Rock’s Schism: Do the Pieces Fit This Time?

For the last three years, it looked as though Alternative and Active Rock radio were about to find an artist they could agree on. I don’t miss the formats moving in lockstep as they did in the early ‘00s, but Active and Alternative did have the combined topspin to propel an unlikely Linkin Park or Trapt to pop radio, or to create major acts that didn’t need to cross over, such as System of a Down or Tool, who give this article its title. I liked tru.alt better, but by the late ‘00s, it was harder for any rock record to gain traction.

I thought the shared artist might be Ghost, whose ‘80s-flavored “Dance Macabre” sounded like the Swedish pop record it was, but whose image kept it tethered to Active. It could have been Volbeat, increasingly poppy to the point where its most recent single, “Wait a Minute My Girl,” was teen punk. Or Highly Suspect’s “16,” which made it to No. 12 at Alternative and sounded like a pop hit.

Royal Blood’s “Trouble Coming” felt like this decade’s “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven, with elements of both Active and Alternative and enough pop bounciness to cross over. “Trouble’s Coming” was No. 1 Active and No. 7 Alternative, but it felt like neither format ever entirely trusted it. Even so, it was hard to imagine a true rock record at pop radio in the U.S.

A few weeks ago, I came across “Blackout” by Turnstile without knowing anything about the song or the band’s history as a hardcore act. “Blackout” wasn’t sludgy. It wasn’t a ‘70s throwback. It was almost buoyant — a word not often used in conjunction with Active Rock titles. Later, I found this review from the Washington Post’s Chris Richards, leading me to similarly rhapsodic coverage of previous albums.

“Blackout” is almost certainly not the record that Active and Alternative could join forces to send to Top 40, but I’m sure “Headstrong” didn’t feel that way either at first. Given the band’s punk roots (and frequent comparisons to 311), it does seem like a phenomenon that the formats could share. But it’s growing slowly at Active (where it’s in the low 30s) and getting only a handful of Alternative spins. It is worth noting that the song is playing at both Active KILO Colorado Springs and Alternative rival KRXP, which says something. 

At this moment, Top 40 has rock records, at least sonically, but they come from its own artists. Teen punk drives “Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo; the new Lil Nas X, “That’s What I Want”; even The Kid Laroi & Justin Bieber’s “Stay.” The format did allow All Time Low over a few months ago, along with MGK, an act that it had first. The rock record shared by Top 40 (No. 6), Alternative (No. 1) and even Active Rock is Måneskin’s “Bxeggin’,” but that came to Top 40 first, powered by Eurovision, then by streaming.

Top 40 also shares a surprising number of acts with Alternative these days. Some, like Tai Verdes and Nessa Barrett, are driven at both formats by streaming. Some have heritage at both formats, but are currently scrapping for their foothold on the pop side (Twenty One Pilots, Imagine Dragons, and, at least until it brought in a ringer, Coldplay). There are two fast-developing Alternative hits — Walk the Moon’s “Can You Handle My Love” and Glass Animals’ “I Don’t Wanna Talk (I Just Wanna Dance)” — that certainly seem likely to hit pop at some point. In a format currently accommodating Drake, Walker Hayes, and the Jonas Brothers, CHR only needs a few Alt titles to get its “best of everything” image back, although there are more than a few I would like to see make the journey.

In general, acts like Måneskin or Verdes radiate out from the streaming world, waiting to be sorted into formats like Hogwarts students into houses. The notion of Active or Alternative breaking records together, or even individually, may seem quaint. And yet, either Active or Alternative stations do better when they can control both franchises. No format, including Top 40, has enough hits yet to look down on lateral support. And if Active and Alternative both foster an act that only those two formats share, it’s better for them.

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