Amid row over Billboard's list of top 10 rock songs of the decade, how genre is defined in 21st century merits a look

Amit Gurbaxani

Jan 17, 2020 09:35:37 IST

It’s rare that music charts become the subject of general conversation so I was surprised to find Billboard’s ranking of the top rock songs of the 2010s being discussed on Radio One Mumbai on a Sunday evening. I rarely check my Twitter and Facebook timelines (to save myself from much of the vitriol that permeates social media), so I was unaware of the online chatter behind the publication’s controversial list (see below). In case you also missed it, many of the genre’s fans expressed surprise, shock and even disgust that the biggest rock hits of the past decade weren’t really “rock”.

Billboard’s Top 10 Rock Songs of the 2010s —

1. “Believer”, Imagine Dragons

2. “Thunder”, Imagine Dragons

3. “Radioactive”, Imagine Dragons

4. “High Hopes”, Panic! At The Disco

5. “Ho Hey”, The Lumineers

6. “Heathens”, Twenty One Pilots

7. “Shut Up And Dance”, Walk The Moon

8. “Feel It Still”, Portugal. The Man

9. “Ride”, Twenty One Pilots

10. “Stressed Out”, Twenty One Pilots

The top three is dominated by one band: Imagine Dragons, who were perhaps to the 2010s what Nickelback were to the aughties. In other words, they’re a group that’s too pop-y to be considered rock. One could make the same argument about Panic! At The Disco, The Lumineers, Twenty One Pilots, Walk The Moon and Portugal. The Man.

The sharp reaction to Billboard’s chart poses an important question: How does one define rock in the 21st century?

Does it necessarily have to feature guitars and drums? Or is rock an attitude? As per Billboard, Lorde is counted as rock, even though many of her hits, such as debut single “Royals”, which is No.15 for the decade, don’t use guitars. Diamonds, the best-of compilation by Elton John (perhaps the most prominent purveyor of piano-driven pop of all time), is No.15 on the Top Rock Albums chart of the 2010s (which is topped by Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface).

Since it originated in the 1950s, rock has evolved to incorporate a wide range of sub-genres and today Billboard runs not one but five rock charts. There are surveys for rock, mainstream rock, alternative rock, album alternative rock and hard rock, each of which is based on the US’ highly segmented radio markets. What’s the difference between rock and mainstream rock? Apparently mainstream rock is essentially classic rock. And “adult alternative” refers to “softer” alternative rock. (There’s also something called active rock, by the way.)

 Amid row over Billboards list of top 10 rock songs of the decade, how genre is defined in 21st century merits a look

The top three spots on Billboard’s Top 10 Rock Songs list are dominated by one band: Imagine Dragons, who were perhaps to the 2010s what Nickelback were to the aughties. Image via Facebook/@ImagineDragons

Not included in the industry bible’s chart coverage are several other offshoot styles that perhaps are no longer as huge as they were in the past, such as punk rock, glam rock and emo. For reasons unknown to me, the magazine only published decade-end charts for the main rock chart. However, it did upload year-end charts for the other sub-genres. The No.1s for 2019 were a follows: the electro-pop “Trampoline” by Shaed was the top alternative rock track, the folky “Missed Connection” by The Head and the Heart crowned the adult alternative survey, the metal “Remember When” by Bad Wolves was in pole position on the mainstream rock list and somewhat quizzically, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen was the bestseller on the hard rock digital song sales chart.

The quizzical aspect is not that a 44-year-old smash was the most popular of 2019 — as you probably know, Bohemian Rhapsody the film revived interest in the band’s back catalogue — but why Queen is classified as hard rock. Most rock fans would agree that Queen is a rock band, even though they had a lot of success on the pop charts. They would likely also acknowledge that heavy metal group Bad Wolves are rock.

Indian fans in particular would probably say that the mainstream rock chart is closest to what rock really is, but here lies the problem: a lot of what traditionalists believe is rock is a sound that is — for lack of a more sensitive term — outdated. Have a look at another decade-end top 10, airplay monitoring company Nielsen’s most played mainstream rock songs of the 2010s on US radio. No, I haven’t accidentally shared the chart for the 1990s. The newest hit is from 1994.

Nielsen’s Top 10 Mainstream Rock Radio Songs of the 2010s —

1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit!”, Nirvana

2. “Man In The Box”, Alice In Chains

3. “Come As You Are”, Nirvana

4. “Plush”, Stone Temple Pilots

5. “Even Flow” Pearl Jam

6. “Self Esteem”, Offspring

7. “In Bloom”, Nirvana

8. “Enter Sandman”, Metallica

9. “Black Hole Sun”, Soundgarden

10. “Lithium”, Nirvana

It might seem that American mainstream rock stations and their listeners are stuck in a time warp, but their tastes aren’t very different from those of Indian consumers. Tracks by Eagles, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Queen all figure in the top 10 of iTunes India’s rock songs chart.

Yet, to say that a certain act isn’t rock would risk being guilty of the same kind of alleged musical prejudice that made Billboard remove “Old Town Road” from the country chart.

A lot of these debates have as much to do with race and sound as with perception. A few days ago, I did a double take when I read that “Yummy” by Justin Bieber is currently No.1 on the R&B chart. Bieber’s brand of pop might incorporate elements of R&B but I’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who considers him an R&B act.

It’s important to note that the charts are a measure of commercial success, and that expectedly, the most commercial-sounding songs are likely to end up the biggest hits.

Every genre grows to embraces multiple derivative styles. The term “alternative”, which is synonymous with “alternative rock”, has adapted to include types of pop, dance and hip-hop as well.

So like it or not, Imagine Dragons is the most popular “rock” band on the US charts right now. Instead of raging on Twitter, I suggest petitioning to create a new genre for rock bands that are more pop. Perhaps we can call it COR or Commercial Oriented Rock. It would be a nice play on words, because such songs tend to be used extensively in advertisements.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2020 09:48:52 IST