Oldies Radio, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
"Cry, Cry, Cry"
On the eve of February 3, 1959, a small plane carrying three passengers and one pilot crashed soon after takeoff near the small town of Clear Lake, Iowa, killing everyone on board. The passengers on the flight were three young musicians: J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly. This event shook the musical community and, indeed, the entire country. The tragedy would later be memorialized and immortalized in Don Maclean's epic, sprawling nostalgic four-chord novella, "American Pie," which famously referred to the tragedy as "The Day the Music Died."
Given the talent and potential of the three artists, this moniker must have seemed like an appropriate sentiment at the time, but, thankfully, the music did not die that day. Sure, the loss sent a shock wave across the country and marked the end of the golden age of Rock & Roll, but the music those three young men created continues to live on and has influenced basically every generation of songwriters since the events of that cold winter night. Unfortunately, due to recent developments on FM radio, this may not always be the case.
A Devil's Haircut
It's funny the details and events from our youth that stick with us over a lifetime; it's always the little things too. Seemingly inconsequential memories sneak back into our consciousness years after we experienced them, leaving us longing for a simpler time - a birthday party, candy cigarettes, 7th grade homeroom, etc. These memories accumulate and coalesce over time, crafting a unique story in a disjointed, anachronistic chronology that we like to refer to as our lives, but that are really more akin to the way we wanted our lives to be - otherwise known as nostalgia.
Whenever I reflect on my own childhood, invariably, the first thing that pops into my head is the hundreds of hours that I spent sitting in Jerry's Barbershop in my hometown of Alma, Michigan. My parents were divorced when I was quite young, and my stepfather worked incessantly. So, as strange as this sounds, my barbers, Jerry and his son-in-law Buck, were basically the de facto male figures in my life. They were good, honest family men who helped shape and sculpt my definition of what it actually meant to be a good, honest family man.
Once every three weeks or so, I would peddle my bike the 1/2 mile from my house to Jerry's, stopping at the 7-11 on the corner of Main and Superior (two opposing streets, both literally and figuratively) to pick up a Surge and some Fruit Stripe gum before recklessly crossing Superior and parking my bike (unlocked) in the pot-holed single drive belonging to the tiny shop that housed Jerry's. Littering the shelves and walls of the barbershop was a pretty impressive collection of antiques and ephemera amassed over a lifetime spent living out a blue-collar existence in a small town. There were analog clocks with the animated cat faces, black and white photos of expressionless Oakies from the Depression, surveyor's maps of turn of the century Alma, and, of course, a small transistor radio whose dial was firmly fixed at 96.1 WHNN - an Oldies station broadcasting out of Saginaw that served as the soundtrack of my childhood, adolescent, and teenage years.
Although my parents loved music in many different forms and instilled a similar appreciation in me from a young age, it was in the hours spent in those horribly uncomfortable wooden chairs at Jerry's that I became totally obsessed with it. While Buck and Jerry gently teased me about my pathetic love life, asked for my opinion on the Detroit Tigers' pitching rotation, and filled me in on the local gossip that they'd overheard at the pub the previous weekend, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Roy Orbison provided me with a subliminal education in the principles of song. It didn't matter if it was surf, soul, R&B, rock, or jazz, the timeless music that filled the air of Jerry's barbershop in the '90s made even the longest lines for a cut well worth the wait.
I recently learned that 96.1 had altered their format from Oldies (loosely defined as pop hits from the mid-'50s to the early '70s) to a playlist heavy on "Classic Hits" from the '70s and '80s (think The Cars and ELO).
When I first discovered this, I felt as if I was rapidly progressing through the five stages of grief. At first I was in complete denial, and then I became increasingly enraged. Who were they to just completely disregard an entire era of music, much less the one that laid every single brick in the foundation of modern music? The anger passed abruptly, and I clenched my eyes closed tightly as I began bargaining with some unknown omnipotent force to transport me back to Jerry's on a random sunny summer day in the mid-'90s. When I opened them again, I was still resting uncomfortably in my parents' driveway, and a sudden wave of total defeat and depression washed over me.
It's only now as I sit in front of my computer writing this sentence that I'm beginning to accept the death of Oldies radio... Who am I kidding, I'm still just as furious and confused as before.
A Skin Flick for Your Ears
Whoever it was that said that Rock & Roll will never die lied; it most certainly is dying, and somehow, this doesn't seem to bother anyone. Maybe I'm just a rapidly aging old man trapped in a young man's body, but I don't understand what is happening with our collective musical preferences. We're willfully trading in our musical heritage in favor of the auditory pornography that is contemporary pop. Think that comparison seems a bit extreme? I would like to direct your attention to the young lady behind door # 3. This is the direction that music is heading - a direction that has been plotted out by you, me, and our apathy. Robot music and sadomasochistic lyrics - a brave new world indeed!
Consider the two most prominent forms of music on the radio today: Country and Pop. The truth is that there exists virtually no clear distinction between these two genres; they have basically the exact same song structures with varying degrees of stupidity in their lyrics, which is also why there's so much crossover occuring with the two. The only noticeable difference between them is the way they go about marketing their songs and artists. The former is built around the false premise that the music they're peddling is wholesome and so is the audience for which it's intended. In reality, modern country is basically a softcore version of pop perversion intended for clueless cougars, whereas pop doesn't make any apologies for its blatant sexual branding directed toward prepubescent children... and clueless cougars.
A Modern Mausoleum
So how do we inconspicuously chip away at the bedrock of popular music without the entire edifice toppling over into the pits of hell (or anyone making a big stink of the whole messy transition)? How do we paradoxically pretend to celebrate what we no longer embrace? Well, we create a Hall of Fame, of course!
The atrocity they've built in Cleveland is nothing more than a retirement home, albeit more visited than most and reserved for the coolest old people in history. Or, you could think of it as a massive pole barn where we can store away everything we've deemed useless. In this way, we're able to feign respect for our elders by immortalizing their musical excellence, while also saving everyone a little embarrassment at the fact that no one cares anymore.
If we held even a modicum of authentic reverence for our musical pioneers we would celebrate their music by actually listening to it, rather than giving them a gaudy plaque in a veritable crypt. Art is meant to be experienced, not merely catalogued, anthologized, and archived. But since the Hall occasionally gets it right and validates the legacies of some of our favorite artists, we feel content to let them fade away from our playlists as well as our memories. When it comes down to it, the whole thing reeks of the obligatory nature of a funeral, and it's far more shameful than it is venerable.
Once we entirely remove the origins of Rock & Roll from the FM landscape, we'll be left stranded in a vast desolate desert, disoriented by the empty mirage of contemporary pop. As if Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly haven't been satisfactorily ignored for the last half century, we will now be erasing them from the airwaves entirely, along with their legacies. And I get it. Advertising agencies run the world, and it's pretty hard to market to a demographic consisting of neurotics, geriatrics, and dead people. Especially dead people - they're too busy being dead to tap their blue suede shoes to "Blue Suede Shoes."
Still, myself and millions of other young people like me, are living proof that just because a generation gap exists doesn't mean that it can't be traversed. But when you cut the rope and cast the bridge into the water, how is anyone else supposed to cross? Unfortunately, once there is no longer any medium through which to experience "Oldies," once the link to our musical origins has been permanently severed, it will be too late to salvage our past, and the compulsory trip to Cleveland will seem even more dreadful as Ke$ha screams at us from our car speakers.