Paranoia Is in Bloom: How Muse's 'Uprising' Captured an Era and Conquered the Alternative Songs Chart
This week, Billboard celebrates the 30th anniversary of our Alternative Songs chart. Here, we take an extended look behind the circumstances and context behind Muse's 2009 "Uprising" becoming the most successful song in the chart's decades-long history.
The really big hits both reflect their times and refract the times to come. Released in the fall of 2009, Muse's “Uprising” -- Billboard’s No. 1 alternative song of all time (ranked by Alternative Songs chart methodology) -- is one of those hits: a stomping anthem with a stone in its hand, its tongue in its cheek, and its eye on the American pop landscape.
Muse had spent the last two years touring the world in support of 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations, keeping their U.S. radio inroads as deep as possible. To the extent they were known Stateside prior to Black Holes, it was usually in conjunction with other British acts. Sometimes, it was due to their paranoiac aesthetic (shared to varying degrees by the likes of Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs), or for their tendency for Queen’s piss-taking bombast in an age of shambolic guitar acts. Most frequently, to the band’s chagrin, it was for singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy’s tenor, which on sound uncomfortably close to that of yet another English paranoiac: Thom Yorke.
The Black Holes and Revelations Tour, commemorating the band’s leveling-up to rock radio fixtures with hit singles “Starlight” and “Supermassive Black Hole,” established the power trio as a spectacle, in the best sense of the word. They employed all the lights and screens their budget would allow upon a set designed to look like the U.S. naval research station HAARP. The result was conspiracy chic: HAARP has long been the center of conspiracy theories about the American government attempting to control the weather with radio waves.
To further achieve a similar effect with alternative radio, Muse brought on super-producer Rick Rubin, who had spent the last couple years helming big LPs from Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dixie Chicks, and Linkin Park. But whatever ideas he had, they clashed with the band’s more-is-more approach, and they opted to produce the record themselves for the first time in their career. Throughout the process, Bellamy kept the music mags informed of the band’s progress. As an increasing number of post-millennial rockers would, he mentioned contemporary R&B (and Timbaland specifically) as a reference. He enthused about a three-part suite that employed -- shades of Noel Gallagher flooding the zone and attempting to bankrupt his record label on Oasis’ “All Around the World” -- upwards of 40 classical musicians. And he got positively giddy about “Uprising.”
The Resistance dropped in September 2009. Muse had constructed a reverse mullet: the proggy business (the three-part “Exogenesis: Symphony” with all those hired guns) was in the back, and the party was right up front. “Uprising” was the leadoff cut and the first single, both inspired choices. It’s a sonic Frankenstein’s monster, surging on a Gary-Glitter-via-Goldfrapp groove, over which Muse overlaid a synth melody uncannily reminiscent of the Doctor Who theme. Lest the result sound too close to the KLF’s novelty hit “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” Bellamy tosses in a two-note guitar sting -- but even that recalls an iconic Debbie Harry hook. It’s frightfully effective, as suitable for festival stages as for football terraces. In the album press bio, Bellamy notes that the song was “meant to be football hooligans chanting in protest at the banking situation." And indeed, the surprisingly undercooked bridge has the band chanting “oi!!” over some bluesy soloing.
The combination of gleeful abandon and portentousness is classic Muse, a consequence of their love of conspiracy lore and their refusal to treat it with reverence. (There’s an old forum thread on their official site titled “How seriously do you take ‘Uprising’?”) To say the song is about “the banking situation” -- whatever that meant at the time -- is inadequate. “Uprising” is a one-stop tinfoil emporium, loaded with references to Brave New World, mind control, third eyes, and “drugs that keep us all dumbed down”. "I've learned to be careful in talking about this stuff," Bellamy told SPIN on the eve of The Resistance's release. "People take my curiosity as evidence of belief." He proceeded to recommend the 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change, the final version of which was released the week “Uprising” topped the Alternative Songs chart.
That kind of just-asking-questions tack is recognizable to anyone who’s been online the last couple years. “Uprising” was inspired in part by the massive protests at the 2009 G20 Summit in London. The protesters were concerned with income inequality, global warming, and the endless war on terror, but aside from a line about “fat cats,” huge chunks of “Uprising” could be copy-pasted by your standard right-wing troll. In 2012, Bellamy talked to The Observer about his distaste for the American right wing, noting that in the years since “Uprising” dropped, Muse had turned down untold numbers of requests by politicians to use the song. Muse was aiming for the systemic disgust of peak Pink Floyd -- the “Uprising” single artwork was designed by longtime Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson -- but they ended up reaching reactionaries. (Glenn Beck loved The Resistance.)
But everyone from Springsteen to McFerrin can relate to having a song hijacked by ideological opponents; it’s the nature of a hit. The swell of “Uprising” -- its generalized unrest and generous use of the first-personal plural -- lifted all kinds of boats. It was, intentionally or not, a thudding period at the end of the Bush/Blair years, the marshaling of power to confront chaos: always a winning formula on Alternative radio. Their erstwhile peers in Radiohead are adept at translating their peculiar compositions to arena size, even if they don’t set the airwaves alight. Muse, though, have never been shy about their ambition to be the biggest thing on stages and stereos both.
In that regard, “Uprising” was tremendous: topping Alternative Songs for 17 weeks, and hanging on the chart for over a year. It was also their first (and to date, only) top 40 single, peaking at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. They played it on Saturday Night Live, and at pretty much every show since 2008. The one major exception? China, where the government requested the band drop “Uprising” from its setlist. “You know, I get it,” drummer Dominic Howard said in 2015, “I understand if things are a bit sensitive over there.”