The Province of Geeks

In over eight years of blogging in various places, hundreds of thousands of words and a larger number of half-baked ideas considered and discarded, I have never had as much trouble with a post as I’ve had with this one. I’ve chased an idea around for a week and expended nearly 900 words on it, and it’s still not right. Even the title is wrong, lifted from a sentence I later took out. But because I am exhausted with the whole process of fixing this bastard, and because I owe you something today, here it is.

The Chicago Tribune ran a piece last week pondering what makes a record an oldie, and since then, I’ve been pondering it, too. Reporter Mark Caro gets at the nub of it early on: “You might look at ‘oldies’ as a genre, certain music from a certain time with a certain aesthetic. Or perhaps you think ‘oldie’ merely connotes something that’s a certain amount of old.”

The latter definition seems to be holding sway in the radio biz these days, as Caro notes. You’ll hear late 70s hits by the Cars and John Mellencamp on “oldies” stations now. While they’re definitely “a certain amount of old,” how well they fit alongside “Lady Madonna” or “Summer in the City” is in the ear of the beholder. For some stations, juxtaposing the Cars with the Lovin’ Spoonful isn’t a problem, because they aren’t playing the Spoonful much anymore. The average year of release for the average record at the average oldies station today is 1970 or 1971. Older records get played less as newer records get played more.

But what about that “certain aesthetic”? The radio music of the period from the mid 50s to Watergate (parameters suggested by a friend) comes with a whole constellation of images and associations—which exist even for people who weren’t alive in that period. Thanks to movies, TV, and advertising, people who can’t remember the 60s have images of the 60s in their heads, inspired by the songs and how they have been used and/or remembered since the 1960s.

As we creep past the time of Nixon’s resignation and into the last half of the 780s and into 80s, songs still have specific associations, but they quickly become qualitatively different from those that accompany the songs of the 50s and 60s. Which is why some radio listeners can find a juxtaposition of, say, Mellencamp’s “I Need a Lover” with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to be jarring.

Further thoughts along this line are on the flipside.

As it happens, I have been listening to my company’s oldies station lately. It operates daytime-only at 1550 AM, and it plays 50s and 60s music exclusively, spanning the 15-year period when the first baby boomers grew to young adulthood. Although it doesn’t play everything that was on AM radio in the 50s and 60s, it’s as close a distillation of the boomer canon as you’re likely to find on the radio. Maybe 90 percent of the songs that matter most are there, songs in the DNA not only of the generation that grew up on them, but to at least two generations that have followed.

Driving around the other day with the station on, I started thinking of how many of the songs I was hearing used to be wedding-reception standards. (There’s no better indicator or American mass taste than what you hear at wedding receptions. The wedding DJ has to cater to an audience of people from age 8 to age 80. It’s no time to be edgy.) But it’s been 20 years since I was a wedding DJ. Back then, I couldn’t go wrong with the kind of thing that plays on 1550 every day: “Great Balls of Fire,” “Twist and Shout,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Mony Mony,” and so on—songs that made up the heart of the oldies radio library since the rise of the format in the 1980s. Everybody knew them, everybody liked them.

But 20 years is a long time, so I asked my friend John Gallagher, a mobile DJ in Erie, Pennsylvania, what his go-to music is today. He says, “Very rarely do I play as much music from the 50s and 60s as I once did.” He plays some 70s music now, but the heart of his library is largely music from the 80s and 90s, as well as current Top 40, R&B, and country. (“In 1995, it was almost unheard-of to play music from the current Top 40 at a wedding,” he says. “Today it’s commonplace.)

John goes on: “I think weddings are much like radio. As we distance ourselves from that time period, the songs from the 50s and 60s become less relevant. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ doesn’t pack a dance floor as much as it once did, no matter how many times a day Sirius/XM plays it!!”

And the people who are going to Sirius/XM to hear “Brown Eyed Girl” (or to AM 1550 in Madison, Wisconsin) because it’s not on their local oldies station are not the listeners driving the pop marketplace anymore. And the time when their aesthetic drove the culture, and they dragged succeeding generations along behind, is pretty much over.

My thanks to John G., who is in no way complicit in the way this post failed to turn out, and who provided the only useful information contained herein. If you have something intelligent to add, please do so.

4 thoughts on “The Province of Geeks

  1. Here in Denver, we have two competing oldies stations: One is much as you describe, playing songs from the ’50s and ’60s, and the other focuses on roughly 1970 to 1985, with maybe 15 or 20 percent of its playlist coming from the 60s. The first station is much, much better.

  2. porky

    Our local Jack format station plays about three 60’s songs (Magic Carpet Ride, Hello I Love You, Born to be Wild) at least in the day-part that I listen to. It’s heavy on the 80’s and I have to say that makes the transition to “Margaritaville” very painful.

    Anyone who would go to Sirius to hear “Brown-Eyed Girl” would have to be crazy. Radio has stripped all of the life out of that song (for me) through sheer repetition.

    This IS a tough post to put into words. I just finished a book I would recommend, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” by Elijah Wald that tackles some of these same things.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      I loved that Elijah Wald book, and I recommend it highly to anybody who hangs out around here. (Wald’s “Escaping the Delta,” about Robert Johnson, is also mighty fine.)

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