Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Yesterday's Post

ON Saturday afternoon, I listened to Led Zeppelin IV and something came to mind, so I posted it on social media:

"You’ve been saying you’re sick of it longer than the amount of time you probably spent listening to it. And since no one listens to classic rock radio anymore—right? —that means you probably haven’t heard it in years. Stop being cranky and play it loud. It’s popular for a reason."

I was both surprised and happy that the feedback was all positive. There were no cheap shots at Jimmy Page, and only one negative comment about "Stairway To Heaven." One friend suggested that 1971 was the best year for rock and roll, which gave me an idea. I wanted to look up the Top 20 of 1971 and compare it to the Top 20, 50 years later. Since we have not reached 2021, I decided on 1969 instead. The following is a short list of what spent the most time on the Billboard charts in 1969:

Suspicious Minds- Elvis Presley
Sugar Sugar- The Archies
Build Me Up Buttercup- The Foundations
Crimson & Clover- Tommy James & the Shondells
Bad Moon Rising- CCR
Honky Tonk Women- Rolling Stones
Come Together- The Beatles
In The Year 2525- Zager & Evans
I Can't Get Next To You- The Temptations
Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In- The 5th Dimension
Too Busy Thinking 'Bout My Baby- Marvin Gaye
These Eyes- The Guess Who
Pinball Wizard- The Who
Love Me Tonight- Tom Jones
My Whole World Ended- David Ruffin
Galveston- Glen Campbell
Everyday People- Sly & The Family Stone
Get Together- The Youngbloods
One- Three Dog Night
Dizzy- Tommy Roe

If I continued to list the year-end Top 100,  I would bet dollars to donuts that you would be hard pressed to find one song that would offend you. Maybe "In The Year 2525" is a bit relentless, leaning more toward novelty. But compared to "Panini" by Lil Nas X, it's "Rhapsody In Blue."

I'd like to think of myself as someone somewhere between the "get off my lawn" guy and the guy whose resting heartbeat hovers around the 35 BPM mark. I think it's healthy to get a bit riled up. Those five tracks I posted yesterday were a small sampling of the "hits of the day." I don't want to deny the kids the music that moves them, but you are a better man than I if you can muster even a minute's worth of patience to find a moment of pleasure from the formulaic, synthetic, mass-produced, auto-tuned, dumbed-down garbage that has taken residency in the charts.

I know times have changed. The way we listen to music has changed. The way we make music has changed. I am not naive. But I took a lot of flak for writing this piece for the New York Times, but five years later, I believe what I wrote more than ever.

We can choose what we listen to. That's a no-brainer. But when I look at the Top 100 from 1969 or even 1979, I see music of all colors and sounds. It made sense to hear Elvis Presley, The Archies, Sly & The Family Stone and The Who in a commercial free set on the radio. Now, the last remaining "oldies" station in NYC, no longer plays music from the 50's. I guess they must think fans of doo-wop have all died. Even classic rock radio sticks to just about the same playlist. Lots of Beatles but rarely pre-Revolver. The same 5 Stones tunes. The same 5 Who tunes. "Stairway To Heaven!"

I imagine the best way to avoid hearing Lil Nas X, or Shawn Mendes' "Senorita" is to simply play my own records and program my own Spotify playlists. But hasn't that been a complaint on its own, the loss of communal listening? How can we get back the joy of sharing music when the airwaves focus on one demographic? I remember listening to WABC at my cousin's backyard BBQ and no one, not the 10 year olds, nor the 25 year olds and not the 50 year olds ever needed to switch the station. We all knew that at some point we'd hear our favorite songs. Try that now.

I know many of you have a list of your favorite music holstered and ready to fire. So do I. But this is not about pointing out a Top 20 of up and coming artists, or digging deep for the most obscure pop band out of England. I am more interested in how and why it has come to this. It can't be as simple as "the internet."


Anonymous said...


Our communal radio is now us communication back and forth on blogs like this! Posting music, discussing it and trying to turn each other on to new and old sounds.

Captain Al

Ken D said...

Well, the fact is that there's no format (or chart) known as "communal listening." It simply isn't an objective of commercial radio to have wide appeal. In fact, the opposite is true: ever smaller niche demographics. Playlist programmers are responding to the needs of the ad sales department who will tell them that the demands of their clients who sell storm windows and bifocals are entirely different from those selling sneakers and cosmetics.
Sad to say, the actual music played is irrelevant (again, see yesterday's post for proof). Radio programmers would happily play the buzz and whirr of power tools 24/7 if they thought it would improve their ratings. All that matters is audience numbers in an ever more specific age/gender/ethnic/economic/whatever slice of the pie.

Shriner said...

I still think it's the obvious reasons: Radio became fragmented in the late 80s. MTV. Labels less willing to spend money to "build" artists. Music sounding "the same" these days. *And yes -- the internet*.

Back In The Day -- *Everything* was on the "Top 40". Rock, pop, disco -- -- even forgettable novelty songs like Meri Wilson's "Telephone Man" or "Basketball Jones" -- were on the myriad Top 40 stations. Even MTV was communal for a while into the early 90s (at least).

Music in 1969? It was the same everywhere. Same songs on stations all across the country. Sure, there were "regional hits" (and yes there have always been "Country-only" stations.) Artists that you saw on TV? They already had Hit Singles. But for the most part, there was *only* Radio. No MTV. Sure there was "Ed Sullivan", "Midnight Special" and "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" on TV -- but those were for the die-hards.

Radio is *mostly* genre-focused stations now. You can't swing a dead cat without flipping through multiple variations of stations that only "Alternative", "Country", "Rap" or "Christian" -- and that's about it.

Out of curiosity, I googled all the FM radio stations in my area (greater Detroit -- so some of these come from Canada). There are 56 FM stations near me.

A surprising *15* are "Christian Contemporary", "Religious" or "Gospel Music" (over 1/4!)

But there's only *1* self-described "Top 40" station (3 others report "Variety"). There are more "Grade School" radio stations (3) than there are Top 40 stations in the Detroit area!

"Communal" listening is dead, IMO. It's the rare song that's going to cut through everything. Would I have ever guessed "Old Town Road" would be that latest song to do that? Not in a million years (but I've often said novelty songs cross all boundaries and a country/rap song is about a "novelty" as "Baby Shark"...)

Even kids today don't watch MTV (much less actual TV) so even *that level* of community -- which is where people went when they started to leave the radio in the 80s -- is out the window. My daughters (early 20s) almost never listen to the radio -- and it's a rarity when they listen to a full album of anything *new* any more (individual songs, sure...)

But there's always Taylor Swift. She still cuts through everything. Even the internet.

Sal Nunziato said...

I want to agree with you, but here's why I don't, at least from personal experience.

Way back when I posted the themeless Weekend Mixes, 60 minutes new and old, popular and deep, crossing genres, etc., that was my way of playing DJ and the response was tepid, at best. Some of the comments-- "I already know most of this, so I am not going to download." "I just listened to so and so." "I'm not a fan of so and so, but I'd like to hear that song by so and so." The whole idea of curating and presenting a playlist like a DJ simply cannot be experienced on a blog forum. One song? One Album? One artist? Sure! There is a discussion. But back when the great DJ's like Scott Muni and Meg Griffin and Richard Neer had slots, we tuned in and we listened to it all. We sat through faves that we knew, a few clunkers and waited patiently to hear new tracks. It just cannot be done anymore, anywhere, thanks in part to what both Ken D. and Shriner mention.

But the bigger picture for me and what inspired this post, is the music itself. And if Taylor Swift is the example of what "cuts through everything," then we really have a problem.

Joe said...

As I slip closer and closer to 70, I become more apathetic to the current music scene. I kind of marvel at what folks on award shows are touting as great music. There is a sameness to a great deal of the new stuff and its hard to distinguish among them.

I also wonder if it is getting harder for performers to create new and enjoyable melodies that have not been created before. I know I might get flamed for that comment, but I really think that is an issue too. I went back to allmusic and looked at the titles for the first 11 Van Morrison albums and compared to the last 11. While few would dispute the artistry of Van across his entire career, I still think the songs he created on those first 11 albums were his best and were wonderful.

Also, I have been listing to The Band early albums as of late. All the songs are distinct and no one would confuse them for other songs on the record. That is one of my litmus tests for a new record, are the songs distinguishable.

Okay, back to my rocking chair listening to music that still moves me after 50-60 years of listening. joe

Shriner said...

Taylor Swift is a massive cross-over Super Star who (at least) writes most of her own material. There's not a lot of *new* Super Stars any more these around these days that have multiple smash albums. I'm at best a casual fan, but I certainly see the appeal and don't necessarily see the problem (other than not liking the end result?).

(This reply wasn't meant as a full-throated defense of Taylor Swift, but just an example of well-crafted pop music that appeals to the masses...and I think she's an exception rather than the rule -- similar to Lady Gaga.)

Every decade has music (the royal) you just don't understand why it became popular. I don't think this is new, though. It's the natural cycle of things. :-)

Sal Nunziato said...

"Every decade has music (the royal) you just don't understand why it became popular."

While that may be a true statement, what I am trying to get across is, what was popular for so many years--rock an roll, disco, punk, electronic, new wave, grunge, etc- is nowhere near as unlistenable as what is popular now. We can debate all we want about how Elvis Presley was the devil to people in their 40s in 1956, or The Stones being the "bad boys" to people over 50 in 1966. But as I said in the post, even weird novelty like "In The Year 2525" sounds like high art compared to what is being foisted our way in 2019.

As for Taylor Swift, I never said she was "the" problem. I said if she was the example of "mass appeal" we have a problem. If you're a long time reader, you know I LOVE pop music and have defended it strongly. I don't see Taylor Swift appealing to masses. She is massively popular with a female demographic between the ages 18-25.

Data from QuantCast

The typical fan is a young white female.

67% are female, 33% are male
44% are in the 18-24 age range,
35% are in the 25-34 age range,
21% other

And no, to be honest, I don't like the end result. I prefer Lady Gaga's brand of pop music.

kevin m said...

Radio has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In 1969, the majority of Radio listening was still to AM stations. FM radio was in its infancy in 69.

As FM Radio became more popular, so did the billing. And so did the # of Radio stations. To stand apart, they needed to own a hill; hence instead of playing a wide swath of artists like Sal has shown, Radio stations had to target a specific audience to sell to advertisers; Country, Classic Country, Classic Rock, Alt Rock, Top 40 (known as CHR in the industry), etc.

A Radio station went from being a broad vehicle to one owning Men 25-40 who drive pick ups and listen to Modern Country.

Also, most advertising agencies don't bother advertising to Adults over 65 unless it's for drugs. Therefore, an Oldies station doesn't see the need to play Doo-Wop as that Oldies station is now competing for Adults 40-60

Shriner said...

I wonder how much of this is repetition? If radio had been as fragmented in 1969 as it is today -- I would venture to say that a good chunk of the 1969 songs you list -- might have been relegated to this dust bin of history, too.

(An interesting conjecture (which many of us will not be around to hear) will be what -- if any -- "oldies" format exists 30 years from now. Terrestrial Radio won't disappear in 30 years (if ever), but will there even *be* an "oldies" format? And would it contain anything other than the actual "Pop" songs of the 2000s and up?)

But how many times in your life have you (unintentionally or not) heard "In the year 2525" just because it made the playlist of an oldies station? Probably a lot more than you've heard "All About That Bass"?

I've always thought that traditional Top 40 Pop music is meant to be targeted to young women. And it's the exception that something that becomes super popular across all ages/sexes/races.

I looked at the year end hot-100 for 2018 here: https://www.billboard.com/charts/year-end/hot-100-songs. I like to think I'm at least *aware* of current pop music (because I play bar Trivia weekly and there's frequently a current music question), but I was not surprised I couldn't think of the tune/melody of anything other than "This is America" and "Havana" (and I'll be the first to admit I can only think of *one* song by Drake -- who has *35* Top 10 hits -- and it was none of these...). But I'm sure my non-radio-listening daughters would do a lot better (I will ask them because I'm now curious...)

Popular Music has always been a product. Sometimes it uses better ingredients than other times. A lot of current pop music doesn't use the ABACAB structure any more -- maybe that's what you are really missing? I know that's what I still search out -- songs with big choruses and (hopefully) and interesting break. It's just not there in the Top 40 any more.

I think the construction of pop music is what's more of an issue than how it's auto-tuned and soulless. That's why I at least thought Senorita was listenable from yesterday (and, surprisingly, the Selina Gomez song is stuck in my head now.)

Barry said...

This blog, And Your Bird Can Swing, has been posting the Top 30 countdowns from most of 1969 and 1970 from KHJ-LA radio. It is terrific and the diversity of bands/music via great, just as you described. Great dj banter and commercials too, all as individual mp3s: http://and-your-bird-can-swing.blogspot.com/?m=1

Ken D said...

The monotony of format radio is also a by-product of programmers who used to listen to a new release and ask themselves "Is this a hit?" but at some point changed the question to "Will this make someone change the station?"

Bill said...

Ken D, your comment reminded me of this scene from Inside Llewyn Davis and the devastating last line from F. Murray Abraham:

lemonflag said...

I think it is all about product. Will it sell and generate profit.
When the 60s came along so did the vinyl single, for just cents. The radio stations were a sales force for the record companies. We enjoyed the personalities as they helped sell the product. Then the album took over, it was a product that spread the joy over 35-40 mins. It was also the only place to get those extra songs. We had to listen to the whole thing, there was no picking and choosing. Then the cd arrived. it was not as cheap anymore. Remember Tom Petty complaining when they tried to raise the price on his latest album? But now we could start to skip tracks we didn't want to hear. That lasted for a while and then we got Napster and then Apple and the physical product started to disappear. I remember Cee-Lo made the charts without having a physical product , he made it on downloads.
So we come to the internet and Spottily and such. We have no guides its just a algorithm that directs likes to sell streaming and who needs a download, they decide what we would like to hear and that fine by today's standards.
We old farts have not forgotten what we have heard and are left behind by the easy decisions that listeners today put up with.

Shriner said...

I did ask my daughters about the Top 100 list from 2018 and how many of those songs they knew the melody/tune of just based on looking at the list of songs. Their responses:

The 23 year old: "20%. This is not what I was expecting for this list, but I wasn't super clued into the radio/top 40s in college and I have not really gotten on board with this new wave of hip-hop/rap stuff..."

The 20 year old (still in college so still hitting the college party scene, etc): "I know about half"

About what I expected.

Anonymous said...

Someone who grew up with and loved current pop music in 1919 (which was, what, Eddie Cantor or something?) would probably think that something like "Dizzy" by Tommy Roe was the stupidest piece of crap he'd ever heard. Probably wouldn't understand "Come Together" at all. Pop music changed a LOT in those fifty years, for the better or the worse, probably depending on how old you were in 1919 and 1969. Same thing has happened now. Pop music, for the most part, sounds nothing like it did 50 years ago. But I think it would be weirder if it DID sound pretty much the same. Having a nine-year-old kid means I get to hear more Top 40 music than I would otherwise. Some of it I think is crap, some of it ("The Middle," "Meant To Be," Taylor Swift in general, the occasional K-Pop song) I really enjoy. But it all comes down to what Irving Berlin said, which I think is my favorite quote about music: "Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it."


Sal Nunziato said...

"Pop music, for the most part, sounds nothing like it did 50 years ago."

I don't think pop music sounds anything like it did 20 years ago. "Dizzy" has more in common with "Makin' Whoopee" than today's chart hits have with chart hits from 1999. I think part of that problem is the fact that there is TOO MUCH of it. Anything goes now, and I maintain that that is not a good thing.

heartsofstone said...

The other factor is that younger people listen to narrow playlists and don't get exposed to all types of music.