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Friday, February 24, 2006

What were you listening to?

A popular generalization about Top 40 music of the mid-to-late '80s is that it was all hair metal and teen pop. I don't know about you, but when I think about what I was listening to on the radio between 1987 and 1990, I never heard any of that stuff in regular rotation. So I wonder, if you're talking about what was big and popular back in the day, what were you really hearing on a regular basis?

During the day, I watched plenty of MTV and saw a large amount of Whitesnake, Europe, Def Leppard, Tiffany, New Kids on the Block and Debbie Gibson videos in addition to videos by U2, the Pet Shop Boys and R.E.M. At night, I listened exclusively to KRBE, a Top 40 station. I never once heard a hair metal band or a teen pop act on it. I honestly wondered where all those acts I saw on MTV were being played on the radio.

On the flipside, I heard a number of songs on the radio that I rarely saw videos for on MTV. Especially between '88 and '89, I heard a lot of Depeche Mode (tracks like "Policy of Truth," "Personal Jesus" and "Strangelove"), New Order (tracks like "Blue Monday," "True Faith" and "Bizarre Love Triangle") and the Cure (tracks like "Just Like Heaven" and both versions of "Close To Me"). These were big hits, but it seems like others prefer to remember what was "wrong" about hair metal and teen pop instead of relishing about how great is was to hear an act like the Cure or New Order on the radio.

So, if Top 40 reflects what a popular consensus is into at any given time, then why wasn't I hearing what are considered the main genres of pop music at the time?

Maybe it was me tuning at a later hour when there were looser restrictions on what could or couldn't be played on the radio. However, I remember hearing quite a bit of the same stuff they played at night during the day. While I think I was overstuffed with songs like "Policy of Truth" and "Bizarre Love Triangle" because of them being played constantly for years, I've recently listened to them again. My verdict: they still really hold up well. This is something that a lot of hair metal and teen pop don't have the distinction of.

Sure, it's fun to jokingly dance around to Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" or Tiffany's version of "I Think We're Alone Now" at parties and wedding receptions now, but these songs don't cut the mustard as well. Hearing "Bizarre Love Triangle" again was like seeing an old friend that has grown up, but is still relatable and cool.

I wonder about what younger people are being exposed to now with Top 40 radio. I think so much of it is robotic garbage, but you could make the same assessment of the stuff I was into when I was their age. However, it seems there is a big hole to fill, but there are too many distractions in its way. Yeah, iPods, the Internet and satellite radio weren't around when I was getting into the Top 40 of my day. However, I think there can be artists that can really break through to a younger demographic and not make people my age moan and groan about how cheesy it sounds.

I think a band like the Killers is a great example of a band that appeals to an actual, wide audience. Their music is pretty snappy and dancey and it's not covered in Cheez-Whiz. Compared to other bands like them, the Killers are rather watered-down, but they don't suck either. Are record companies afraid of appealing to (gasp!) a larger audience that isn't all teenagers?

With time always moving forward, I'm sure that only a handful of popular genres will get talked up in a mainstreamed version of '00s nostalgia. Top 40 has always been about a variety of music, yet why do we often remember very little of that variety?

1 comment:

Sarah E. said...

As far as being confused about what you remember hearing (or not hearing) on the radio, I happen to think the station you chose to listen to sometimes has a lot to do with it.

My favorite radio station for a long time in high school (until it went off the air) was this station called K-NACK. It was this awesome alternative Austin station. I listed to it for a long time thinking "This is cool popular radio alternative music, right?"

Now, years later, I've discovered that many of the songs that were in constant rotation on K-NACK, songs that I thought were really popular because I heard them a lot on the radio, actually weren't super popular at all. Basically, my station of choice was just better at playing great, lesser-known stuff. It's weird when I talk to Stuart about an old song I remember, one that I thought everyone knew because I heard it a lot, and he's never even heard of it.