Ross On Radio: Of Plain Folks, Electronic Folk Music, And More

Imagine Dragons backstage at Lollapalooza 2013, Chicago, IL

Dana Loftus

Insights From Today's Pop Charts

A number of observations based on the current hits:

A Revolution, I Suppose: There's a tendency to clump Imagine Dragons in with the other quirky pop that crosses over from modern rock, especially after the poppy "It's Time." But while the album is diverse, listen to its sludgy dub-step minor chords enough times and the band’s "Radioactive" eventually reveals itself as a Linkin Park record. Linkin Park has been moving in a similar musical direction for years without entirely winning over old or new audiences, so this is an odd vindication for that band.

Beyond that, the success of "Radioactive" also demonstrates the ongoing demand for a hit rock record—not merely a pop record that isn't rhythmic. I'm not expecting this lesson to be lost on labels in the future. The harder-rocking, dub-stepping Fall Out Boy comeback is already becoming the template for teen-punk act redemption. In the Dragons' case, a certain amount of copycatting won't be unwelcome.

Will The ‘Best Song’ Win? When One Direction's "Best Song Ever" came out, it received a more cautious response than "Live Like We're Young," the launch single from 1D's first post-stardom project. That's not a surprising reaction when you consider the lack of true hits on the previous album, but it was still ironic when you consider that the anti-teen act "line in the sandbox" of recent years has been obscured. Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato had successfully grown up. Some PDs were making room on the same station for multiple acts who probably owed their very signings to 1D.

A little more than a month later, "Best Song Ever" is still growing nicely as it cracks the top 20. That’s far different from proving itself as a legitimate power, the thing that has eluded One Direction so far. Even "What Makes You Beautiful" has needed several years' staying power to prove itself as the true hit it turned out to be. But it has pushed past some of its competitors (Fifth Harmony, Cody Simpson) and helped push others backwards (Austin Mahone, Emblem3). 

To The Next ‘Le7els’: In the United States, Avicii's "Wake Me Up!" is a fresh sound. It's a deserved fast-breaking hit and another example of EDM's superstar DJ/producers steering toward the pop mainstream. If you were in Europe a year ago, however, it's hard to ignore the influence of this song. Asaf Avidan's "One Day," with its slightly quirkier mix of folk and dance elements, was German radio's unavoidable hit a year ago. Earlier this year, I wrote that German top 40, with its greater emphasis on modern AC, was a sneak preview of U.S. top 40, and that has turned out to be literally true.

One of the fringe benefits of "Wake Me Up!" is its U.S. boost for Aloe Blacc, another inescapable presence on German radio. When Blacc's "I Need a Dollar" was new, that song's brand of retro R&B had become a staple of European top 40 and triple A stations in the United States. But retro soul hadn't yet been swept into top 40 acceptance by Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke and Bruno Mars. "I Need a Dollar" is different enough from those songs that top 40 radio could probably go back and get a proven worldwide hit that it likely wasn't even aware of at the time.

Royals & Rednecks: It began as a hit record in New Zealand. It came to pop radio from modern rock and triple A. But at its core, Lorde's "Royals" is really a country record. There's nothing more country than a song about being happy in the slow lane that manages to simultaneously co-opt and reject the lyrical conventions of hip-hop and the pop that steals from it. (Call it "swagger jacklash.") In country, that formula feels played out, but refuses to fade out. Clearly a need exists, and "Royals" is serving a similar purpose at pop, especially when true country crossovers are parceled out carefully by labels and PDs alike.

The converse is true of Tyler Farr's "Redneck Crazy." The title may mean that it doesn't come to top 40 even after the obligatory six-to-nine month grace period, but after some initial concerns about its lyrics (which is a potential column unto itself), "Redneck" recently cracked the top 10 at country. "Redneck Crazy" may be off the radar screen of any PD who doesn't work with both formats, but it’s another reaction record that explains why country is so successfully the other young-end new-music format at the moment.