Nine Minutes in Generica

I have spent this week in Indianapolis (pictured), where middle America reaches peak Generica. I haven’t found anything like the city in the photo yet—only mile after mile of suburbs and commercial sprawl connected by the most complicated interstate highway system in the nation. Drop you blindfolded onto some random street in this place and it would be hard to guess where you were, and if it weren’t for license plates, you might walk many miles before you got some indication of where you were.

I used to get annoyed when people made fun of classic rock and classic rock fans. “Dinosaur rock” or “dad rock” was a putdown of something I generally like, and all you kids with your indie rock and hippety hop can step right over here and bite me. The stars of the classic rock era—the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Eagles, David Bowie, Bob Seger, the Cars, Boston, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, name another one here—are too significant to the history of 20th century popular music to be dismissed with an epithet and a sneer, I thought.

But you know what? The importance of those artists is secure, just as the importance of Bach and Beethoven is secure, even though they’re not particularly hip anymore either. I am too old to worry about being hip. If it’s OK with everybody else, I’m gonna be over here liking what I like and not caring one way or another whether you like what I like.

All that said, however, I kind of get what the dinosaur and dad-rock people are on about. I have been listening to the local classic rock station while I’m in Indianapolis this week, and I haven’t heard a single surprising song yet. The only ones I didn’t recognize in the first millisecond were from the 90s, the era after I stopped listening to current hit radio. It’s pretty much one dad-rock warhorse after another.

But that’s OK.

People who criticize corporatized and standardized music radio often ask, “Does anybody really need to hear ‘Hotel California’ again?,” as if millions of radio plays since 1977 make the answer obvious.

As it happens, the answer is obvious.

Yes. Yes, people do need to hear it again.

If listeners were tired of it, they’d turn it off—but they obviously don’t, at least not in any numbers that matter. Therefore, where’s the incentive for radio stations to shake it up? If a steady diet of “Angie,” “Walk This Way,” and “Night Moves” brings in the customers, why risk that by playing “2,000 Light Years From Home,” “Uncle Salty,” or “Get Out of Denver”? Music lovers in the radio biz like to say, “If we would play some deeper tracks, people would like them.” But that sure doesn’t seem to be true.

Consultants tell us that the average listener hears the average station for nine minutes at a time. That single statistic explains why so much ratings-driven commercial radio is so repetitive, with the same songs over and over and the call letters between every song, and why song-to-song segues are as dead as Generalissimo Franco. Gotta maximize this nine minutes in hopes that people will come back for nine more some other time, and remember where to come to.

But you know what? If music is not your passion but merely something you enjoy from time to time, on par with other things you enjoy, like reading or Modern Family or puttering in the garden, it’s probably comforting to know that whenever you turn on your favorite radio station, you’re guaranteed nine enjoyable minutes.

And that’s OK. If you could be absolutely sure that the next nine minutes of your life were going to be pleasurable, you’d take that guarantee yourself.

So if you like classic rock radio, fine. If you don’t, fine. But if you don’t, be honest enough to try and understand why people who like it like it, instead of continually wondering how in the hell it’s possible.

5 responses

  1. You put “Uncle Salty” in my head, damn you.

    “Oooh, it’s a sunny day outside my window…”

  2. Didn’t I read somewhere, a survey that people actually do want to hear the same sounds over and over.. I am worth the music lovers group who want to hear the deeper tracks.. I guess that’s why I switched to Sirius radio… But there is comfort in hearing the same stuff over and over.. Brings up the memories we all love to remember… Even if I am am old dad-rock dinosaur myself

  3. You make some valid points, although I hate to admit that you’re right. I’m one of those people who have complained for years about how much radio has gone downhill. My local rock radio station used to play some deep tracks once in a while, but now it’s all redneck rock (and common redneck rock, at that).

    But, I get it. Radio listening habits have changed. I used to listen to the radio at home when I was a kid; now I have no reason to, especially when I’d rather listen to stuff that I own. The only time I listen to the radio is in the car while running a quick errand, say nine minutes or so.

    On long road trips, it’s always the iPod.

  4. […] we begin: I owe Indianapolis a modest apology. When I wrote about the city last week, I hadn’t found the best parts of it yet. Now I hope I get to go back […]

  5. […] going anywhere. And it’s not just programming conservatism. People like those songs. I’ve written about this before: you might wonder why anybody wants or needs to hear “Hotel California” or “Sweet […]

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