U2 Triangulates The Rock Charts

Al Shipley | February 25, 2009 10:00 am

After Billboard launched its Adult Album Alternative singles chart last year, I compared and contrasted it with the two existing rock charts, Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock, and noted how few bands, let alone songs, would be able to make a dent on all three charts. At the time, I wrote: “I’ll be very curious to see what song, if any, will be the first to appear on all three rock charts; my best guess is that it’ll depend on whether U2 or the White Stripes releases a new album sooner.” Not to toot my own horn, but I was right on the mark; the lead single from U2’s No Line On The Horizon became the first song to achieve that feat immediately upon its release. “Get On Your Boots” has been locked at the top spot on Triple-A for the last four weeks; on Modern Rock it entered at No. 8 and currently sits at No. 5; and while it’s made the Mainstream Rock chart, it has so far only climbed to No. 26.

The dominance of “Get On Your Boots” on Triple-A is a no-brainer; the chart is seemingly tailored directly to U2’s demographic. But 20 years ago, the same could have been said of Modern Rock, which was founded to track the airplay of a wave of young bands like U2. And even before that, the band were well-established on the Mainstream Rock chart, which has in recent years drifted further toward hard rock and metal, and away from certain passionate and arty Irish bands. “Vertigo” was the band’s 17th single to reach the Mainstream top 10, but their 16th single reached that height over a decade ago, and “Get On Your Boots” doesn’t seem to have the momentum to rise that far.

The fact that U2 is still a major force on the Modern Rock chart is instructive. So many bands lose their footing on alt-rock radio once they “cross over,” yet Bono and his pals are about as established in the pop-culture firmament as Mickey Mouse. In the ’90s, the band liked to throw curveballs with odd lead singles like “The Fly” and “Numb” before releasing safer follow-ups, and those kinds of little concessions to the alternative nation probably kept them from being left behind in the Nirvana era. And while “Get On Your Boots” isn’t quite as weird as those songs, it’s playful and uptempo enough that rock radio is probably embracing it more than it would a more predictably stately ballad.

The gulf between “alternative” and “mainstream,” is, of course, largely imaginary, but it’s still one that few young bands negotiate as gracefully as U2. And the current generation of MTV-friendly emo pop bands has struggled with the divide. Take Fall Out Boy, who scaled the top 10 of the Modern Rock chart with three of their first four major-label singles. But only one of their last four singles, “I Don’t Care,” has even charted on Modern Rock (although the songs have done well on the Pop 100). On the flip side, though, there’s Paramore. Female-fronted bands have a history of short shelf lives on rock radio, and it’s too early to tell if that will be the case with Paramore. But their current Twlight tie-in “Decode” is their third Modern Rock smash, which surprised me a little given that it’s kind of a power ballad. That song may pave the way for a larger audience for their next album, but for the time being it seems to have cemented them as a significant rock radio draw.

And apparently it’s possible to cross over and come back, if the All-American Rejects are any indication. Their debut single, 2002’s “Swing, Swing,” is so far their one and only song to make the top 10 of the Modern Rock chart, while the follow-up “The Last Song” was also a modest Modern hit. The band’s second album, 2005’s Move Along, was a massive hit with three big singles, but all the airplay came from unhip charts like the Pop 100 and Hot Adult Top 40. And the band’s new single, “Gives You Hell,” would seem to only continue that trend, with its cartoony video and mellow, keyboard-driven verses. But in recent weeks, it’s become their first song to chart on Modern Rock in six years, and I have to admit I have no idea why.

Aside from Coldplay, no young band of recent vintage has followed in U2’s footsteps as deliberately as The Killers. So it’s appropriate that they’re shaping up to be an incredibly consistent presence on the Modern Rock chart. “Spaceman” recently became the band’s seventh single to crack the top 10 of the chart, which may not be that impressive until you realize that they’ve only released nine singles from their three albums so far (only “Smile Like You Mean It,” which was never promoted with a video in the U.S. and “Bones” have missed the mark). The band’s 2006 album Sam’s Town was widely decried as a possibly career-crippling dud, but as the band keeps on trucking, it’s beginning to look like a minor bump on an otherwise prosperous path—not unlike Rattle & Hum or Pop.