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'All grind-metal steampunk powerslop, all the time'

Sunday, April 18, 2010

(Photo)
Jim Mullen
In the mid-'60s you could hear the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Peter Paul & Mary, the Temptations and Roger Miller all on the same radio station, sometimes all in the same hour. On top of that, you'd get your hourly three-minute dose of news, weather and sports. If you didn't like one of the songs, you hit the button on the car radio and went to another station that would be playing music by The Supremes, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Dean Martin or Johnny Cash. People forget how many types of music mixed together to make top-40 stations back in the day. On Sept. 28, 1968, the number-one song in the country was "Hey Jude" by the Beatles. Another number-one was "Harper Valley PTA" by country singer Jeannie C. Riley. Frank Sinatra had one of the biggest hits of his career in the midst of Beatlemania with "Strangers in the Night."

Not that it was all good. It wasn't always possible to hit the radio buttons fast enough to escape "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro or "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by Ohio Express from coming out of the tinny car speakers and sucking the life from everything within hearing distance. Punching those buttons took skill, and the person who could keep the best music in the car the longest always got to ride shotgun. But sometimes you'd punch from one sonic death wave right into the middle of another. You'd escape "Winchester Cathedral" only to land in the middle of "Sugar, Sugar" -- the fully operational Death Star of music.

The quality of music on the radio hasn't changed much over the years, it's still 80-percent forgettable, but at least listeners would get to hear different types of forgettable music -- country, folk, rock, soul, R&B, pop, all on a 15-minute ride to the strip mall. Today, radio stations are maddeningly specific. It's not a rap station, it's an East Coast Crunk station. It's all reggaeton all the time. It's all alternative rock from September 2005 to April 2008.

One of the radio stations I visit now and then has changed formats. Again. In its fruitless search for higher ratings it's gone from playing the world's worst country music to the world's worst oldies. Its catchy slogan is "The Best Mix of the '70s, '80s and '90s." Who wouldn't want to listen to the best music? No one, apparently. The station is still at the bottom of the ratings totem pole. It's failing because it's trying to be a station for the whole family when it should be trying to be the station for a rabid set of fans that only wants to hear one kind of music and nothing else at all. It would be better off if it just played Elizabethan lute music for people who dress up in red velvet gowns and show up at Renaissance Fairs. There aren't many of them, but they're loyal. And you don't need a highly paid shock jock to reach them. A few codpiece jokes from the morning jester and you're set.

"I see by the water clock it's almost time for Matins. Hurry or surely you'll be late. Avoid the area near the stocks, there's a drawing and quartering today and that always draws a big crowd. And don't forget to listen to our Web cast on your computer at work."

Satellite radio is narrowcasting on a large scale and very popular. Sirius Radio has channels that are all Bruce Springsteen all the time, all Elvis all the time, all disco, all Grateful Dead, all Old Skool Rap and all Canadian Indie Music.

But I wonder, would I ever have heard Sinatra if my old stations only played the music I liked?

Jim Mullen is the author of "It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life" and "Baby's First Tattoo."

You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com

Jim Mullen
The Village Idiot