“Fighting to stay free” #148..October 2010
And now, ladies and gentlemen…
…let's face it: we are all human jukeboxes. Correction: we're smarter than the average jukebox: we can store thousands of songs in our brains, and we can call up any one of them whenever we want.
Naturally, hearing the songs actually play enhances the experience, but the more familiar a song is to us, the more likely we are to be able to play it correctly note-for-note in our heads. If you've ever really liked a song while it was in power rotation (it could happen), you know how this works.
You could make the argument – and I will – that this process was easier for kids of the pre-Walkman generation, because we were able to play our music non-privately anywhere. While transistor radios came with earphones, using them while riding a bike was a no-no. Not that you'd do that anyway: us kids were proud of our music, we wanted everyone in the neighborhood to hear it. Today, what do kids who can't yet drive do – mount a docking station on a 10-speed? Doubt it.
Remember that kid who used to get on a public bus with a boombox the size of his little brother, then play whatever music he wanted, whether or not commuters wanted to hear it? Some didn't like that (I remember a fight between a SEPTA driver and a boxkid in Philly); me, I always looked forward to hearing some new music that way. What about walking up and down a beach in summer and hearing portable radios, most tuned to the same station? Cool or not? What about top- or windows-down blasting in cars? More AC + less (and less affordable) convertibles = more music privatization there too. Remember “turn that thing down”? When was the last time you heard (or, gulp, said) that?
The privatization of music might not seem like a big deal to you, but consider that radio and other music carriers can't work alone: didn't sharing music with others – as in live, not sending a file – help make a song popular? You want to see figures, well, I don't have any. You can either nod your head in agreement or call me crazy.
In a related story...remember what it was like to learn about the history of music by listening to the radio? And if you're old enough, remember learning about it listening to Top 40 radio? I'm talking Million Dollar Weekends, Solid Gold, your-calls-here Strikes Gold, bummmmm.
Granted, there was less music to learn about then, but now the best you can do is tune in Classic Hits and hope for the best, then get everything else piecemeal via Classic Rock, Hot AC, AC and Urban AC. And even then, your friendly announcer won't tell you when the song came out or why it's important, like he or she used to once upon a time. You could pay for Sirius XM and listen to the decades channels, but shouldn't kids be getting a free music education?
It comes down to this: most of today's commercial radio stations won't mix eras or genres to the same extent we were used to back when. When Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind” came out, who'd go on air, reach back for the Moments' “Love on a Two Way Street” and tell us that's where this came from? (I mentioned it when intro-ing the Moments, but I don't count: I'm playing to an older audience that probably doesn't care about Jay-Z.)
Proving that everything comes full circle, it's TV that gets to do this now. Yes, it happens on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, the only place you can hear songs from 1920 every week. It happens now and then during American Idol's season (especially when one genre or artist is the focus), and lately on Glee, where New Directions can give the aforementioned “Empire” the treatment in one episode and the Beatles' “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in another. Or where two songs from different genres, eras or radio formats get smooshed together, the way Katrina & the Waves' “Walking on Sunshine” and Beyonce's “Halo” - or Bon Jovi's “Its My Life” and Usher's “Confessions” - did last season.
On Glee, this is not unusual; matter of fact, covering Tom Jones wouldn't be, either. On the “duets” ep I'm watching as I bang this out, performed selections were, as Bob Radil likes to say, all over the bleepin' place: from the Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy,” to “River Deep – Mountain High,” to Victor/Victoria's “Le Jazz Hot,” to Billy Preston & Syreeeta's “With You I'm Born Again” to last year's Colbie Caillat/Jason Mraz duet “Lucky.”
You may think that in an environment where viewers sit down to more choices than basic radio can offer, this type of programming strategy is as ratings-dangerous on TV as on radio. Not the case, of course, because viewers don't behave like listeners. The characters and story are the “Glee glue” that makes this musical diversity work. Over the years, radio programmers have evolved (devolved?) into a “must give listeners a great song, and now” mentality, while TV producers have earned creative carte blanche: if a song, any song, works with the story, it gets used.
The thing about Glee is, like Idol, these covers never make it to radio past a next-morning clip (this in spite of the fact that viewers seem to want every song, buying enough digital tracks to send each one onto the big chart each week). Most wouldn't have a shot at hitdom given the lack of production polish that marks most Top 40 standouts these days. It's not unlike this sort of thing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnEV2vymgPU). Or...is it? So far this season, Glee has featured spot-on covers of Paramore's “The Only Exception,” Travie McCoy's “Billionaire,” even Gaga's “Telephone.” There are people you could play these for who wouldn't be able to tell they weren't hearing the original. One of those people is me: last weekend when I set my iPod to shuffle the current vs. Glee songs, it took me until the end of “Exception” to realize it wasn't Hayley Williams singing.
What else on TV can get away with what radio can't? Commercials, where any song's fair game. Can you imagine a radio format made up of just songs used in TV commercials? With apologies to Ross on Radio's Sean Ross (http://www.radio-info.com/newsletters/ross-on-radio), a sample half-hour could sound like this:
Tag Team / Whoomp! There It Is (Old Navy)
Cat Stevens / The Wind (J.P. Morgan Chase)
Train / Hey, Soul Sister (Samsung)
Buddy Holly / Everyday (AT&T/Blackberry)
AC/DC / For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (Target)
Michael Franti & Spearhead / Say Hey (I Love You) (Corona Light)
Tenpole Tudor / Swords of a Thousand Men (EA Sports/FIFA Soccer 11)
Wynn Stewart / Another Day Another Dollar (Volkswagen)
Boston / More Than a Feeling (New York Lottery)
Now...can your radio station do this?
Much more music!
Ok, what do these songs have in common?
a) 5 O'Clock World – The Vogues
b) You Don't Bring Me Flowers – Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond
c) The Lady in Red – Chris DeBurgh
d) Breakfast at Tiffany's – Deep Blue Something
e) How to Save a Life – The Fray
That's right: all were big Top 40 radio hits (I picked one from each of the last five decades) which are decidedly not teen-oriented, maybe too old lyrically for the format.
Flip quickly through the biggest non-instrumental hits of the past 50 years, and you might notice the same things about lyrics that I did:
· Since rock'n roll came to prominence, song lyrics gradually became more mature as Top 40's audience did the same. In the 1980s, when AC and several FM formats pulled adults from Top 40, the hits began to reclaim their youth lyrically (would “Jessie's Girl” or “Mickey” have been hits in the 70s?).
· Until recently, most hits have been in a lyrical grey area, almost as if a little bird told artists 'you've got to appeal to everyone.' We haven't seen a return to songs squarely for teens lyrically, as was the case in the late 1950s (when everyone seemed to be going steady, or worried about school or getting to use the car). I say 'until recently' because the dance-heavy club-set songs currently dominating Top 40 feel more kid-friendly. Not to mention “Teenage Dream” as a chart-topper (which, by the by, would not have gone over lyrically in the 50s).
· While adults seem to be sticking with Top 40 longer lately, we're not seeing a lyrical shift toward older themes, save for perhaps Train's “Hey, Soul Sister” and Lady Antebellum's “Need You Now.”
If you think adult-oriented lyrics are an endangered species, how about songs that fade? The fade was what delineated rock from adult pop tunes during the 50s; now it's the exception rather than the rule. Every time I hear Enrique Iglesias' “I Like It” fade, I'm thrown for a loop.
50 least-deserving #1s
Thank you for another marvelous list.
Bravo, Rich! An amazing issue. I’m happy to say that I agree with many, many of the songs on the list, and I learned a lot in the process.
Ok, so, where are the opposing points of view?
And the hits…
THAT TIME AGAIN? Just two issues of Hz left in 2010, and again we're going out in style, this time with your picks of the best radio stations (or music delivery services, to be all-inclusive) ever. It's THE STATIONary 100, and the voting starts now. “Stationary” also because when you vote, you should indicate the years when the station was at its best, which allows one station to be ranked several times (and for you to vote for it more than once). Judge based not so much on the music but the talent – really, all the controllable elements (of course, in some cases the music heard is/was also malleable). There's no limit to how many you can list, but there is one on how long you've got to do it, which is until November 10th. I'll send a reminder not long from now.
PLAIN WHITE RAPPERS If you haven't seen JF and JT do 'Rap on 45' yet... http://theclicker.todayshow.com/_news/2010/09/30/5207804-justin-timberlake-jimmy-fallon-deliver-a-history-of-rap
MORE BOUNCE TO THE OUCH Hz So Good can also be seen at www.60s70s.org. And if you didn't know, webmaster Bob Radil's weekly journey to the obscure, Friday night's 60s-70s Show, is now heard at http://rewoundradio.com/.
Also, the 2012 edition of the I.R.S. (It Really Shoulda been a Top 10 hit) appears in April-May 2012 edition of Hz So Good.