Until I was about 16 years old, there was one station in Des Moines that played rock music: 94.9 KGGO, Des Moines’s best rock and roll. By “best rock and roll,” they meant classic rock. If you were unfamiliar with radio programming terminology, you might think the classic era of rock was the mid to late sixties: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, et cetera. Although these artists occasionally played on KGGO, the station’s wheelhouse was the mid to late seventies: Bad Company, Foreigner, Kansas, Journey, Boston, Rush. These are the worst bands in the history of music. I know, because I have studied their top singles, against my will, for 30 years.
When I was listening to KGGO in high school, classic rock was about 20 years old. It seemed odd that I was listening to the same music my father liked when he was my age, but I assumed we were just seeing an exceptionally long tail, perhaps extended by the turn away from rock-style music in the 1980s. Once 1990s guitar bands were old enough to evoke nostalgia, I reasoned, they would displace 1970s guitar bands on commercial radio.
Twenty years later, the classic rock playlist remains essentially unchanged. It includes the occasional Pearl Jam song, but mostly it’s “Taking Care of Business,” “Dream On,” “Slow Ride,” and “Jack & Diane” from morning drive time to evening sit-numbly-with-your-family-in-Red-Robin time. When you think about it, this degree of stagnancy is stunning. It’s as if, in 1967, radio stations across the country were still playing big band jazz.
The difference, of course, is that nobody really liked big band during the late sixties, whereas millions of people still love classic rock. At least they claim to. I submit that classic rock is in fact music for people who dislike music—people who want to turn on the radio but don’t want to hear any songs they haven’t heard before.
Classic rock’s status as anti-music—the absence of new music and, therefore, the end of music—is evident in its ubiquity. They play classic rock at Five Guys. They play it in the laundromat. They play it at the car wash and in the showroom of the tire store: anywhere people are contained, ostensibly for their pleasure, and made to wait. Classic rock is the sound of running errands. It is the sound of work on the house next door. It is the sound of people being pandered to—not to provoke action, but to encourage calm. Here’s “Space Cowboy” again. All I have to do is not think or feel anything for the next four minutes, and maybe they will play “Sympathy for the Devil.”
In the 1980s, this effect was achieved in airport terminals and dental offices via easy listening. The hallmark of that genre, with its synthesized instruments and near-total absence of vocals, was that none of the songs was recognizable. Classic rock, which fills the same role in our society three decades later, is based on the principle that every song is recognizable.
For many of us, those songs are recognizable and awful. I don’t like Pink Floyd, but I used to listen to “Money” seemingly every time I drove. Neither do I care for Rush, but I remember all the words to “Tom Sawyer.” Whenever it comes on, I remember hating it when I was 15, just as I hate it now.
But some people hear “Tom Sawyer” and remember loving it. It sweeps them back to a time when “Tom Sawyer” had just come out and they were really excited about it—when they were hip to new music, and developments in culture were generally exciting, because it was their culture and they were young. These people are old now. The unchanging playlist of classic rock is a testament to their lost interest in music but ongoing interest in themselves. And the omnipresence of classic rock is their cultural hegemony.
There were not big band jazz stations in every major radio market in America in 1967, because members of the generation that grew up with big band either stopped listening to music, gradually started listening to other music, or did not feel the need to have music playing everywhere they went. The classic rock generation, on the other hand, refuses to relinquish control.
It’s like if you had a friend who kept coming to parties and asking if he could put on some music, and then he always, always put on Led Zeppelin IV, no matter what. “This is the best music ever,” he says. “It’s a classic.” You try to get him to listen to rap, or Guns N’ Roses, or Exuma, or anything else, but he won’t. “I just love music so much,” he says, and then he plays Led Zeppelin IV again. He is an asshole. He does not love music; he loves his own comfort. Someone should stop that guy.