In the fall of 1988, when Billboard launched its Modern Rock Tracks chart, it was more diverse than what came to be known later as “alternative rock.” In that first Modern Rock top 30, there were hits by guitar-wielding women of color Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, as well as Black U.K. vocalist Ranking Roger, formerly of the (English) Beat. Two of the top five tracks were by biracial bands UB40 and Big Audio Dynamite, and BAD’s music incorporated hip-hop elements. Perhaps most notably, that week’s No. 5 Modern Rock song, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ “Tumblin’ Down”—produced by Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth—would, about three months later, cross over at R&B radio and top the chart Billboard then called Hot Black Singles. But in the subsequent three decades, there wouldn’t be much crossover between alternative and Black radio, as alt-rock grew steadily whiter.
I offer this slice of chart history as a backdrop to the remarkable coup this week by a fiendishly catchy, hard-to-categorize song by a pair of rappers just out of their teen years. It’s No. 1 on a unique trifecta of charts: the Hot 100 pop chart, Hot Alternative Songs, and Hot Rap Songs. Confusingly, the chart Billboard now calls Alternative Songs is not the actual successor to Modern Rock Tracks, and there’s an asterisk on the song’s Rap Songs placement, too—I’ll explain all that momentarily. But this hat trick is still a legitimately amazing, very ’20s crossover phenomenon, and there is evidence the song is being embraced by actual fans of both of these normally walled-off radio formats. It’s yet another example, in our post-SoundCloud, post–“Old Town Road” world, that Gen Z is making a mockery of the very idea of genre. And—as that generation might say—the song is a “Mood.”
“Mood” is co-credited to 19-year-old Golden Landis Von Jones, who goes by 24kGoldn, and 21-year-old featured artist Michael Ian Olmo, known as Iann Dior. In the video, the winsome twosome present as even younger than their years—you could half believe they’re in high school—but it’s the song that truly defies expectation. It opens with a chiming guitar lick resembling rock from before these dudes were born—post-grunge from the Goo Goo Dolls and third-wave Chili Peppers era. Until 24kGoldn and Dior start vocalizing, one might assume this is the latest single from Cage the Elephant. And even though trap-style skittering snares eventually show up, the song hardly includes any actual rapping … well, except by the modern, post-Drake, post-Post definition in which syncopated singing is rapping. But what syncopation! The chorus—which 24kGoldn delivers early, as most hits do these days to brand themselves for Spotify consumption—is one of the most instantly infectious rap-rock refrains ever: “Why you always in a mood?/ Fuckin’ ’round, actin’ brand new/ I ain’t tryna tell you what to do.” Hear it once, and you can sing along by the second chorus.
Hear it twice, and you might also be tempted to shimmy to “Mood”—and that’s exactly what more than a million TikTokers have been doing with it. Since the song dropped in July, it’s been a viral smash, and of course a dance has developed around the song: a tight, dizzying combination of arm jerks and a little jig that comes in multiple permutations. Even without the dance, the track’s tight, contagious chorus hook is ideal for the micro-video platform—whether Tokkers are playing solo tennis, cozying up to the king of the jungle, or trying to busk for (and buss) a pretty passerby.
But while the media has hyped “Mood” as a meme-style sensation akin to “The Box” or “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat),” I have to say I don’t see this as another TikTok story. I’m pretty sure the song would have been a smash if TikTok had never existed. It’s packed with hooks—in addition to that killer chorus, many of the best lines are delivered by the purported feature performer Iann Dior, most especially its soaring pre-chorus with very emo Gen Z lyrics: “We play games of love, to avoid the depression/ We’ve been here before, and I won’t be your victim.” The guitar hook, which was devised and played by the song’s co-producer Omer Fedi, cycles hypnotically through the whole song, with warp and echo effects added to make it ever more enveloping. Basically, “Mood” is what industry people call a one-listen record, akin to such hits as “Shake It Off” or “Can’t Feel My Face” or “Shape of You” or “Thank U, Next” that won fans over with a single play. In other words, it’s a radio record (even despite “Mood’s” F-bomb-laden chorus). And radio is a big reason why it’s America’s No. 1 song right now. Radio is even the reason why it’s not ridiculous to call “Mood” both an alt-rock and rap hit. Let me go down the rabbit hole of chart arcana to explain.
In addition to its other claims to infamy, 2020 is also going to go down as the year the industry hacked the Hot 100. This happens from time to time across Hot 100 history. There was a period in the mid-to-late ’90s where the industry learned how to manipulate—legally—the interplay of singles sales and radio play to manufacture chart-topping debuts. American Idol in the mid-’00s and peak iTunes downloads at the turn of the ’10s led to other waves of artificially high debuts. This year we’ve had a record, totally absurd number of debuts at No. 1, including fluky one-week wonders I didn’t even bother to write about for this No. 1 hits series—like 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s icky, aptly named “Trollz” or, just two weeks ago, Travis Scott’s quirky, McDonald’s-inspired “Franchise.” (“Trollz” dropped fully from the Hot 100 four weeks after debuting on top, and “Franchise” is already out of the Top 20.) Even among the No. 1s that didn’t debut on top this year, I count four—“Say So” by Doja Cat with Nicki Minaj, “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion with Beyoncé, “Watermelon Sugar” by Harry Styles, and “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” by Jawsh 685, Jason Derulo, and BTS—that leapt to the top spot thanks to a strategically timed guest remix or a gimmicky sale of physical singles, sometimes both. Mind you, several of these are actually good songs.
But there’s something to be said for a hit that rises to the top organically, and only a handful of No. 1s have done that this year. The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” 2020’s top airplay hit (with, still, the biggest radio audience—it keeps resetting airplay longevity records), grew into the top spot in the early spring after a 17-week chart run. And “Rockstar,” DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s prescient, Black Lives Matter–conversant Song of the Summer, which did debut within the Top 10 but then gathered force on streaming services and radio, rising to the top in seven weeks. Even Ricch’s own “The Box,” the TikTok-fueled smash, debuted below the Top 40 last Christmas before leaping to No. 1 in January—and then it became a fairly solid radio hit and spent the most weeks on top, 11, of any song this year. Each of these smashes won over online fans and radio listeners a week at a time.
“Mood” is one of those organic hits. At a moment when no other single was staging a one-week blitzkrieg on the No. 1 spot, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior kind of floated to the top in a slow week. It has never been the most-streamed, most-downloaded, or most-spun radio hit, but the song’s numbers in all three Hot 100 metrics have grown roughly in tandem for the past two months. Its radio growth has been key. In fact, the week “Mood” finally reached No. 1, Billboard reports that its radio audience is the one thing that grew—both its streams and downloads were down slightly, while radio impressions were up 16 percent. The magazine adds that “Mood” has been the top airplay gainer on the entire Hot 100 six out of the past seven weeks. (The last single to ramp up that much airplay that fast? “Despacito” in the early summer of 2017.) Sure, we can’t discount the TikTok effect. For two artists with no prior hits remotely this big (this is Dior’s first Hot 100 entry, and 24kGoldn only cracked the big chart once before, last November, with the No. 92 track “Valentino”), scoring on the video app over the summer surely accelerated their breakthrough. Still, it’s hard to imagine a song this infectious wouldn’t have connected with streamers and radio programmers eventually.
A word about “Valentino,” 24kGldn’s only 2019 hit. It’s a pure, thumping trap song, with a more conventional sing-rap cadence and no hint at all of the sound of his big 2020 hit. The only other major Billboard chart it touched a year ago was R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, where it reached No. 42. That was the last time 24kGldn would touch that chart. His first genre head-fake came in the first half of 2020, when he dropped the strummed, sing-songy “City of Angels.” It has essentially no trap elements at all—if “Mood” sounds like the Goo Goos and the Chili Peppers, “Angels” resembles vintage Iggy Pop. Last spring, Billboard began tracking 24kGldn’s “City of Angels” on its Alternative Airplay chart, and by July it had peaked at No. 16, in the vicinity of hits by the Killers and Blue October.
Now, a word about Alternative Airplay. This is what the old Modern Rock chart—the one launched way back in 1988—is called now. I kind of hate this prosaic name for a chart I’ve been following avidly since my Cure- and Depeche Mode-loving high school days, but it is an accurate title. Modern Rock Tracks was always a radio-only chart. Billboard has renamed this chart twice: in 2009, from Modern Rock to Alternative Songs, and, just four months ago, from Alternative Songs to Alternative Airplay. Billboard needed to add “Airplay” to the chart’s title to distinguish it from two new Hot Rock and Hot Alternative Songs charts they were launching that would include sales and streams as well as radio. (Still with me?) These new charts follow the all-audiences formula Billboard has used in its flagship “Hot” genre charts (Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Hot Country Songs, Hot Latin Songs, Hot Rap Songs) since 2012, when the magazine updated these charts for the age of downloads and streams. All of these charts are just mini–Hot 100s—each chart contains the same songs from the big chart, in the same order, pared down to the songs Billboard has determined fit that genre.
Longtime readers of this series have heard me lodge my complaints with this digital-age genre-charts policy for years. It’s the one methodology of Billboard’s that I philosophically disagree with—briefly, it doesn’t measure the preferences of core fans of that genre; it over-indexes the songs that a pop-centric, super-mainstream audience prefers, above the hits a core R&B or country or Latin or rap fan is bumping. It makes it so you can’t measure actual crossover. This all-in genre-charts methodology is why so many Hot R&B/Hip-Hop No. 1s since 2012 have been so mainstream and poppy, why Billboard got itself into the Lil Nas X country-vs.-rap morass last year, why a slew of all-time Billboard records on the “Hot” genre charts have been dubiously overturned in the past eight years. More pertinent to 24kGldn, this methodology is also why Billboard has had to carefully weigh the hip-hop–ness vs. pop-ness of each Post Malone single, as they did last year in deciding Post’s poppy “Circles” was not an R&B/Hip-Hop song.
And so, back in early September, when 24kGldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” reached No. 8 on the Hot 100, and Billboard trumpeted that it was not only a Top 10 pop record but the No. 1 Hot Alternative song in the country, my eyebrow reflexively shot up. I asked myself, Is this an actual alt-rock hit, listened to by alt-rock fans? Or was it just a big pop hit Billboard had, in their mysterious ways, decided was allowed to appear on the Hot Alternative chart—and, because it’s a pop smash, it dominates the field?
I am (relatively) happy to report the answer to these questions is: both. That week in September, on the Alternative Airplay chart, “Mood” ranked No. 33. On the one hand, Billboard saying the 33rd-biggest alt-rock radio hit is actually America’s Hottest Alternative hit is … really fishy. (Behold! This is why I hate this genre charts methodology.) On the other hand, what my brain actually said that week was, Holy cow! Alt-rock radio is actually playing this vaguely rap-ish rock song! Remember, radio doesn’t play songs they think their audience will hate—terrestrial radio exists to make advertisers happy by keeping a specific demographic tuned in. That guitar that plays underneath “Mood” must sound alt-y enough to the format’s 25-to-49-year-olds—mostly men, mostly white—that it’s garnering spins on the radio format of Weezer and the Strokes.
What about this week, when “Mood” reaches No. 1 on the Hot 100 and (of course) is still No. 1 on the Hot Alternative chart? On Alternative Airplay, “Mood” is up to a very respectable No. 11—by next week, it’ll probably be a Top 10 alt-rock airplay record. It didn’t hurt that 24kGldn had already gone top 20 at rock radio over the summer with “City of Angels,” establishing his bona fides at the format. But now “Mood,” an even poppier, more hip-hop–leaning song, has done even better and is being heard in power rotation by actual rock radio listeners. And by the way, the reason “Mood” is also No. 1 on Hot Rap Songs is because actual rap radio listeners are hearing it a lot, too. It currently ranks 12th on the Rap Airplay chart, sandwiched between hits by Moneybagg Yo and Lil Baby. This song really does sound like it fits on both rock stations and rap stations.
Of course, if you’ve been paying any attention to the trajectory of popular music since SoundCloud “rap” took off a half-decade ago, the uncategorizability of “Mood” shouldn’t be a surprise. Gen Z hit-makers are musical magpies: from the late XXXTentacion, whose queasy tracks often sounded more like old indie-rock than current rap; to Billie Eilish, a follower of XXXTentacion’s who similarly wove hip-hop elements into her alt-rock–turned-pop hits; to the late Juice WRLD, who got his big hit sampling Sting and has a current, posthumous alt-rock radio hit with EDM DJ Marshmello; to Lil Nas X, whose second hit “Panini” borrowed its main hook melody from Nirvana. The next logical step for the SoundCloud generation was a song that had the ’90s rockness and the ’20s emo lyrics and the TikTokability and, finally, the big, chewy pop hooks that make old-school radio listeners nod their heads. Genres? Radio formats? Ha—24kGldn and Iann Dior ain’t playing by your rules.