Lorde, HAIM Bring Girl Power To Alternative
With the acts' debut full-length releases atop the rock and alternative album charts, pop production and female vocals have become more common at the formats
"Girl power is definitely back in a big way at the alternative format," declares WROX Norfolk, Va., program director Nick Chappell.
A look at Billboard's Top Rock Albums chart, which boasts a first this week, and the Alternative Albums tally, reinforces what seems to be the latest trend in a format historically known for starting them.
For the first time in the chart's seven-year archives, women monopolize the top two spots on Top Rock Albums. Lorde's "Pure Heroine" and sister trio HAIM's "Days Are Gone" debut at Nos. 1 and 2 with 129,000 and 26,000 copies sold, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The sets claim the same ranks on Alternative Albums.
The acts likewise infuse Hot Rock Songs, where Lorde's "Royals," the Billboard Hot 100's top title for a second week, rules for a sixth week and 12 songs in all from "Pure Heroine" and her EP "The Love Club" appear. Only Mumford & Sons have charted more simultaneous entries on the ranking (14, in each of three weeks last year following the release of their album "Babel").
Meanwhile, HAIM – which has opened for Mumford & Sons on tour – jumps 50-35 on Hot Rock Songs with radio focus track "The Wire" and debuts at No. 45 with "Falling."
The chart placements make for the latest evidence of a female rock resurgence. With seven weeks at No. 1 on Alternative Songs beginning in August, "Royals" passed Alanis Morissette's 1995 anthem "You Oughta Know" as the longest-reigning leader by a woman in the chart's 25-year history. It also became the first No. 1 by a solo woman since 1996. Lorde's follow-up "Team" debuts this week at No. 31 with Greatest Gainer honors.
Perhaps even more notable than the fact that two female acts are dominating the traditionally male-heavy rock and alternative genres is that they're doing so with a noticeable lack of crunchy guitars, long the formats' trademark (although the instrument is a key ingredient among HAIM's pop polish).
Instead of only male vocals, there are women's. And, synthesizers are now as synonymous with alternative as riffs, if not more so. HAIM is even drawing comparisons to pop forbearers like Destiny's Child, TLC and Wilson Phillips.
Alternative and those acts in the same sentence? Alternative radio programmers are fine with such an unlikely link. They actually have been for a while. (And, in one sense, a really long while: Glen Ballard produced and co-wrote both Wilson Phillips' 1990 self-titled debut album and Morissette's 1995 breakthrough "Jagged Little Pill.")
"The alternative format has been slowly but surely been leaning more toward pop than rock for many months now," Chappell says. Beyond Lorde and HAIM, "That trend has exploded lately with artists like Capital Cities, Avicii and CHVRCHES. It's crazy that a lot of our newer core artists are those that don't rely on guitars."
Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound" remains in the Alternative Songs top 10 after topping the list in June. Avicii's "Wake Me Up!" – atop Dance/Electronic Songs for a fifth week – rises 15-14 and CHVRCHES' "The Mother We Share" lifts 39-38. (The songs follow the Pharrell Williams-assisted "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk, which peaked at No. 5 on Alternative Songs, and No. 1 on Dance/Electronic Songs, during the summer.)
Chappell says that a shift to more pop-leaning production and female vocals is shifting WROX's audience. "What playing these acts has done is bring in more women listeners. And, men are embracing these songs because they're great tunes.
"The past decade was pretty much dominated by male artists, but now we have many female soloists and lead singers of bands, including CHVRCHES, MS MR and NONONO. It's no coincidence, at least for us, that when all these female artists hit the scene ratings in our female demos took a big jump."
Jeff Regan, PD of Sirius XM's Alt Nation channel, concurs that girls are breaking down the doors to what has traditionally been an alternative boys club. "There's a trend of mainstream-ready alternative, with less guitar and more synth, that seems to be finding favor on a larger, multi-format scale," he says.
WWCD Columbus, Ohio, PD Lesley James says that the alternative format's acceptance of women and pop offerings is merely the latest lean in a long history of alternative's inclinations, starting with its punk beginnings in the '70s and continuing through '80s new wave (with which Lorde and HAIM would've fit in, had the four women by then been born), '90s grunge, '00s rap/metal and recent years' folk from the likes of Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers and Family of the Year. Sounds "come and go in waves," she says of the format's nature.
James adds that alternative's latest direction stems in part from external factors, including the mainstreaming of dance music and artists having become more tech-savvy. "I still believe that, for the most part, the roots of alternative music feature guitar, bass and drums," she says. "Those components are still very much present in 2013, but artists are experimenting and incorporating more toys and electronics, therefore drawing on several genres.
"Plus, with the explosion of EDM over the past few years, the electronic sound has become more prevalent, hitting almost every format."
LOVE FOR LORDE & TIME FOR HAIM
While radio programmers cite multiple acts as key to alternative's lean toward a more female-friendly sound (in terms of both artists and audience), Lorde and HAIM stand out. In addition to their chart debuts this week, both acts are enjoying ample critical and social media buzz.
PDs are happy to have the acts as the poster children (a fairly fitting term in Lorde's case, considering that she's 16) for the genre's latest tendency. (Not that men have fled the format, of course. Male-led Fitz and the Tantrums top Alternative Songs for a second week with "Out of My League," while Bastille's "Pompeii" rises 2-1. And, the louder Thirty Seconds to Mars, Pearl Jam and Avenged Sevenfold dot the top 25. But, format mainstay Linkin Park teamed with house music luminary Steve Aoki for the dance-driven "A Light That Never Comes," at No. 16. Meanwhile, Grouplove, Phoenix and Arcade Fire scale the chart with songs that tilt alternative further toward pop than traditional rock.)
"In my 10 years at WROX, I've never seen a reaction to an artist like what I've seen with Lorde," Chappell attests. The station played "Royals" 44 times in the Sept. 30-Oct. 6 Nielsen BDS tracking week and has spun it 638 times to date. "From the first day we put 'Royals' on the air, along with other songs of hers, listeners have gone crazy. Her songs are so poppy, but her lyrics seem to really connect with our audience."
Regan notes that Sirius XM's indie rock XMU channel has been playing HAIM since September 2012 and that its adult alternative Spectrum channel hosted Lorde's first ever-radio performance in early August. "The songs and artists that resonate with our listeners are the ones that come from a place of sincerity and innovation, no matter what style they lean sonically," he says.
"I remember a time when [WWCD] played a female vocal only once an hour," James recalls. "Now, half our playlist is women singing. Times are changing and the ladies are rockin' it big time!"
James says that she became a fan of HAIM (which rhymes with, well, "rhyme") the first time she heard "Days Are Gone" tracks "Forever" and "Don't Save Me" in January. The station is a leader on "The Wire," having played it 14 times last week, including during the most-listened-to morning and afternoon drive dayparts. "The trio has put a fresh spin on the classic pop/rock sound, while combining elements from the '80s and '90s that are reminiscent of even Michael Jackson and Prince, among others."
Ultimately, says Regan, "I think we find ourselves in an exciting space where some very talented female artists are making music that transcends the alternative format."
"I don't think this movement would have worked in the early 2000s, when everything was pop/punk or nu-metal," Chappell says.
"I think our listeners now just want to embrace good music, from whoever and whether it features a guitar in it or not."