Nick Petropolous, head of promotion at Arista Records, says in an email that, while the label has been focused on growing the song at alternative radio, early signs for the song at pop radio were “undeniable” -- and a multi-format strategy was adopted.
“I have to give pop programmers credit for listening to the audience,” says Petropolous. “By design, it doesn’t fit the top 40 model. But the audience response has been deafening.”
It's not just "Beggin'" that top 40 listeners want in their daily mixes -- recently, pop program directors have noticed a growing appetite for rock and guitar-based singles over rhythmic pop tracks, with power potations slowly reflecting that demand. As Måneskin has crossed over at pop formats, so has Machine Gun Kelly, who's helped lead a pop-punk revival: his blackbear team-up “My Ex’s Best Friend” led the Alternative Airplay chart for three weeks in March and April, then peaked at No. 3 on Pop Airplay in May at No. 6 on Adult Pop Airplay last month.
Meanwhile, Olivia Rodrigo’s uptempo and guitar-heavy “Good 4 U” translated that sound to both the top of the Hot 100, where it debuted in May -- as well as the top of Pop Airplay, where the Sour single held for six weeks beginning in July, besting the five-week reign of Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” earlier this year. Unlike “Beggin’” and “My Ex’s Best Friend,” “Good 4 U” wasn’t being played at alternative radio prior to its top 40 domination, but its massive success with a new-school pop-punk sound -- Paramore’s “Misery Business” was retroactively credited as an inspiration last month -- suggests an increased predilection for rock-based singles at modern pop radio.
“I’m happy that the industry is looking a bit more toward the guitars, and with the breakout of Olivia Rodrigo,” says Alex Tear, vp pop music & programming at Sirius XM/Pandora. Although Tear says that “Good 4 U” is strong enough that it could have still been a radio smash a few years ago when top 40 was leaning toward more rhythmic singles, he admits that now there are “definitely some more open minds, when it comes to accepting and integrating the more rock-driven music into their stations.”
Guitars haven’t been completely absent from pop radio prior to 2021: Last year, Harry Styles scored radio smashes with his shimmery pop-rock tracks “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar,” while Post Malone’s alternative-baiting “Circles” and 24kGoldn and Iann Dior's "Mood" became two of the most enduring radio hits at the turn of the '20s. In the context of 2021’s pop radio offerings, however, those hits could be viewed as precursors to this year’s more guitar-heavy slate -- hinting at the rock streak that would help define pop radio in 2021, and potentially grow in 2022.
Also playing a factor in the advent of guitar-based music at pop radio: the right stars are leaning into the sound. “Artists like The Kid LAROI and Olivia Rodrigo, they’re the new kings and queens of pop radio right now,” points out Will Calder, director of branding & programming at WPOI Tampa & WPYO Orlando.
Like Rodrigo, The Kid LAROI has been one of the breakout stars of 2021 -- and prior to topping the Hot 100 alongside Justin Bieber with their synth-based pop-rock smash “Stay,” his teenage voice was all over rock radio thanks to the acoustic sing-along “Without You,” which peaked at No. 9 on the Alternative Airplay chart and eventually No. 8 on the Hot 100. “Once you really dug into ‘Without You,’ that one really stood on its own,” says Calder, “and we’re still playing it today.” (The guitarist on "Without You," writer/producer Omer Fedi, has been literally instrumental in the six-string's return to top 40, also playing on "Mood" and MGK's Tickets to My Downfall album.)
For pop programmers, part of the appeal of these rock-adjacent hits is that they help achieve the sonic variety that’s long been crucial to the format. Plenty of current radio hits, from Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” to The Weeknd’s “Take My Breath,” aren't built around guitar sounds, so songs like “Good 4 U” and “Beggin’” can naturally diversify a top 40 radio block.
“It’s always been an initiative to make sure that we’re well-balanced with all genres,” says Tear. “It’s an exciting time, because now it seems like we don’t have to dig as deep to find [that balance], and that it’s more at the forefront of people’s attention.”
Tear believes that there are more rock crossover songs on the way: he’s keeping a close eye on Sueco’s anthemic scream-pop single “Paralyzed,” as well as genre-straddling artists like Role Model and Almost Monday. Lil Huddy and YUNGBLUD -- both Machine Gun Kelly collaborators that have found success at alternative formats -- may also be primed for their own pop moments, and Willow “is also coming onto the scene” with her recent pivot to rock, says Tear. Huddy, YUNGBLUD, Willow and MGK have all worked recently with Blink-182’s Travis Barker -- an increasingly large presence in modern rock as a producer and collaborator, whose influence will likely expand within pop music as well.
Regardless of the specific songs and artists that continue the trend, pop program directors likely won’t hesitate incorporating more rock-based songs into their rotations, if the past few months have been any indication. Calder says that, in the streaming age, no listeners place their favorite new songs into “format boxes” -- and neither should radio programmers.
“The beauty of pop radio, in my opinion, is that we’re designed to wobble back and forth with the music cycle,” says Calder. “When things get more rhythmic, we go more rhythmic. When things go more pop-rock, we go more pop-rock. We’ve got to be where the people are.”