The 20 Best Rock Songs by Pop Stars

Headshot of American pop and R&B singer Janet Jackson singing on stage during a concert, circa 1991. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

Olivia Rodrigo may be a teenage pop star who works for Disney and first scaled the Hot 100 with a piano-driven ballad, but her second No. 1 of 2021, “Good 4 U,” is a surprisingly feisty pop-punk song. And Sour’s even harder-rocking opener “Brutal” is currently ascending Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart.

Rock music has been deeply intertwined with American pop ever since early rockers like Little Richard and Bill Haley started scaling the charts. But since the ‘80s, Top 40 radio has largely favored sleeker tracks with synthesizers, drum machines, and influences from genres like dance music, R&B, and hip-hop, with only occasional bursts of electric guitar and live drums. Plenty of rockers have become pop stars, from Pat Benatar to Bruce Springsteen, but there are also pop stars who merely flirt with rock sounds from time to time. So you won’t see Prince, a guitar god with dozens of hard rock tunes in his catalog, on this list, but you will see Michael Jackson, who’d just occasionally team up with Eddie Van Halen or Slash to rock out.

 

20. Miley Cyrus – “7 Things”

 

 

The lead single from Breakout, Miley Cyrus’s first album that wasn’t linked to her Disney Channel alter ego Hannah Montana, had acoustic verses and a big anthemic pop-punk chorus that many interpreted as being aimed at her ex, Nick Jonas. It was the first of many reinventions for Cyrus, who’d occasionally swerve towards indie rock influences with the Flaming Lips or classic rock with Stevie Nicks.

 

19. Britney Spears – “I Will Be There”

 

 

Britney Spears would gesture at rock most famously with weird, clubby Rodney Jerkins-produced covers of The Rolling Stones and Joan Jett, but her best guitar-driven song is this jangly deep cut from her debut. If “I Will Be There” had been her first single instead of “…Baby One More Time,” Spears probably wouldn’t have been as big a star, but she might have gotten a spot on the bill at the Lilith Fair.

 

18. Backstreet Boys – “Just Want You To Know”

 

 

Max Martin and Dr. Luke appear in this list multiple times, as their guitar-driven productions for Kelly Clarkson, Pink, and others helped swerve pop radio towards power chords and anthemic choruses in the mid-2000s. But the Backstreet Boys took the rock sound of their Max/Luke single “Just Want You To Know” one step further and made a video paying homage to Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the cult classic 1986 documentary about tailgating Judas Priest fans.

 

17. Ed Sheeran feat. Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton – “Blow”

 

 

Ed Sheeran plays guitar, but his ballads, folky influences, and experiments with dance beats and rapping have always landed him firmly in the “pop” camp. But his 2019 album No. 6 Collaborations Project offered a full-scale hard rock song, which featured country rocker Chris Stapleton and fellow pop star Bruno Mars, who produced and played most of the instruments on the song. “Blow” was embraced by hard rock radio, getting to No. 17 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, and the video featured an all-female band standing in for the trio of stars at the famous Sunset Strip club The Viper Room.

 

16. Chick – “Demented”

 

 

In 1995, Epic Records released an alternative rock album that was written by one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and nobody knew for 25 years. But in 2020, Mariah Carey finally spilled the beans in her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, that she’d written and recorded an entire album of angsty rock inspired by bands like Hole during the sessions for her 1995 album, Daydream. Nervous label executives persuaded Carey not to release the rock album herself. So her friend Clarissa Dane sang lead on the band Chick’s only album, Someone’s Ugly Daughter, and the album came and went with no commercial impact, with the world unaware for decades that Mariah Carey was writing and singing backup all over the album.

 

15. Skye Sweetnam – “Tangled Up In Me”

 

 

In 2004, Canadian teenager Skye Sweetnam became a Radio Disney staple with her debut album, Noise In The Basement, and toured as an opening act for Britney Spears. But the rock leanings of songs like “Tangled Up In Me” foreshadowed the heavier direction Sweetnam’s music would take. In 2009, she formed the metal band Sumo Cyco (singing under her alter ego, Sever), and the band released its third album Initiation this year.

 

14. Fefe Dobson – “Take Me Away”

 

 

Like Skye Sweetnam, Fefe Dobson was a Canadian teen idol who was more successful at home in America in the mid-2000s. But the only Hot 100 hit from her self-titled debut, “Take Me Away,” was one of her hardest-rocking tunes, and she hung portraits of Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley in the studio, and aspired to work with Jack White.

 

13. Ashlee Simpson – “La La”

 

 

Jessica Simpson was one of the blonde pop divas who was inescapable on MTV around the turn of the century, but her rebellious little sister had other ideas when she got her own record deal and reality show. Ashlee Simpson’s biggest hits were introspective mid tempo songs like “Pieces of Me,” but “La La” was a stomping rock anthem a million miles from Jessica’s power ballads.

12. Doja Cat – “Say So (Live at MTV EMA 2020)”

 

 

Doja Cat is one of the more chameleonic stars on the current pop landscape, throwing rock-influenced songs like “Bottom Bitch” into her repertoire of pop, R&B, and rap. But she really got to show off her versatility when her 2020 single “Say So” topped the charts and she appeared on countless awards shows and TV specials, putting a different spin on the song every time. And at the MTV European Music Awards, she completely reinvented “Say So” with a hard rock arrangement that sounded better than anybody could have anticipated.

 

11. The Breakfast Club – “Safe Neighborhood”

 

 

When Madonna Lourdes Ciccone dropped out of college and moved to New York City, her unlikely first step to pop superstardom was playing drums in a punk band. Madonna only played in The Breakfast Club for a short time, but sang lead on the blistering 1980 song “Safe Neighborhood” before fronting another band, Emmy & The Emmys, and then going solo. Of course, Madonna went on to take over the pop charts with a much more polished sound, but so did The Breakfast Club, scoring the top 10 synth-pop hit “Right On Track” in 1986.

 

10. Demi Lovato – “La La Land”

 

 

After the Disney Channel original movie Camp Rock helped launch Demi Lovato’s music career, they surprised many metal fans by professing their love of bands like Dimmu Borgir and Lamb of God. Lovato’s own albums never got quite that heavy, but they played guitar all over their pop punk-flavored early albums Don’t Forget (2008) and Here We Go Again (2009). In recent years, Lovato has revisited their rock roots, collaborating with All Time Low and Travis Barker.

9. Beyoncé – “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

 

 

On her Peabody-winning 2016 masterpiece Lemonade, Beyoncé unspooled a cohesive personal narrative through a far-reaching song cycle that incorporated country, electronic music, and rock into her sound. And the angriest chapter in the story was appropriately soundtracked by “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” an explosive track that featured guitar and backing vocals from Jack White and a sample from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.” “Don’t Hurt Yourself” competed for Best Rock Performance at the 2017 Grammys, losing to David Bowie.

 

8. Pink – “Trouble”

 

 

Pink was introduced to the world with the sleek R&B-influenced pop of her 2000 debut album Can’t Take Me Home. But she almost immediately began embracing the rock influences that have defined her career, recruiting 4 Non Blondes frontwoman Linda Perry to produce her next album and frequently releasing guitar-driven hits like “U + Ur Hand.” The one time that Pink rocked a little too hard for pop radio, however, was her 2003 album Try This, which was produced primarily by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, and yielded only one minor Hot 100 hit in the anthemic “Trouble.”

7. Olivia Rodrigo – “Good 4 U”

 

 

Olivia Rodrigo skyrocketed to fame with the oversharing breakup songs “Drivers License” and “Déjà Vu,” but the seething pop punk rage of her third single “Good 4 U” still came as a slight surprise. “It’s like we never even happened, baby, what the fuck is up with that?” Rodrigo seethes over a pulsing bassline in a video where she rages in a high school gym and sets fire to her bedroom.

 

6. Janet Jackson – “Black Cat”

 

 

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are the architects of the funky sound that turned Janet Jackson into a pop superstar. But their bandmates in The Time also wrote and produced for her, and The Time drummer Jellybean Johnson and Jackson co-produced the most surprising No. 1 from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the headbanging rocker “Black Cat.”

 

5. Avril Lavigne – “Sk8r Boi”

 

 

Avril Lavigne set herself apart from TRL-friendly pop acts with her punky image and rebellious attitude in the video for her debut single “Complicated,” but the song itself was a gentle midtempo track. The follow-up single “Sk8r Boi,” however, affirmed that Lavigne had some fast pop-punk tunes to match her sneer.

 

4. Christina Aguilera – “Fighter”

 

 

In 2003, Evanescence briefly made the pop charts safe for heavy, brooding goth rock. And as it happened, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Christina Aguilera, had a song on her 2002 album, Stripped, that sounded right at home next to Evanescence’s hits, especially after Floria Sigismondi (best known for her work with Marilyn Manson) directed the video. Surprisingly, “Fighter” was co-written and co-produced by Scott Storch, the hip hop hitmaker behind clubbier Stripped tracks like “Can’t Hold Us Down.”

 

3. En Vogue – “Free Your Mind”

 

 

En Vogue were the biggest R&B girl group of the early ‘90s, but one of their biggest hits took a detour into hard rock, with a chorus that put a slightly more family-friendly spin on Funkadelic’s “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow.” Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, the duo who formed En Vogue and oversaw their other, more R&B-oriented hits, wrote and produced “Free Your Mind,” with rockabilly star Jinx Jones providing the guitar and bass on the track.

 

2. Michael Jackson – “Beat It”

 

 

During sessions for Thriller, Quincy Jones suggested that Michael Jackson write a song like “My Sharona,” The Knack’s goofy new wave crossover hit. But the song that the King of Pop wound up with was a little harder and darker than “My Sharona,” or for that matter anything by his backing band on the track, Toto. But it was Eddie Van Halen’s iconic guitar solo that really gave “Beat It” its rock cred and helped push the song to No. 14 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart around the time it became Thriller’s second #1 pop single and helped make Thriller a something-for-everybody blockbuster.

1. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone”

 

 

Kelly Clarkson was crowned the first champion of American Idol in 2002 by belting out a variety of pop and R&B classics, while her debut album Thankful placed her impressive voice in a modern Top 40 context. But nobody really saw it coming when Clarkson launched her second album, 2004’s Breakaway, with cathartic, guitar-driven breakup song that won over so many rockers that it’s been covered by everyone from Ted Leo and Butch Walker to A Day to Remember and Tokyo Police Club.

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