Over the past 40 years, rock has gone from being the undisputed king of genres to a footnote in the hierarchy of mainstream music.
In 1982, a rock artist held the No. 1 song in the United States for 44 of the year’s 52 weeks. That’s just under 85% of the year, a staggering figure that shows just how embedded rock was in popular culture at the time.
There are plenty of ways to split hairs on this – Daryl Hall and John Oates and Men at Work were pop-leaning artists, while Paul McCartney’s collaboration with Stevie Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory”) was decidedly also pops – but it doesn’t work. It wouldn’t change the fact that rock artists were the dominant musical force.
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” spent seven weeks at No. 1 in 1982, as did McCartney’s duet with Wonder. The J. Geils Band (six weeks with “Centerfold”), Survivor (six weeks with “Eye of the Tiger”) and John Mellencamp (four weeks with “Jack & Diane”) also enjoyed long runs at the top spot.
Watch Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” Video
Although no year matches 1982 for rock dominance, the rest of the decade was generally good for the genre. Throughout the ’80s, rock artists spent an average of about half the year at the top of the chart, with the low point being 1989, when just 22 weeks featured a rock artist at No. 1.
Those numbers fell off a cliff in the early ’90s. With the bursting of the spandex bubble over hair metal, many former powerhouse bands struggled to get attention for their new work. Despite the seismic cultural shift brought about by grunge, none of the artists of the new subgenre were able to top the Billboard Hot 100. Neither Nirvana nor Pearl Jam – the two most important and commercially successful grunge bands – only scored a #1 song; “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, arguably the definitive song of the era, only reached No. 6.
There were still occasional rock breakthroughs throughout the 90s, such as Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” and “I don’t want to miss anything.” There was also Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” update phenom, who, following the death of Princess Diana, spent a total of 14 weeks at No. 1. Still, the Rock tops were rare. And though the decade ended with Santana’s 1999 hit “Smooth” dominating the airwaves, it became clear that the genre had lagged behind rap and pop among mainstream listeners.
Watch Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t)” Video
While the fall from the 80s to the 90s was significant, rock hits became even more scarce after the turn of the millennium. Thirteen of the past 20 years (2001-21) have not featured a rock song that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even those that did were either extremely pop (cold play, Fun.), huge one-hit wonders (Gotye, Plain White T’s) or bands that people want to forget (Crazy Town). If you want to explore and filter alternative pop artists such as Billie Eilish, Lorde and those already mentioned, the last traditional rock song to reach number 1 was Nickelback’s 2001 single “How You Remind Me”.
Part of the reason can be attributed to the way the chart is put together. Billboard, which organizes national charts, traditionally used a formula that combined sales numbers and radio airplay. For decades, these numbers were skewed, as they typically relied on music retailers to record accurate counts of how many units they sold – a process that made human error and fraud commonplace. In 1991, Nielsen SoundScan – a method that tracked purchases through computerized cash registers across the country – was introduced, which gave a much more accurate picture of sales.
Similarly, radio, which for decades relied on participants using handwritten diaries to record their listening habits, switched to the portable People Meter (PPM) around 2007. The small device detects what its user is listening to. and automatically logs data, again increasing accuracy while greatly reducing the likelihood of fraud or error.
These advances in technology, along with the later adoption of continuous numbers in Billboard’s chart equations, undoubtedly affected rock’s imprint. It’s no coincidence that the #1 rocks fell precipitously after their introduction. Yet the long trend cannot simply be attributed to new ways of recording data.
Watch Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” Video
Rock acts such as Linkin Parkgreen day, Evanescence and Blink-182 all boast some of the best-selling albums of the 21st century and have had songs that peaked in the Top 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, but none could reach No. 1. twenty one pilots‘ 2015 vinyl record, blurred facewas the best-selling rock release of the 10s, but its highest-charting single, “Stressed Out”, peaked at No. 2.
The charts are not the alpha and omega of music. Sales figures, streaming numbers and concert attendance suggest that rock fans are as passionate as ever. And given the cyclical trends in pop culture, it seems likely that a rock resurgence could occur at any time. Rock is not dead, and it never will. But we’ll probably never see another year like 1982.