The first baby boomers are past 70 now. The youngest of us are well into our 50s. And while we have valiantly struggled to hang on to our hipness since we started turning 35 (in the early 80s, when “soft rock” became a thing and the music of the 60s became cultural shorthand for a whole constellation of past and present self-images), it’s a harder sell as time goes by. The TV channels devoted to the shows we grew up on and cherished, including MeTV and Antenna TV, are clogged with ads for miracle drugs, medical supplies, and term insurance, all featuring people we’d like to think we are not, not yet. But they are us.
Radio stations playing music of a similar vintage haven’t gone so far down that road. Classic-rock stations are now mixing in the likes of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and other acts of the 90s, and for the most part, the stuff fits nicely alongside Lynryd Skynryd, Pink Floyd, and the rest of the canon. These stations remain somewhat contemporary, because so many of the core artists are still working. The music itself is largely timeless—although a significant percentage of the audience for classic rock can’t remember the 60s, 70s, or even in some cases the 80s, they love it just the same. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be an overt part of the station’s appeal, although for older listeners, it’s a factor.
Oldies stations have always been a bit more willing to talk about throwing back: “the music you grew up with” has been a familiar oldies-radio slogan practically from the beginning. The term “oldies” once referred to a particular style of music, and that music created an atmosphere that was clearly something of another time.
Classic-hits stations, which are basically classic rockers without the album cuts, relying heavily on big singles by rock artists and exclusively 70s and 80s-based, are somewhere in the middle. Like classic rockers, they don’t have to traffic in nostalgia. Without the deep cuts and 90s music, they don’t come off quite as hip, but they can still pull it off, depending on their imaging.
All of this is a windy introduction to what I want to write about: a station I heard while traveling recently. It was a small-town classic hits station, the kind of place that does the high-school football games on Friday nights. It was heavily voice-tracked, and because the jocks lacked the big pipes and smooth delivery of syndication, they were probably local, although you couldn’t tell by what they said. There was nothing remotely local in any of the talk breaks I heard over a couple of days—just lots of national entertainment and feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire.
But what stood out about this station beyond that was its imaging. A remarkable number of its recorded liners played up the fact that anybody listening must be old: “You can remember the first time you heard these songs, but you can’t remember where you put your car keys,” and “You know all the words, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning.” For somebody in the target demo (which I certainly am), this sort of thing can be funny the first time, because it has a ring of truth. It gets less funny the more it’s repeated, however. And after a couple of hours, it had the effect of turning the station—despite its basic classic-hits library of rockin’ good records, Steve Miller and Heart and Huey Lewis and so on—into a bleak reminder of human mortality. The music didn’t seem hip in that context. It was kind of pathetic, and almost sad.
I am pretty sure this isn’t what they’re going for.
Part of the appeal of this music is in the way it speaks to those of us who grew up with it, not just because it soundtracked days we remember and years we cherish, but also because it tells us who we are now, as art will do. We know we’re aging. We know our time is limited. It’s neither necessary nor right to remind us too frequently of that, especially when you’re doing it with the very music that allows us to forget it for a while.