Sometimes I’m a little slow to catch on as to which songs are popular and good at radio, but eventually I usually end up encountering them in between audiobooks, and so it was with the recent #1 Alternative and top 3 rock hit “The Hype” from noted contemporary alternative act Twenty One Pilots. As is frequently the case, Twenty One Pilots had one album and one soundtrack appearance that succeeded particularly well on the charts and then made an album that sought to demonstrate to their core group of fans that they had not sold out by creating a complex set of songs with a detailed back story that would discourage the casuals and demonstrate their credibility to core fans. That said, “The Hype” is an accessible single that tends to reflect in a somewhat melancholy way on the tension between pop success and authenticity. The song seems to be crafted precisely to encourage fans to think of themselves as being a tribe of people who appreciate something that has flown beneath the radar, given that none of the songs from the album it was on reached higher than #50 on the pop charts, and “The Hype” was one of three alternative #1 singles from that album, two of which never hit the Top 100 at all.
There are some qualities that are inherent in ghettoized communities when it comes to music. Among those qualities is the tension that exists between mainstream appeal and authenticity to the standards of the niche audience that passionately supports a particular genre. To some extent, there is always a tension between personal authenticity and mass appeal. That said, in popular music, whatever form it takes, people do not face any kind of difficulty within their musical community for making music that is accessible and public. The goal is to get sales and tell one’s story in an appealing way, and if one has success it is not begrudged. This is not true when one moves out of the mainstream into the more ghettoized communities, where being popular and accessible tends to be viewed automatically as inauthentic. In Rock or Alternative, to have a hit cross over is to make one suspect because one’s music is too accessible to mainstream audiences, and the desire to appeal to core fans of a given genre and the desire to make music that is accessible enough for the masses tends to be a difficult balance to maintain, leading to occasional “fluke indie hits” that tend to involve a lack of staying power for those acts in the mainstream. Sometimes, as is the case with Twenty One Pilots, there is clearly serious appeal with Alternative, but diminishing appeal for the masses, and it does not appear as if the duo themselves are unhappy about that.
What is necessary for a song or an artist to be popular? One thing it requires is a lot of hype. Songs have to be promoted to mainstream video, streams have to be encouraged, artists have to go around visiting radio shows all over the United States, and expensive music videos are usually made, all to drive the appeal of a song and an act. Not everyone wants that sort of fuss to be made and it can be exhausting for a group to undertake the work that is required to keep the hype building. Even acts that we might consider pop rock have typically not been able to do this sort of thing for very long. Bryan Adams, for all of his success, only had two studio albums go more than platinum in the United States with Waking Up The Neighbors and Reckless. Huey Lewis and the News, another massively successful pop rock act in the 1980’s, also only had two albums do better than platinum. More typical are the career arcs of bands like Men At Work, whose first album and second album went multi-platinum but whose third album went barely gold before an ugly breakup. It is hard to keep the hype going and to take the time to travel around to get promotion and build relationships while also writing songs and practicing and recording them and dealing with the stress of fame. Most acts simply struggle to do that consistently, especially when you add to that the pressures of showing oneself as authentic in a community that demands bands write their own songs and remain approachable and accessible to rock fans.
There are a lot of people who fuss and complain that rock is not popular right now on the charts but then also complain that the bands that succeed are sellouts. The two feelings are mutually contradictory. If you want to succeed in the mainstream you have to support those who succeed in the mainstream and pave the way for everyone else. Sometimes that means they are going to have to make deals to achieve mass appeal, and they might frustrate others. Sometimes that means that trends will be hopped on and that more idiosyncratic elements will be polished from time to time to appeal to more casual fans. But if you stick with a band, the time will come when the album sales aren’t massive any longer and the venues are smaller and the songs are more intimate and personal, and it is worth not believing the hype. Still, for some bands with careerist ambitions, that is definitely Plan B and not Plan A. And if we truly want success for an artist, we should be okay with that.