by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
It was a measure of just how hot Green Day was in 1995 that after the multi-format success of “When I Come Around,” stations like the then-alternative-leaning Top 40 WHTZ (Z100) New York seemed willing to play almost anything from the band. Without another obvious pop song on ”Dookie” or “Kerplunk,” we got punkier songs like “She” or soundtrack cuts like “J.A.R.” to carry us to the next album. Then the first single from “Insomniac” came out and it was “Geek Stink Breath.” With that, Green Day’s multi-format capital started to shrivel, particularly once it became apparent that there was nothing else for Top 40 on that album
Brand names are not a liability. Remember this, Mr. Programmer, when you struggle with this Will Smith record or the next Sheryl Crow single.
Many of the leaders of the mid-‘90s Modern Rock revolution already had a pretty ambivalent relationship with pop stardom. Green Day had already shown that by not issuing “When I Come Around” as a single. (At least one label rep at the time expressed fear of seeing his band in anybody’s kid sister’s cassette single collection.) And Green Day was hardly the only act to come back with something that radio couldn’t easily embrace. Even on the Modern AC side, Jann Arden and Natalie Imbruglia were determined to be less accessible the second time around!
The difference was Green Day got over their fear of accessibility in time for a second run at radio, with “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” and now a third, with the success of the “American Idiot” album and the six-month run of “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.” (Interestingly, Imbruglia has gotten over it, too, and now has the No. 1 radio hit in the U.K. with a song intended as a return-to-form.) Even “Brain Stew,” one of the songs from “Insomniac” that drew a line between Modern Rock and Top 40 in 1996 is finally on Z100 a few times a week as a bringback now.
Like “When I Come Around,” “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” entered many stations’ music research at the top of the page. Unlike many other records these days, it has stayed there for months. In the mid-‘90s, that would have looked like any hit record. Now it’s an anomaly. Only now are we starting to see burn grow steadily in most markets and the song start to make its way down the page for some, but not all, stations. And when “Boulevard” kicked in, “American Idiot” actually got a second lease on callout life at many Rock stations.
As important, “American Idiot” has joined Santana’s “Supernatural,” Alicia Keys’ first album, the “O! Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack, and Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” as an album for adults who buy only a few CDs every year. A month after the Grammys, I was still having conversations with adults outside the business who would first bemoan losing touch with the pop world, then add, “You know what I like, though? That new Green Day record is really good.”
Like Santana, Green Day has become a pretty good object lesson for the record and radio industries about not giving up on any act. And the lessons don’t stop there.
- Maybe Billie Joe and company weren’t so crazy to try and protect their image. In 1995, not wanting to be a singles act looked at best precious, if not a disingenuous excuse for making the audience shell out for an album. But that was at a time when it was hard to imagine a slew of teen punk bands owned by Top 40 and shunned by Rock radio. It’s plausible that Green Day could have suffered that same fate if they’d been a more consistent hit machine. Blink-182, the big brother of most teen punk acts, managed to stay on Rock radio until their breakup. But not every rock act has.
- Brand names are not a liability. Remember this, Mr. Programmer, when you struggle with this Will Smith record or the next Sheryl Crow single. Green Day isn’t the only interesting thing going on in Rock right now, but there’s a reason that they’ve already reached the casual consumers who are only vaguely aware of, say, the Killers now, as evidenced by the difference between triple-platinum status after 29 chart weeks and the latter’s platinum success after 43 weeks. On the label side, one also hopes that Green Day’s success has bought some other band with a disappointing follow-up album the time they need to hit pay dirt again several projects later.
- Top 40 could have had “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” for the fall book, if it hadn’t, once again, gallantly allowed Modern Rock to have its turn first. And so far, there’s negligible Top 40 activity on either the No. 2 Alternative hit “Holiday” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song with seemingly similar appeal to “Boulevard.” With Modern Rock losing its only outlet in a handful of markets, Top 40 should consider the opportunity to pick up some slack, and labels might finally see an opportunity in working more rock product to Top 40, which hardly faces a surplus of uptempo pop/rock.
- It’s not bad for artists to be writing about something. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is the least charged of the singles from “American Idiot.” But it’s still more ambitious than what surrounds it on radio. I recently came across a copy of the first “American Top 40” show from July 4, 1970, and heard a stretch where five consecutive songs were social commentary of some sort, even if those songs ranged from the heavy (CSNY’s “Ohio,” the Moody Blues’ “Question,” and the Impressions’ “Check Out Your Mind”) to the hokey (“Everything Is Beautiful” by Ray Stevens and the Fifth Dimension version of “Save The Country”). And this was on a chart that also contained “Teach Your Children,” “Ooh Child,” and “Ball Of Confusion”—a fourth of the chart overall devoted to social commentary. The only other Top 40 hit at the moment that in any way falls in that category is the Game’s “Hate It Or Love It.” And while there’s an increasing amount of social commentary in Hip-Hop right now, it’s artists like Kanye West who are not fully embraced by Top 40.
- Finally, daring pays off: While “American Idiot” is often portrayed as a wholesale move to more ambitious subjects, the politicization of the band was actually picking up steam on 2000’s “Warning” album. So it’s significant that the album they released in 2004, after seeing much of the artistic community momentarily silenced post-Dixie Chicks, went even further in that direction. And it’s significant that airing an opinion didn’t turn out to be career suicide. You might attribute that to a different climate among rock listeners, but a year later, you don’t see Incubus’ “Megalomaniac,” a song eventually interpreted as Bush-bashing, at the top of any music tests. At a time when older music in any format often seems more compelling than today’s music, a willingness to galvanize, or polarize, turned out not to be such a bad thing.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.