For Radioactive Breakout Bands, The Atomic Weight Of The Follow-Up

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The rock world isn’t always kind to its breakout successes. A band enjoying its first blockbuster album, especially with a debut, usually manages to see radio and critical support, at least in some quarters, turn from glowing to grudging. And it’s that much harder if you’re a band like Imagine Dragons that never started with critical support in the first place.

So there’s already been some dissection of just how well Imagine Dragons have done with Smoke + Mirrors, the follow-up to the nearly triple-platinum Night Visions. At this writing, there has been a respectable album debut at No. 1, a rapid second-week fall-off, and reluctant pop support for the lead-off single, “I Bet My Life,” which is No. 29 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart with a gain of only 40 spins over last week.

There are plenty of opportunities for Imagine Dragons to find a radio hit on “Smoke + Mirrors.” Interscope is still promoting “I Bet My Life” aggressively—there are trade ads touting new major-market call letters even on the day this was written. “Shots,” a less quirky choice, hasn’t been worked to top 40 yet, although there’s no sign of an organic “this is the one we can play” groundswell at the format. (To be fair, that rarely happens for any act these days.) The band can still shake the haters off, but it’s not like Mumford & Sons who managed to end the sophomore slump discussion within seconds of releasing “I Will Wait.”

Slate’s Chris Molanphy incisively looks at “Imagine Dragons and the Curse of the Hot 100 Longevity Record,” citing a wide swath of acts from Tag Team to Soft Cell to Duncan Sheik to suggest that the song’s record-setting 87 weeks on the Hot 100 is a “jinx” on the order of the Grammy for Best New Artist.

But you can only link Paul Davis or Los Del Rio to “Radioactive” once it’s retroactive. And as Molanphy notes, Imagine Dragons actually managed another true hit, “Demons,” in that song’s wake. By contrast, it was easy to imagine Imagine Dragons as being of a piece with the Spin Doctors, Hootie & the Blowfish, the Killers, and Kings of Leon right away, even if making the comparison would have been unkind at the time. Each had a 12-to-18 month period as rock’s most mass-appeal band and, notably, the rock band with the most sustained top 40 acceptance, usually at a time when rock was in short supply at top 40.

Every act in every genre faces the sophomore specter, of course. And there are plenty of other rock bands that never matched the success of their breakthrough album. But while acts like Third Eye Blind or Foster the People have had similar career arcs, they never carried the same weight of being rock’s only ambassador to top 40 radio or mainstream America for eighteen to 24 months. So why is it so hard, in particular, for “the rock act” to follow-up?

Top 40 Finds Another Rock Band. By the time the Spin Doctors returned in 1994, radio’s “new rock revolution” was well underway. Alternative was embracing acts that rocked more. Top 40, still in shambles, hadn’t embraced alternative radio’s core grunge acts as their own, but other sources for pop/rock were proliferating. Things were different from 1992 when “Two Princes” literally had to carry the format for six months.

Top 40 Decides It Doesn’t Want Another Rock Band. There’s no shortage of available pop/rock in development at alternative and adult top 40 at the moment, and for the most part, top 40 has shown little interest. The only other “rock” act in play at the moment is Walk The Moon, which is below Imagine Dragons at mainstream CHR, but growing more quickly with its “Shut Up And Dance.” Only Paramore has come close to filling the rock hole at top 40, and it did so only after reaching an agreement with alternative radio to see other formats for a while.

Phenom Bands Feel The Sophomore Challenge More Profoundly. Having a lifetime to write your breakthrough album and 15 months to construct the follow-up is an issue for any band, but it’s significant that several of the acts went to a stash of older songs to kick off the next album – the Spin Doctors’ “Cleopatra’s Cat,” Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Old Man And Me (When I Get To Heaven),” and Kings Of Leon’s “Radioactive” were all songs that predated their acts’ breakthrough.

Phenom Bands Are Listening to the Haters: The aforementioned first singles weren’t just songs that were already in the can, they were more ambitious than the feel-good hits that drove the previous project. The Killers’ “When You Were Young” arrived among a significant amount of pre-publicity about sounding more like Bruce Springsteen than “Mr. Brightside.” It didn’t, really. But eighteen months of watching the consumer press turn on them often goads breakthrough bands into releasing a single that will neither satisfy the fans nor silence the critics. It’s interesting that Mumford waited until the third kick-off single, “Believe,” for a change-up of sorts.

Phenom Bands Don’t Have As Much Power As They Think: Top 40’s current rhythmic pop lean means that even established rock acts are starting out anew each time. That doesn’t leave much room to release the statement song first, and follow-up with the crowd pleaser. Green Day, their credibility relatively undiminished by the success of “When I Come Around,” survived leading off “Insomniac” with “Geek Stink Breath” and never producing a hit single from that album. But in many cases, the “statement” single only gives pop radio permission to move on.

Rock acts aren’t the only ones whose follow-ups can stagger out of the gate under the weight of their own ambitions—see Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” But by the time Gaga released her second full album, the issue was that she wasn’t representing the whole category. There was plenty of other fun, lightweight Gaga-inspired rhythmic pop to choose from. You would think that top 40 would be happy to have a pre-approved rock band back in action, but there seems to be surprisingly little investment in a major act.

“I Bet My Life” isn’t as willful an opening salvo as “Geek Stink Breath.” It has plenty of familiar clapping and chanting elements that could be in a OneRepublic single, but it also was sonically disconcerting enough that radio quickly received a remix. The lyric is also something unusual in rock and roll—an apology to singer Dan Reynolds’ parents of the sort that is 180 degrees different from, say, Linkin Park’s still-peeved take on adolescence.

Linkin Park, by the way, would be a pretty good career inspiration for Imagine Dragons at this point. The first single from Linkin Park’s follow-up album, “Meteora,” was acknowledged only in passing by top 40 radio, even at the height of the band’s follow-up excitement. The real pop hits from that album, “Numb” and “Breaking The Habit” were the third and fifth tracks worked respectively. There are still many opportunities for Imagine Dragons to go forthrightly about their business for another decade. But there are also a lot of acts who didn’t.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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