For two weeks straight, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel it Still” has been the fourth-biggest song in America.
Before their first song to crack the Hot 100 got to No. 4 in its 18th week, the Oregon-by-way-of-Alaska band was eight albums and 14 years into a career that had seen it careen from falsetto-filled art rock to Zeppelin-gone-Bonnaroo side stage weirdness. Unsurprisingly, nothing from early career albums titled Waiter: “You Vultures!” and Church Mouth caught on with the mainstream. Offerings from their more recent LPs flirted with alternative radio prestige, before the now-ubiquitous lead single from this year’s Woodstock made them, for now at least, alt-rock standbys and Top 40 stars.
“Feel It Still” spent a staggering 17 weeks atop Billboard’s alt-rock airplay tally Alternative Songs, before it was unseated by Imagine Dragons’ similarly guitar-light arena-synth pep rally “Thunder.” It currently leads Adult Pop Songs and Pop Songs (the latter means it was the most-played song on Top 40 radio last week, outpacing new singles from the likes of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5). Altogether it’s led six radio charts, making it rock’s biggest crossover hit in five years. “If I’m being honest, I had no idea what it meant, because we’ve never been near [the Hot 100],” lead singer-guitarist John Gourley told Billboard in July. “We just came here to fuck shit up. That’s why we started to play music — get in a van, go play and have a good time.”
For all the earworm bass thump and outsider nihilism, Portugal. The Man’s surprise hit has followed one festering industry trend: alternative rock’s splinter from its signature instrument. The “Feel It Still” hook is all bass in the table-setting opening verse, punctuated later by brassy horn toots. Guitar is barely audible, save for spidery little solos that connect one part of the chorus into the other. It’s a complete role reversal for the instrument’s traditional place in a rock song.
This is hardly an isolated incident. An exhaustive analysis of what’s dominated the Alternative Songs chart since its 1988 inception reveals a striking dip in electric guitar-driven songs across this decade. As Billboard‘s weekly account of American alternative stations, the chart has reflected numerous trends — from ’80s college rock to sugary late-‘90s post-grunge to early ‘00s nü-metal — but remained tethered to the electric guitar through its first two decades. Fifteen and even ten years ago — in 2002 and 2007’s year-end tallies, respectively — 38 of 40 tracks featured prominent electric guitar.
But five years ago, 2012’s year-end charts had that number down to 27, with Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun. and Janelle Monáe’s “We Are Young” claiming the top two spots. That same year, Muse began a record-setting 19-week run atop the chart, with what was essentially an electro-R&B song performed by a rock band. In this week’s tally, it’s down to 19 out of 40. Imagine Dragons’ pounding synthscapes and the Lumineers’ twee acoustic strumming currently define the format more than anything akin to a band Dave Grohl’s ever played in.
“What resonates with our listeners is just a well-crafted song with good lyrics,” says Jeff Regan, program director for SiriusXM’s tastemaking Alt Nation channel. “What’s behind it — whether it’s guitar, a pre-programmed EDM beat or a pop alt-y beat — is kind of secondary.”
While Mainstream Rock Songs, alt radio’s more traditional cousin, remains heavy and riff-focused (vets like Theory of a Deadman and Papa Roach populate its top 5), stations like Alt Nation refuse to let go of pop’s cultural zeitgeist. “I’d be willing to play anything and everything,” says John O’Connell, program director for 104.3 The Shark, a Miami alt station that’s spun the Chainsmokers, The Weeknd and Childish Gambino this year. “One thing alternative really isn’t to me isn’t these days, is rock,” O’Connell says. “The bands that’ve stuck by the rock side of alternative are struggling right now.”
O’Connell notes the role Miami’s diverse population plays in the eclecticism, and to be fair, The Shark is among the country’s most musically omnivorous alt stations. But there are reasons a DJ Shadow song featuring Run the Jewels has been scaling Alternative Songs the past seven weeks. “Over the past year, I think we’ve played more pop-oriented tracks than ever before,” says Lesley James, program director for CD102.5. Overall, the Columbus, Ohio station skews alt-traditional, as tracks from Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and the Foo Fighters currently occupy its heavy rotation. “But I’m always looking for guitar,” James assures.
Speaking to these program directors, one gets the sense they’d rather not take a firm stance on the guitar conundrum, and frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Arguing whether or not rock is indeed “dead” has become so trite over the past decade-plus, it’s tough to commit to either end without sounding at least a little corny, and probably hyperbolic, too. It’s been the better part of a generation since hip-hop overtook rock as the sound of America’s youth around the turn of the millennium, and rock has settled into the normalcy of many other non-dominant genres: enjoying success in some areas (physical album sales, touring) while lagging greatly in others (streaming, Top 40 airplay).
What is telling, though, is how it tends to only dent those forbidden worlds when it bends to play by pop’s rules. “Feel It Still” and Imagine Dragons’ similarly guitar-light “Thunder” and “Believer” are the only rock songs in the Hot 100’s top 20 this week (and by 2017 standards, 3 out of 20 is a little high). They’re also the only two rock artists currently in Spotify’s top 50 U.S. tracks.
We’re not talking a big contingent here, but Twenty One Pilots are also an crucial part of it. “They know how to write a No. 1 song don’t they?” chuckles James, whose Columbus rock station — early adopters of the rap-rock duo — considers Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun bona fide local legends. Last year, they sent three songs to the Hot 100’s top five, all of which went No. 1 at Alternative. Sound-wise, they fit this anti-guitar trend; not only do they seldom emphasize it, they don’t even have a conventional guitar player. Twenty One Pilots are “rock” in a more nominal sense: their sound is angsty and aggressive, they came from a rock label (Fueled By Ramen), and Dun is a formidable live drummer.
When The New Yorker tried to wrap its head around their unlikely 2016 ascent, Jia Tolentino took inventory of their scattershot appeal, “Like Jason Mraz and Panic! at the Disco, Coldplay and 311, Walk the Moon and Imagine Dragons and Porter Robinson. Name any white-male-fronted musical act from the past two decades that’s achieved significant commercial success while inspiring critical apathy, and you will hear that sound in Twenty One Pilots, if you listen long enough.” It’s not a flattering description, but not necessarily inaccurate, either. The duo’s Metacritic scores certainly aren’t stopping the kids from adoring them: They’re on a very short list of new bands this decade to stream, sell and pack arenas like rappers, pop stars and DJs, and when they get around to following 2015’s Blurryface, all this has a strong chance to continue.
If we are counting Twenty One Pilots — and the recent hits from Imagine Dragons and Portugal. The Man — as the Nirvanas, Blink-182s, and Linkin Parks for restless suburban kids of the 2010s, the equation is missing one notable component. A generation after college rock, indie rock and grunge largely did away with the conventional guitar solo, has this batch of bands deleted the guitar entirely?
This past June, a lengthy Washington Post feature reported a dwindling clientele and oversaturated market, with electric guitar sales down from $1.5 million annually to just over $1 million over the past decade. At one point in the story, author Geoff Edgers visits a swanky guitar show with a veteran Nashville dealer, lamenting the aging, dwindling customer base. The need for “new guitar heroes” comes up, to which Edgers offers, “How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer?” dating his own worldview more than anything. Of this trio, the closest to a 2017 household name is touring with members of the Grateful Dead, and the other two are a blues guitar virtuoso and the second-most-famous member of a band that hasn’t had a Hot 100 hit since 2002.
Later on in the piece, Fender CEO Andy Mooney convincingly asserts Taylor Swift as “the most influential guitarist of recent years,” citing the amount of young players she’s inspired (despite Swift largely abandoning the instrument her last two album cycles). “50 percent of all purchases in the last five years have been made by female players between the ages of 12 and 45,” Fender chief marketing officer Evan Jones tells Billboard. Earlier this decade, acoustic guitars began to outsell electric models across all companies. So while amped-up, rock and roll mythology is becoming a relic, the instrument’s death, at large, across genres, may be overstated.
When electric guitar made cameos on the Top 40 this year, it was through the gnarly interludes on the DJ Khaled–Rihanna–Bryson Tiller blockbuster “Wild Thoughts” and a boy band heartthrob gone solo (whose old gig was always more of a rock band than the industry let on). Guitar remains a frequent, if understated part of pop writing sessions, and as long as up-and-comers are posting cover videos to get noticed, the instrument has a niche in YouTube and Snapchat circles. Jones points out that on a Fender guitar tabbing app, The Weeknd rivals Nirvana in search results: “Even if a song may not have been written with a guitar, it can be played with one.”
The genre-hopping fluidity of pop songwriting runs deep, even in the D.N.A. of “Feel it Still.” Portugal. The Man tossed songwriting credits to the original writers of “Please Mr. Postman,” as it interpolates the melody from the 59-year old standard’s verses on its chorus. In 1961, the Marvelettes took it to No. 1 as Motown-bred girl group track. Shortly after, the Beatles added electric guitar and added it to their repertoire. And 12 years after that, the Carpenters dressed it up as a ’70s AM pop song and took it back to the summit, making it only the then-third song to go No. 1 twice, performed by two different artists.
By 2017 standards, “Postman” — any version, take your pick — scans as quaint and dated with its simple one-two rhythm and call-and-response chorus, yet its bass groove is currently getting played on pop radio more than any other song’s. Like the electric guitar, it’s years past its prime, but such a part of the bedrock of popular music, it’s bound to keep coming out of left field.