “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down.” Meanwhile, FOB was beat out on the year-end list by bands like Three Days Grace, Breaking Benjamin, Sick Puppies, and The Almost, none of whom you were likely to see on television this year (unless you watch Fuse, maybe).

While a handful of bands land on the list twice, including Muse and My Chemical Romance, only one is there three times, and you probably wouldn’t be able to guess who it is: Incubus. Though their highest spot is a modest No. 12 for “Dig,” the first three singles from the band’s late 2006 album Light Grenades wound up on 2007′s top 40. When Light Grenades debuted at the top of the album charts last November, I figured it was just the usual case of a band’s diehard fans coming out in full force on the release date, coinciding with an otherwise slow week for new releases. But Billboard‘s list reaffirms that Incubus still has a tight grip on Modern Rock radio, even if they’re a long way out from their peak of mainstream popularity in the late ’90s, when frontman Brandon Boyd was the token rocker pin-up on TRL, a spot currently occupied by FOB bassist Pete Wentz. Unless Fall Out Boy plan on completing their transformation into this generation’s Duran Duran with their next album, they might want to consult the guys in Incubus for some advice on how they can avoid losing rock radio’s support entirely.

  • Al Shipley

    I’d like to add that the Z100 list Maura posted the other day supports my Fall Out Boy theory, 3 songs on their list with “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs” just outside the top 10:

    The other day I grilled a friend who’s an obsessive NIN fan about the mysterious “Capital G” triumph and he was as surprised as I was. I hope somebody here has a possible explanation!

  • RodneyJ

    ‘a drum pattern that was eerily similar to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” ‘

    Alright, I’m not crazy.

  • Anonymous

    The unexplained triumph of “Capital G”?

    Could it be that Trent Reznor’s “Carry On” singing, “Jackson”/disco-esque baseline, and “Monty Python” tongue-in-cheek lyrics have served up such a sumptuous dish of the absurd that we can’t help ourselves but swing our hips, stomp our glitter platforms and jump on the carnival float?

    None of which particularly cries out “ROCK”. But, who knows what rock is anymore?

  • Vince Neilstein

    Al, another fantastic article. Keep it up!

  • cassidy2099

    “Capital G” received a ton of play in on Detroit/Windsor station CIMX 89x. The station has heavily skewed younger the past few years, but they hold true to certain older acts like Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails. Every Nine Inch Nails single gets a lot of play and “Capital G” was no exception. It was fairly easy to flick on 89x at random and hear it this year.

  • Maura Johnston

    speaking of NIN, last night while flipping around the radio i heard ‘bite the hand that feeds’ from with teeth on k-rock here. al, do you think that if trent goes out on his own for his next album, radio programmers in this format will follow him there? i feel like they will, if only because he seems to still get a lot of his deep cuts played.

  • Antiheroine

    It seems to me the radio station I listen to most (in Columbus, OH) doesn’t distinguish much between NIN songs. In the past year, I’ve heard “Capital G” played just as often as “The Hand that Feeds” – and that just as often as “Survivalism.” Maybe it’s just me, but I think that the decision to play NIN songs is less about the individual songs and more about NIN’s established cred.

  • Al Shipley

    Yeah, “The Hand That Feeds” seems to be joining “Closer” and “Head Like A Hole” as a perennial radio staple. The weird thing that I learned from my aforementioned NIN geek friend, though, is that “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” has had legs on dance charts in Europe well into this year, I guess in some remixed form?
    I have no idea if Reznor would keep his stranglehold on rock radio w/ a self-released or independent album, but I’d say his odds are better than that of almost any of his peers. I mean, “Survivalism” wasn’t really obviously radio-friendly and the album didn’t sell as big as previous ones, but it still got a ton of airplay.

  • Chris Molanphy

    Let me do a little poking around and see if I can figure this out. You’re right, it is weird.

  • RodneyJ

    ‘Yeah, “The Hand That Feeds” seems to be joining “Closer” and “Head Like A Hole” as a perennial radio staple.’

    “Only”, too.

  • Al Shipley

    @dennisobell: Ah, thank you, I think you’re onto something. I know that the last single off a given album can have long legs since there’s no follow-up to siphon off its momentum. But I guess I underestimated the potential of that phenomenon when the song in question was only the 2nd single off an album that both the label and the artist seemed to abandon actively promoting pretty soon after its release. I still feel like I heard “Survivalism” on the radio 10 times as much as “Capital G,” but your theory does make sense.

  • Charles A. Hohman

    A fine analysis, with one persnickety misstatement: “Incubus still has a tight grip on Modern Rock radio, even if they’re a long way out from their peak of mainstream popularity in the late ’90s.”

    Incubus’s mainstream popularity peaked in the early 00′s; not the late 90′s. Their first radio hit, “Pardon Me,” debuted on the Modern Rock chart in late ’99, and didn’t pick until the next spring; “Stellar,” “Drive,” and “Wish You Were Here” followed suit. The distinction seems trivial, until you consider the vast sea change modern rock radio experienced in 1999, beginning the year with Sugar Ray and Goo Goo Dolls domination, and ending it awash in Limp Bizkit and Korn.

  • Al Shipley

    @Charles A. Hohman: I bow to your pedantry. I considered changing the “late ’90s” (although I’d thought “Stellar” hit in ’99 too) but never got around to it. Either way, 6-7 years since the last time they got a lot of media attention is a good while.

  • Chris Molanphy

    Okay, I’m back with my findings. This is part fact, part speculation on my part, but it appears “Capital G” trumped “Survivalism” on the year-end chart for the same reason most songs triumph on Billboard year-end lists: longevity.

    “Capital G” spent 18 weeks on Modern Rock, versus just 13 weeks for “Survivalism.” That latter number is particularly anemic for Modern Rock: a total chart run of about three months. No. 1 hit or no, “Survivalism” was a quick-burn hit for rock radio, and it’s clear they moved onto “Capital G” quickly — it was already in its third week on the chart when “Survivalism” spent its last week on the list.

    There’s also a lot of known unknowns, as Mr. Rumsfeld might say, about which we can only speculate. Simply put, not all weeks are created equal. The springtime chart run of “Survivalism” might’ve been during a weak period for modern-rock radio in general; whereas “Capital G” spent its four-plus months on the chart at the height of summer, when ratings were likely higher (the midyear boosting of Arbitrons for the modern-rock format might also be a factor here). This would explain both the No. 6 peak — tougher summer competition — and the higher position at year-end, with each of its peak weeks fatter than those of its brother single.

    Put it this way: just look at what kept “Capital G” from the top. In its peak week, it was behind Linkin Park, Smashing Pumpkins (a short-lived comeback, but still — big airplay for the first single), White Stripes, that massive Plain White T’s ballad and your (and my) beloved Finger Eleven. The first and last on that list ended up being the Nos. 1 and 2 Modern Rock hits of the entire year — stiff competition. Meanwhile, the week Trent went to No. 1 with “Survivalism,” it defeated the likes of 30 Seconds to Mars and Breaking Benjamin – - fat hits, sure, but clearly easier to surpass.

  • Halfwit

    @GovernmentNames: Don’t feel bad about the error. I was putting together a “buzz bin” playlist on my Zune (I’m not ashamed!) and was shocked (SHOCKED!!) to see that “Pardon Me” had dropped so late in the decade. “Warning” being released post-millennium still doesn’t make sense to me.

    As for “Capital G” — I haven’t listened to music on the radio for a while, but this track was one of the few standouts for me on Year Zero. I think the radio love is for the same reason as for “Closer” and “Only” — it’s got that steady beat that makes you “break ya neck”, but it’s got enough angst that the meatheads can convince themselves that it’s not dance music (see “Paralyzer”). Combine that with TR’s already described cred, and the tremendous “I’m not dead” success of his last album and tour, and I think he may do fine as a self-distributed artists.

  • DJorn

    @Halfwit: “Not ashamed” of your Buzz Bin nostalgia or fo having a Zune?