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May 26, 2012

A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden have decided to explore the Billboard charts every month in search of the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary pop music in all its forms. Today, they take a look at the rock songs chart for May 26, 2012.

Linkin Park, “Burn It Down” (No. 1)

Genevieve: We here at This Was Pop Industries decided to take a break from the Hot 100 this week to take a look at what’s happening with its angry little brother, the Rock Songs chart. Steven, you tend to like these little modern-rock detours we take every so often, but I’ll freely admit that I react to modern-rock radio the way many of our readers seem to react to the Hot 100: Who would listen to this generic, overproduced crap? At least most of the songs on the Hot 100 keep fun as their primary objective, whereas a song like Linkin Park’s “Burn It Down” only amplifies its mediocrity with its preening self-importance. Setting aside the generic, keyboard-based instrumentation, which sounds like something salvaged from Depeche Mode’s reject pile, “Burn It Down” seems to be competing for some sort of award for Vaguest Lyrics: “We’re building it up / to break it back down / We’re building it up / to burn it back down / We can’t wait / to burn it to the ground.” Nothing in this song’s musical or lyrical content merits the angst with which frontman Chester Bennington delivers these lines. At least most of the dance-pop fluff we cover in the Hot 100 has the courtesy to call a trifle a trifle, instead of trying to pass itself off as Death By Chocolate.

Steven: I don’t know that that I “enjoy” visiting the rock songs chart, GK. But I do appreciate checking in on the current states of all forms of “generic, overproduced crap” otherwise known as pop music. You’re right about “Burn It Down” being rock-music fluff with a thin, angsty outer shell. Linkin Park is to rock what LMFAO is to electronic music: Both distill what is otherwise a sophisticated and heartfelt art form down to its simplest, broadest essence in order to reach the largest number of people possible. (Both acts also recently performed at the Billboard Music Awards, so there’s that, too.) “Burn It Down” isn’t good pop music, but it is pop, and while the lyrics are pretty stupid (and stupidly prominent in the music video), I don’t think people listen to Linkin Park for the words. The point—as is always the point in Linkin Park’s silly but smashingly successful singles formula—is the big chorus and the Spartan but sticky keyboard hook. Is it a trifle? Definitely. But I doubt even Linkin Park would say otherwise at this point.
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Steven’s grade: C+

Soundgarden, “Live To Rise” (No. 5)

Steven: One of the most respected bands of the grunge era, Soundgarden predated the release of Nevermind by several years, and stuck around long enough to reign in the immediate aftermath of Nirvana’s demise as the most reliable singles act of mid-’90s rock. “Live To Rise” is Soundgarden’s first original song in 15 years, and it impressively picks up right where the band left off. Kim Thayil’s heavy-but-not-too-heavy riff and the psych-tinged jangle of the chorus sounds directly inspired by Soundgarden’s underrated 1996 album, Down On The Upside, which was responsible for spinning off some of the poppiest hits of the band’s career, as well as a few of the strangest deep cuts. It’s not a great Soundgarden song, but managing to sound like classic Soundgarden after so many years (and so many Audioslave albums) away from the game seems like enough of an achievement for now. (A new album is supposed to be out later this year.) If anything, the success of “Live To Rise” shows how little the Rock Songs chart has changed in the past decade and a half. Well into the 21st century, Soundgarden can dust off its old blueprint still sound more or less contemporary.

Genevieve: Yeah, if it weren’t for all those clips of The Avengers in the music video—this song is from the film’s soundtrack—I would have pegged this as an old Soundgarden track from the ’90s I had somehow missed (which wouldn’t be hard, considering my knowledge of Soundgarden’s discography begins and ends with its singles). While I think the success of “Live To Rise” speaks more to the resurgence of ’90s sounds in most genres of music (but especially rock) than the stagnation of the Rock Songs chart, it speaks most to how lacking modern-rock radio is in songs that really and truly rock in the manner that Soundgarden does here. As we’ve seen in previous This Was Pops, the Rock Songs chart is just as likely to “rock” in the style of Foster The People or Skrillex these days, so it makes sense that alt-rock-radio listeners (and programmers) would be drawn to something so classically “alt-rock.” Frankly, I’m not one of those listeners, but even I can recognize the groin-grabbing appeal of “Live To Rise.”
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B

Grouplove, “Tongue Tied” (No. 6)

Genevieve: In case you were wondering if the “Glee Bump” extends to the Rock Songs chart, here’s Grouplove, who were hanging around the lower reaches of the chart since late last year (thanks in part to an iPod Touch commercial) before a performance of “Tongue Tied” on Glee made them this month’s Fun. The Fun comparisons don’t stop there—big, memorable chorus, a mid-song female counterpoint, a general sense of youthful bonhomie—but “Tongue Tied” lacks the slightly dark, wistful underpinnings of “We Are Young.” Nonetheless, this is the kind of exuberant, earwormy track that gets a lot of traction on the Digital Songs chart, which Glee apparently mined heavily this past season, creating a weird little ouroboros of easily marketable pop-rock.

Steven: Judging by this week’s chart, rock radio is at a crossroads between ’90s grunge/post-grunge and barely rock songs like Fun’s “We Are Young,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and now “Tongue Tied.” I wonder if these songs will be the midwife in the eventual destruction of modern-rock radio as we know it. Rock radio has been dying for a while now, and it could be hastened by the infiltration of pop-centric rock bands that replace guitars and macho aggression with keyboards and car ad-friendly indie quirk, finally erasing any discernible line between “rock” and “pop” radio. I’m not sure how I feel about this; the Dave Grohl in me wants to keep the riffs alive, and “Tongue Tied” most definitely does not rock by any definition. But I also like “Tongue Tied” a lot more than the Linkin Park and Shinedown songs on this chart, and leaving behind the bad, old days of rock radio seems like a necessary (and overdue) evolution. I just don’t know whether this evolution will eventually kill (or swallow) rock as a radio format. 
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: B-

Shinedown, “Bully” (No. 8)

Steven: For the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to try listening to “Bully” with someone else’s ears. To my grown-up brain, this is exactly the kind of post-grunge retread bullshit that makes people hate modern rock radio. But if I try to listen to “Bully” from the perspective of an alienated 14-year-old, it starts to sound like highly relatable post-grunge retread bullshit. The generic buzzsaw guitar riff and Brent Smith’s annoying vocal and cliché-ridden lyrics (which rhyme “break my bones” with “throw your stones,” leaving “I’m all alone” on the table) make me recoil, but “Bully” will probably make geeky teenagers feel a little more powerful. Shinedown seems like a band that bullies would actively endorse, not oppose, but if this shitty, shitty song helps but one child, it will have justified itself.

Genevieve: Aw Hyden, I think listening to this song right after Soundgarden is causing you to be a little hard on it. Not that this is a good song, but is retread post-grunge that far off from retread grunge-grunge? Yes, “Bully” is the hyperactive twerp little brother of “Live To Rise,” but Shinedown’s biggest sin, to my mind, isn’t making a big, loud, and dumb song; it’s making a big, loud, and dumb song about bullying, and thereby making it theoretically immune to criticism. There’s something about the “important issue” posturing of this song paired with the aggressive knuckleheadery of Shinedown’s sound that sets my teeth on edge—and, as you suggest, seems to promote countering aggression with more aggression. But it’s so unimaginative in its aggression, both sonically and lyrically, that it seems silly to assign it much significance beyond being a catharsis-enabler.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: C

The Offspring, “Days Go By” (No. 13)

Genevieve: Even though the band’s been releasing music pretty consistently for more than two decades, most people still probably associate The Offspring with the gleefully bratty “Come Out And Play,” or worse, late-’90s novelty “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” It makes sense that The Offspring would want to evolve past those outdated mile-markers after all this time, which it’s apparently done on “Days Go By” by evolving into Foo Fighters. That’s not entirely fair—Offspring’s bouncy pop-punk guitars and Dexter Holland’s nasal whine are still on display, though both are toned down—but given the options for aging pop-punk bands, this is a pretty canny direction to go in, allowing for more mature songwriting while still maintaining the high energy inherent in the pop-punk model. The lyrics of “Days Go By” may focus on the sort of nostalgic hindsight that comes with age, but the song still rocks in a thoroughly un-embarrassing manner—which, frankly, is more than I ever expected of The Offspring in 2012. Kudos.

Steven: The Offspring haven’t merely “evolved” into Foo Fighters; it has borrowed its riff from 2002’s “Times Like These.” Actually, even “borrowed” is too nice of a word for it. “Days Go By” is just a straight-up rip-off. Stealing from one of the most successful radio rock bands of our time was probably the easiest (and probably only) way for The Offspring to have a hit song in 2012. Even hacky second-tier ’90s pop-punk bands have gotta eat, so I guess “Days Go By” can be excused in that respect. But man, this is pretty unseemly.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C-

Silversun Pickups, “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” (No. 17)

Steven: Silversun Pickups are often described as a Smashing Pumpkins knock-off, which hurts the band’s cred but makes it uniquely suited for contemporary rock radio, where old Pumpkins songs endure like Foreigner and Bad Company chestnuts on classic-rock stations. But “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” might as well be Bon Iver compared with the red meat splattered elsewhere on the rock songs chart. Brian Aubert affects Billy Corgan’s distinctive vocal whine (for better or worse), but “Bloody Mary” otherwise scales back on the guitar heroics in favor of formless atmospherics. The song recovers a bit of forward velocity when the drums come in, but it’s still not terribly aggressive, and it’s downright abstract in the super-straightforward context of the other songs here. That makes “Bloody Mary” a bit of a respite, though it would be nice if the melody was also a little stronger.

Genevieve: I think the melody is plenty strong—I’ve been humming this song for days—but it takes a long time for it to fully reveal itself. “Bloody Mary” doesn’t really kick in until after the first 90 seconds or so, and the chorus, which is the strongest element of the song, doesn’t show up until almost the halfway mark. Listening to “Bloody Mary” at my desk, through headphones, I really dig the building sense of menace, but it’s likely there’s a significantly chopped radio edit going out over the airwaves. Yes, the dream-pop eeriness of “Bloody Mary” is less sonically aggressive than most of the stuff surrounding it on this chart, but it does rock in its own creepy way, and feels more dangerous (albeit in an extremely palatable way) than most of the songs on this chart.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators, “You’re A Lie” (No. 19)

Steven: Slash is an all-time great guitar player whose reputation is based mostly on one all-time great album, Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut Appetite For Destruction. Slash has distinguished himself at times since then, but if not for the unique blend of blues, punk, and metal that he pioneered on Appetite, he’d be stuck in the company of competent ’80s hard-rock guitarists like C.C. DeVille and Mick Mars. There’s certainly nothing great about his playing on “You’re A Lie,” where Slash somehow gets top billing on what’s otherwise a rather mediocre Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators song. (Kennedy and The Conspirators appear as Slash’s backing band on his new solo record, Apocalyptic Love.) Slash ends up taking a backseat to Kennedy, a modern-rock journeyman who fronted the Creed-minus-Scott Stapp band Alter Bridge, and recently joined most of the Appetite-era lineup of Guns N’ Roses at the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony. Kennedy did such a solid job imitating Axl Rose on renditions of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City” that it makes “You’re A Lie” (and those faceless Conspirators) seem even less necessary. Both Slash and Kennedy are better off sticking with an Appetite reunion tour.

Genevieve: There’s something very Guitar Hero-y about “You’re A Lie,” which isn’t that surprising given that Slash, his music, and his hat have appeared in the videogame in various permutations. The song feels very mechanical and calculated, calibrated for maximum guitar grandeur without any sense of personality or danger. It’s a hard-rock avatar that’s exceedingly competent in its provocation of spontaneous air-guitar performances, but it’s not memorable in the least.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C

Godsmack, “Rocky Mountain Way” (No. 24)

Genevieve: There are few things I can imagine caring about less than Godsmack covering Joe Walsh’s 1973 song “Rocky Mountain Way,” and yet here we are. If the definition of a successful cover song is one that imbues the original with the spirit of the band doing the covering, then I suppose Godsmack’s “Rocky Mountain Way” is a successful cover; but I can’t think of any song, classic ’70s rock or otherwise, that would make me want to listen to Sully Erna’s constipated grunting for four minutes. I don’t have enough affection for the original song or enough hatred of Godsmack to get really worked up either way about this cover, making this one squarely in the “Why does this exist?” column.

Steven: At least it’s not “Life’s Been Good.”
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: D