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April 18, 2006

Pop Music Clueless

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Fiancée got annoyed when I mentioned that I never listen to Top-40 music any more and have no idea who the leading "artists" are (unless they screw up and make the cover of the supermarket tabloids).

To her, such ignorance is not a good thing -- a social defect, actually.

And to which I say (sotto voce, naturally): "Pish!"

'Twas not ever so, however. I have pretty decent knowledge of the pop entertainment scene up to the early 1960s with a gradual falling off until the mid-80s, after which most of my information came second-hand. As for pop music itself, I listened a lot through the 1950s especially, but had pretty well abandoned it by the early 70s.

You probably won't be astounded to hear me state that the 20-80 or 10-90 or whichever-whatever rule was firmly in place back in the Fab Fifties music scene just as it (probably) is today. I would have my radio on for hours listening through a lot of garbage in the sometimes-realized hope that the DJ would play some of the pop tunes I really liked.

This was really a bad use of my time, and I knew it. One cure was to go to a record shop and buy some 45-RPM discs with the pieces I liked. And I did this, though I couldn't afford to do it a lot. But if I had abandoned listening to the pop music stations I would have been left in the dark regarding new songs, a few of which I might like, so I didn't give up on the radio.

This went on for years, as I noted. But there was no real alternative because the technology of the time pretty much dictated that pop entertainment was quite centralized compared to what we have now. The big guns were the major-label record companies that had corralled most of the "talent" and decided which tunes to record and promote. Sheet-music publishers were marginalized by the mid-50s, though sheets for pop songs could still be readily found in music stores.

The interface with the public was the radio station. At the start of the 50s, many stations had general-purpose formats. Network affiliates broadcast network programs along with a few local shows and recorded music when there were no network feeds. "Independent" stations tended to feature recorded music; some specialized in country or classical music, but most had an eclectic, middlebrow mix.

By the early 60s network radio was effectively dead, aside from news broadcasts. General-purpose programming was well on the way out too. Most importantly, the Top-40 format (along with Rock) had been invented and it ruled the ratings roost (New Yorkers: think Cousin Brucie on WABC "chime time" radio 770).

One major radio programming innovation of the 60s was the all-news station. If memory serves, when I started at Dear Old Penn in 1966 KYW in Philadelphia and WCBS in New York were all-news. And since I found such stations less wasteful of my time than listening to a lot of not-very-appealing pop music, I largely switched over to news radio. There were no all-news stations in Albany, NY when I lived there, so I went back to music radio. Then when I moved back to Washington State in 1975 I could get news radio again via KIRO in Seattle. That killed my pop music radio listening for good aside from a few minutes every morning while I was getting shaved and dressed and my wife had her favorite music station on.

Today the media and technology scenes have been transformed. Music radio for many years has gone "niche" and the internet and technologies related to portable listening devices have made information-gathering and music acquisition far simpler and cheaper than in the 45-RPM days of my youth.

All the while technology was changing the media, and while pop music was evolving from Doris Day to Gangsta Rap, I too was changing: maturing, presumably.

Part of that personal evolution was a change from wanting to be "with it" to not caring much whether I was "with it" or not. We change in our own ways. The Fiancée is not grossly younger than I am, yet is far more (but still not hugely) interested in being plugged into the pop entertainment scene. That's why she doesn't understand my almost total indifference to post-1970 popular music (even though she doesn't like Rap and a lot of recent Rock).

On the other hand, there are people who seem almost desperate to retain youth. They dye their graying hair. They diet continually. They exercise to excess. And I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they work hard at keeping up with the pop music and entertainment scenes. While I see a fair number of such people, I don't know any socially so I can't be sure about their entertainment consumption.

Am I being too sociological -- putting folks into categories and then drawing blanket conclusions?

Am I the weird one, cutting myself off from large chunks of popular entertainment in order to attain depth in other realms that not a lot of people care about?

What about you? Have you too moved on to other things? Or have you always genuinely loved and followed the pop music scene? Or do you compromise, keeping up with the scene enough not to be a social outcast?



posted by Donald at April 18, 2006



If you remember Cousin Brucie, we're probably around the same age. My musical development arc has gone like this:

Early '60s: Listened to AM radio. Bought 45s now and then when I had the money. Not sure I agree that the quality-to-garbage ratio was the same then as now. The not-so-good pop songs of the day were cliched and simplistic, but they weren't hellishly pounding, anti-social rap.

Late '60s: Dug folk music, even went to a few coffeehouses. Then went totally psychedelic when living in the Bay Area.

'70s: Rock had its moments but became increasingly fomulaic and over-produced. Followed what was happening but listened to more and more jazz and classical.

'80s: Interest briefly revived: Punk and New Wave. The last time pop really mattered.

'90s: Basically tuned out of the popular music scene, couldn't much relate to "alternative" (smart-ass, unmelodic) rock, although I did perk up for the infrequent quality act (e.g., Counting Crows, The Cranberries).

The Noughties: Have to face it: rap and hip-hop have taken over; rock is no longer the world's popular music; it's a dated style that people listen to the way my parents listened to music from the '20s to '40s (not that there was anything wrong with that) when I was a kid. For every rock disc in my collection -- still quite a few -- I have 10 classical, five jazz, and a couple of international. Briefly went through a craze for Goa/psychedelic trance, still think it's a remarkable genre but not something I want to hear real often.

"What a long, strange trip it's been," and expect popular music will continue to surprise me with something new and worthwhile from time to time.

Posted by: Rick Darby on April 18, 2006 4:11 PM

Donald –

Wow! You really are an old fogey!

I’ve never quite understood the stance of either young or old fogeys, that whatever music or art that they grew up with, or loved in their youth or young adulthood is the only music or art that they can ever love, and please don’t bother me with anything new or different thankyouverymuch.

I don’t see much either mature or immature in this attitude, just varieties of human nature. And folks who champion the music of the good old days, whenever that was, often conveniently forget how often their elders dismissed much of what they listened to as trash, or continually evoked the high art of classical music (whether or not they listened to it themselves). I’ve always been a jazz lover, and remember how some friends who were into pop music were afraid of jazz as being too esoteric – no matter how accessible the music was, and how others dismissed all jazz as being inferior to classical music – no matter how prosaic and frothy their tastes in classical music was. And on and on, with people who championed or dismissed various genres, from country to reggae to polka.

I don’t particularly keep up with much current pop music, like most adults, I just don’t have the time, and I think this is the key. It’s not so much about chasing youth, but the plain fact that when we are younger, we have more time to play, to indulge or tastes, to form crushes on a particular type of music or artist.

But I do try to keep an ear out for bits of current music that might catch my fancy. I have a slight advantage in that one of my brothers is a musician who is more in tune with current and new music than I am, and who recommends songs and artists now and again, although I surprise him sometimes by finding an artist before he does. Other friends have always been into music, have substantial collections, have an attitude similar to mine: they dip into current music as the mood strikes them, but do not make a fetish either of trying to keep current or trying to overly worship a false or imperfectly remembered past.

Rick Darby – I quite agree with most of your sentiments here. Rock is indeed a dated style, though every now and then an artist may surprise you. I am looking forward to the upcoming release from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, even though I liked their “By the Way” over some of their more “typical” works. And, looking back a but, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” reminded me of the infectious charm of some of the Beatle’s sunniest work (e.g. “Good Day, Sunshine”).

Posted by: Alec on April 18, 2006 4:39 PM

Cool article. I kind of relate in a way.

Being 21, you'd think it should be natural I would be on top of things hot and current. Well, no, not exactly. Let me run down my history.

For one thing, I was essentially raised on classical music, so my audio mind is wired towards a different sound set. Throughout my childhood, this puts me at odds with peers who grew up on Top 40 when discussing music because then I had no idea what they were discussing about.

I haven't utilized the radio much in my early youth which cuts me off from the primary medium of new music. When I did turn to radio, I started way behind, in the oldies stations and worked my way up from there getting acclimated to what rock and pop music sounded like.

So, up until the beginning college, I would say my understanding of pop was limited to no later than 1975. Not a bad start. But once I got into college, my knowledge and variety of music exploded because of one thing, and probably the biggest thing that has impacted music of my generation: cable TV, namely MTV and VH1. I so utilized that resource in my free time keeping abreast with current music via videos and countdowns and also looking back into past music via nostalgia shows.

So now, I'm safely comfortable with my music knoweldge of modern rock and pop up to my birthyear 1985 and music after 1998. The gap between those years I have far less understanding of because I could care less about that period, ironically, this also encompassed the period of time in my life when I didn't care for pop music.

However, now that cable has left me since moving out of the dorms, I no longer have the time to keep myself on top of things musically and now rely on word of mouth or newspaper articles to see what's turning heads in the music world. So once in a while there may be a couple of songs or albums I find fascinating and I'll listen to, but certainly not the whole top 40 gamut.

So early in my life I was a fogey in a way, and still am now that I think of it, since I don't care much about what is currently fashionable in culture, making me appear a bit old-fashioned (for a 21 year old that's rich!) or not "with it" to put it in your generation's terms. However, I do make an effort to at least "know" what is going on at the moment from time to time. I may not have to like it, but I'll give them a hearing and maybe in a year they may find themselves in my mp3 player. I call it "cultural enrichment", basking in the blessed diversity of styles and sounds we are capable of creating.

Now, if you were speaking on the subject of classical music, don't get me started. Since stumbling upon my university's music collection, I think I went mad and tried to listen to everything.

Posted by: Andrew Yen on April 18, 2006 6:09 PM

I wish this thing had an edit function . . .

Alec - Rock is awesome! My generation is eating it up, especially classic rock. Personally I prefer the bands that are a throwback to new wave styles or fusing rock with dance music a la Franz Ferdinand.

Speaking of Outkast and the Beatles, you should check out the video mashup of "Hey Ya" with "Paperback Writer".

Just click on "Paperback Hey Ya"

Posted by: Andrew Yen on April 18, 2006 6:17 PM

I was raised on late 70's, 80's, and 90's grunge high-point when in college. Trying to see pop music in perspective, it seems that it's going through a massive trough in creativity. Evidence: just ablut all pop music stations rely heavily on 80's tunes. No new styles out now, just retreads. If there is something original being played today, I sure haven't heard it.

Rap/hip-hop: I don't think that it's will replace rock, unless our culture is meant to undergo some profound balkanization, and genres diverge permanently. I simply don't see this kind of music appealing to whites except as a novelty.

Going back to today's lack of original output: maybe there is something new and wonderful that is about to erupt. Culture in general has a way of working in cycles, regenerating, etc.

Posted by: hugh on April 18, 2006 6:45 PM

This sounds like a job for Dick Clark. Actually, Elton John was the last rock star I followed before taking the classical path in the early seventies. I occasionally hear songs I like, but mainly I've tuned out the top forty.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 18, 2006 6:53 PM

"I simply don't see this kind of music appealing to whites except as a novelty."

Categorically wrong. Hip hop is entrenched in pop culture, and has been for more than 10 years. I taught high school from 2001-2004. Hip hop was the soundtrack for the vast majority of the student body. Cross-pollinization of rock and hip hop, style of dress, posture, speech, everything. These are the white and Hispanic kids I'm talking about.

I'm 37 and still quite interested and current with pop music. This is probably nothing to be proud of. Ha.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 18, 2006 7:41 PM

My pop music history:

Up thru 1972 followed pop music as available on commercial radio.

1972-1979 followed pop music with decreasing enthusiasm; became more interested in blues, 50s music--big Elvis fan (which I remain)

1979-1984 was re-enthused about New Wave music (which was a rebirth of 50s music, i.e., catchy tunes, clever lyrics)

1984-1986 moved to England, listened exclusively to Roy Orbison records

1986-2002 got married, started my business, became a father, and completely ignored contemporary pop music

2002-2004 listened to pop music played by my teenage daughter in the car

2004-2006 listened exclusively to classical music.

2006 listen exclusively to 18th century classical music

I think there is a sort of underlying pattern here, but I won't insist on it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 18, 2006 9:13 PM

Cousin Brucie was a popular DJ on WCBS-FM in New York until about a year ago, when station management made a sudden announcement that they were converting to a new format called "Jack" that made minimal use of DJ's. Cousin Brucie and the rest of the DJ's found themselves jobless with almost no warning. One DJ arrived for the start of his afternoon shift and had sat down in the broadcast booth when a manager told him he was out of a job.

Posted by: Peter on April 18, 2006 9:27 PM

"I simply don't see this kind of music appealing to whites except as a novelty."

Are we talking about ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock and roll, reggae, soul, Mowtown, gospel, funk, rap, hip-hop? Here it is 2006, and there are still some (in the extra fogey) category that bobble along under the delusion that there might be some music that is just not appealing to white people. But like the old blues song said, “The boys don’t know, but the little girls understand.”

Human beings, not demographic groups, respond to whatever they find appealing in music. When I flip on the international channel here in Los Angeles, I easily see how rap/hop-hop has influenced Armenian, Bollywood, Mexican, Japanese and Brazilian pop music, among other cultures and genres. And I could do a hell of a post on the influence the of the Scottish ballad tradition on both American country music and on Jamaican reggae.

Andrew – Thanks for the Outkast tip. I take your point about Franz Ferdinand.

I am re-discovering classical music, but am sad at the lack of consistently interesting contemporary classical music. There was a review of a recent 6 hour performance of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet Number 2. The reviewer seemed particularly pleased to note that the audience numbered about 50 people, doubling a little after the beginning of the piece before settling down again to about 50 people afterwards. This kind of thing is pointlessly self-indulgent, no matter how interesting the music might be.

Posted by: Alec on April 18, 2006 10:06 PM

c. 1970-79: radios of one sort or another on all the time - early memories of Aretha Franklin and other late-60s fare on Memphis AM radio. Developed early and still-lasting fandom of Steely Dan.

1979-1983: college. Enjoyed US new wave boomlet of 1978-79 hugely, despaired of radio music by summer of 1981, thrilled by 1983 shake-up of US popular music.

1983-1988: grad school. Radio on continuously in lab. Enjoyed 80's music, minus the junk. Still wonder why no station every plays "The Hardest Thing" by Rubber Rodeo, "Fear is Never Boring" by the Bears, "Buddha Buddha" by Rick Rock, etc., etc.

1988-89: Post-doc in Germany. Baffled by Sudwestfunk Drei music selection. Stunned by 20-something Germans calling in to request Lee Marvin singing (more or less) "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star", from Paint Your Wagon. Vague sense of enjoyable 80s music fading out.

1990s: Pharma work back in the US. Took some pleasure in early 90s pre-grunge music, in retrospect last of the 1980s stuff. Paralyzed by attacks of nostalgia c. 1994-5 for music of ten years before. Pop-music radio listening tapers off considerably after about 1997.

2000 - date: Less pop, more classical and other stuff. Would rather hear Bach or Fats Waller over anything on "American Idol", by factor of roughly ten thousand. Occasional radio song pleasant, most boring or unlistenable. Current age: 44.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 18, 2006 10:22 PM

Top forty? What's that? I never paid any attention to it even as a teenager. Soul Train, American Bandstand, VH1, and Mtv are for music watchers, not listeners. While I always listened to the radio, when I started buying my own CD's, the corporate playlist went out the window. Time well spent at the used record store. The great (re)discovery of Bach, Mozart, and, Beethoven, and then Gershwin, then jazz, and now some sweeter, simpler music, classic country and western.

Comparing rap and hip-hop to your grandparents' jazz and big band, and your parents' Motown is such a joke that it hardly mentions a comment. I question anyone's sanity who lumps this crap into classic popular american songwriting , or even highbrow jazz and classical. Its total garbage. And the old fogeys are right. The music WAS better in their day. Now the corporations know that the minority kids will not listen to white music, but the white kids will listen to black music. Thus the endless promotion of rap, hip-hop, and ghetto in the corporate/cross marketing/movies/music/endorsements. Black popular music USED to be good. Let's face it, the free market is ruining the arts.

Getting back to the love of music, there are lots of great acts out nowadays, but ya gotta search for 'em. Very few are popular. Unfortunately this takes time. So my take is the take of many, who are mining the greats of the past in a genre they are not familiar with. For me its C&W. These days I love the music of Alison Krauss and Union Station, and search the old Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard veins for great old songs of the 60's and 70's I never heard. I also turn to the the solace and majesty of the classical greats, especially Bach.

I don't see why I should let 40-year old CEO's and 15 year-old teenyboppers dictate my musical interests. I certainly don't feel bad because I'm not trendy. Actually, I feel sad for those who do.

Posted by: TS on April 19, 2006 12:36 AM

I always tell the Karaoke Queen that Elton John was the death of rock and roll, even though he was and is a great musician.

His emphasis on Las Vegas style shows with a gay edge effectively ended the great era of rock and roll. Rock was, and should be, a macho phenomenon. The gayification of rock seemed like fun, but it was fatal.

My interest in popular music is all backward. When I was a kid, I listened to swing, Dixieland and blues. Rock songs only ocassionally caught my attention.

My focus really hasn't changed. Try listening to Sirius or XM radio. Good things are going on in outlaw country rock and the blues, and sometimes a few good jazz tunes come along.

Music is primarly about meaning, not about style or nostalgia for adolesence.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 19, 2006 6:14 AM

I find that as I get older, I am less concerned with "staying on top" of any of the latest trends - even in my news consumption, I find that I tend to look for long-term trends, as opposed to "Breaking News" - for every 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, there are several hundred allegedly important stories that don't really amount to much in the long run. Ironic, isn't it - when we're young, and seemingly have all the time in the world, we grasp greedily at the ephemeral, but as time starts to run out, we take the long view.

Incidentally, it does seem to me that pop music is in a serious creative trough right now, and has been for about the last seven years. I'm no fan of Rap, but it seems to me that even the Rap was better in the mid-late 90's than today. It's hard to be interested in the Pop "scene" when you have little regard for the music.

Posted by: tschafer on April 19, 2006 9:49 AM

Is there some reason to ignore the elephant in the parlor here -- namely, age? From early adolescence, pop music and the subculture around it provides:

(1) something of "your own" (i.e. not your parents')
(2) tribal identification (one is a death-metal fan or a hip-hop fan, not an emo fan)
(3) occasion to move your body rhythmically in the presence of others of the desired sex while sharing a brief emotional arc (Dorothy Parker's "vertical expression of a horizontal impulse")

As those needs fade or find other outlets in one's twenties, what could be more natural than that one's interest in pop music should fade or become much more selective?

Posted by: Monte Davis on April 19, 2006 9:57 AM

The shifts in pop are more important than the problems of demography. Yes, older individuals will always feel a special attachment to the music of their youth. But the rock revolution was special because it obliterated the pop and often classical music of earlier generations and made the "youth culture" a common core. Today, you will still see teens wearing an occasional WHO or Beatles shirt in school. My son likes some early rock as do his friends. There was almost no chance that anyone I knew in the 1970s would be caught dead listening to the pop music of the 1930s or even the early 1950s except as an exercise in archival research.

So when that selfsame rock stream and the related pop spinoffs seem to have played out, that is a signficant change in the cultural landscape.

Posted by: nn on April 19, 2006 10:10 AM

Interesting. Why would dying one's hair, exercising and dieting be seen as "desperate to hold onto one's youth" rather than simply taking care of oneself? After all, you were also quite cutting about overweight women who wear, in your opinion, too much perfume, as if it is there to cover up the weight gain. So...someone should remain the right weight, but without exercising or dieting? Or is it basically that anyone who is interested in something other than your interests must be subtly (not so subtly?) dismissed?

Posted by: annette on April 19, 2006 10:13 AM

I remember FvB listening to a lot of Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney, and Roy Orbison! And he was certainly one of the world's champion Elvis fans.

Where keeping up with pop music goes, I did pretty well right up to the early '80s. Then one day, whoosh, the culture passed me by and I realized I'd lost my instinct for what was fun and cool and what wasn't. I clung to a few popsters for some years after (Elvis Costello lasted longest), but mainly I drifted off into jazz, alt-country, roots, blues, world music, and classical. Thank god for 'em too. There's so much great stuff to explore.

BTW, I find that with age I don't crave having music on all the time. As a kid I wanted my life to have a sountrack, dammit. But these days I can spend weeks without remembering to click on the iTunes or Pandora buttons. Is that true for anyone else?

I'm still semi-curious, though, and I'm lucky enough to have some hip young friends and acquaintances who tell me about this disc and that group. So I'll listen to 'em for a bit to sample what's cool. Some of it's terrific. But it never gets its claws into me, the way the pop music of my youth did.

My own theory is that, twist it as you will, pop music is basically music for kids and very young adults. What mystifies me a bit is why there's relatively little music for adults around, or at least easily and commercially accessible. But that's my usual rant about how America has sold its soul to the devil in order to remain adolescent forever.

All that crankiness aside, I have to say that in many ways I think we're in a golden age for creative, weird music, and that it only seems to be getting better. You just aren't going to run across much of it on commercial radio, or featured big in the Tower music bins. I sometimes go to clubs or meet kids in bands, and they're often doing wild stuff with their computers -- real Varese-like sound sculptures, only with a trance techno beat. And Apple's Garage Band program seems to have given lots of people a chance to create far-out music. I'm sure that if you had an ear, the time, and lot of dedication you could find great online places for wild and wonderful new music. I wonder where they are.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2006 11:19 AM

Though I can not carry a tune and have no rhythm, I thoroughly love music – just don’t ask me to dance or conduct! In the early 70’s, while changing jobs and about to move across the US, I spent the weekend climbing with my buddy. He was still in college so we had to be back in Seattle Sunday night. Before going to bed, he put a stack of LP’s on the record player, mostly rock music. Well that certainly kept me awake. Just as I was about to doze off, the classic scary movie music started to play. Not the current Scary Movie but old time Dracula type movies. But this was really great music – I was impressed.

In the morning, I hurriedly dressed and went out to the living room to inspect the stack of records. There it was “E. Power Biggs Plays Classical Organs of Europe”, or something similar - Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach. From then on I pretty much became a Classical Music devotee.

Hip-hop and Rap just isn’t my style - Reminds me of William Shatner singing. Call me old fashioned but if a human voice is part of the music, it should be a singing voice. I can find music I like of almost any type. I just listen to what I like and it is usually classical. Here is a clue to how my music appreciation works: Beethoven 9th = Patsy Cline “Crying” = Queen “We Are the Champions”.

Posted by: JG on April 19, 2006 11:25 AM

I was on the tail end of Cousin Brucie and the Top 40 eternal loop. Got into college radio stations (WXPN, U of Penn and Princeton's station (sorry, forgot the call letters) and WBGO, out of Newark, NJ and loved the depth and the mix. Lived up in Canada a while and was exposed to a ton of music from Europe that never seemed to make it on USA stations back then (and Top 40 up there was interesting...for a while, until that loop became boring as well). My involvement with a local college's station, WVUD out of Newark, DE, allows me to keep my toes in the current rage while nurturing my main musical leanings of jazz and blues. Top 40? No longer there; it was always a long boring note to me as a teenager. As Michale B. mentioned in his comment, there just seems to be such a huge selection and easy access available nowadays such that Top 40 seems the laziest way to listen to music, or to keep up with any interesting people out there.

I don't think NOT listening to Top 40 is elitist; avenues available to us these days just makes it easier to concoct one's own musical life track and keep it fresh and going forward in all directions.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 19, 2006 11:37 AM

Popular music left me behind when hip hop and rap became dominant. Can't really stand either form. Hip hop is repetitive, simplistic and way overproduced. Rap has no music to it really, just a beat and an aggressive voice mouthing profane words. Almost never do the topics stray from adolescent fixations like how badass someone is or how many ho's they can fuck.

So I hold on by the skin of my teeth, buying the last big rock acts who still are putting out good tunes, and that's basically just the Stones, U2, Dave Mathews, Foo Fighters, and John Mellencamp. Neil Young is very hit and miss, and always has been. Dwight Yoakam continues to be awesome. I also love the Flaming Lips anymore, but they are bizarre, to say the least, and I doubt their appeal is very broad (even though their new one is number 11 on the charts right now).

Any new tunes I hear are either by accident, or by scanning the top sellers and listing to samples of acts that seem interesting. I haven't heard an act where the performers are under 30 that I've whole-heartedly liked - to the point that I'd seek out their next CD - since about the late 1990s.

Bye bye miss American pie....

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 19, 2006 2:52 PM

I followed the top 40 until I fell head over heels for a classical violinist (now a symph conductor) in college, and that changed me forever, so that ever since I've subsisted on a steady diet of the classics (reinforced by 30 plus years of choral singing).
But I still get very nostalgic over Cat Stevens, Elton John, Carole King, and Carly Simon. I guess I've never really moved on since about 1975!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 19, 2006 8:09 PM

I was resting between sets at the gym last night when an MTV music video playing on a nearby TV monitor caught my attention - "Don't Cha" by the Pussycat Dolls. Now, the Pussycat Dolls are lightweight fluff, a somewhat more mature version of the Spice Girls. To put things in food-analogy terms, if a symphony orchestra is a USDA Prime porterhouse steak, the Pussycat Dolls are a Hostess Twinkie.
And yet, there was something positively infectious about the video. It was fun to watch even as so-called "serious" music is usually so dour. And really, isn't that what music - a form of entertainment - is all about?

Posted by: Peter on April 19, 2006 8:43 PM


Your story is somewhat similar to mine. I enjoyed pop music a lot in the early to mid 70s. In 76, the year I graduated from high school, I noticed that there weren't as many "really great" songs as there had been in the few previous years. I remember my friends and I talking about this.

At the time I didn't think of it as the beginning of a decline, just a down year. But my interest in pop music did decline until, in the 80s and early 90s I was listening to "adult contemporary" just as background and not enjoying it much at all.

The sad thing is, all that time I was already curious about classical music. I liked the few snippets I had heard and wanted to hear more but for some reason didn't have the motivation to get started until the mid-90's. Once I got into it I went through a classical purist stage, during which I honestly couldn't stand any other kind of music.

Now other kinds of music are starting to sound good to me but I have no interest in the Top 40 and I'm actually feel a little bit smug about not knowing anything about that scene. I guess that just means I've turned into an old fuddy-duddy but I don't feel old; for the first time in my life I feel cool - too cool for pop.

Posted by: Lynn S on April 19, 2006 10:18 PM

I always thought I'd stay in touch with pop music but around 1990 I pretty much tuned out. Having friends who do make it a point to stay in touch, I get to hear enough, filtered through their tastes, to pique my interest every now and then. I find it plenty. Sometimes when I'm exposed to current pop I'll hear something that intrigues me, like a singer's portamento - a nice pretentious word meaning basically how they get from note to note - or a unique vibrato, or some rhythmically interesting thing, but I'll have no idea what or who I'm listening to, and I find I don't care all that much.

I think pop is music for younger people. I was crazy about the pop, rock, folk, etc., of my day, but mostly I was a Motown zealot, and that probably led to my love of jazz later on. A huge musical influence on me was Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens; those classics opened worlds for me and changed the way I thought about and made music. Certain pop, jazz and blues singers influenced my playing (of classical music) tremendously: Billie Holiday, Helen Humes, Annie Lennox (sp?), Stevie Wonder,
Bessie Smith, Nat King Cole, Jo Stafford, among others. There's not too much I won't listen to (I like what Duke Ellington said - if it sounds good, it is good) but I don't seek out pop music. And I have no interest whatsoever in trying to appear clued in to the current pop scene. I'm older, my tastes have changed, and I like it.

Posted by: Flutist on April 20, 2006 12:12 AM

Pop music has always been a big disappointment to me since I was a kid.

Rock music was always congratulating itself in a very public way on being rebellious, high octane, uncontainable. I remember throughout childhood meeting with a repeated motif in advertising, movies, and elsewhere: a stodgy group of high-bougeois geezers are attending a very dull classical concert, everyone's bored but they don't even know it, then the electric guitars wail and the rockers burst in and everyone realizes that it's time for Beethoven to roll over and that if they free their asses their minds will follow. The symbolic relationship of rock music to storming the heavens and busting loose was endlessly repeated.

But whenever I'd turn on the radio or buy a record I'd hear strumming guitars and some guy crooning about unrequited love - and all too aften in a hair-raising falsetto. Comparing this to the stuff I usually listened to - Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovitch - left it seeming beyond feeble. (The really funny bit was that rock fans, who listened to endless hours of this stultifying dullness and called it a revolution, invariably described classical music as "relaxing".)

It was only when I discovered a few blues artists - Son House, Howlin Wolf, and others - that I began to find anything intensely emotional in popular music. From there I expanded into Dylan - who's got chops - and a few jazz guys. But despite this diversion into pop music in my early twenties, it's still classical music for me, thanks very much.

Posted by: Brian on April 20, 2006 12:32 AM

While I was in the single digits, with only teenage girls living nearby to hang out with, I always had to know who was lip-syncing on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and what Cousin Brucie was spinning. This meant that the soundtrack of my elementary school years was provided by top forty AM radio in its classic era; Wilson Pickett, Gene Pitney, Ricky Nelson, "Little" Stevie Wonder.

As I grew older my best friend was from a very musical family. His dad taught music at both high school and college levels, his mom played flute in the local symphony. Everyone in his family played at least one instrument. We'd commander their (then exotic) Hi-fi component stereo system and listen to selections from the family's exceedingly eclectic record collection. So as a young teen I was exposed to and enjoyed; Mozart and Miles Davis, Bach and the Beatles, Tom Lerher and Duke Ellington, the Fugs and the Mothers of Invention, Janis Ian and Joan Baez, Samuel Barber and Charles Ives. I also still listened to the radio and kept up with whatever was on top of the charts.

By the end of high school I was hanging out with a crowd that included a number of musicians. Our evening get-togethers featured swapping LP discoveries; Blind Lemon Jefferson and Jefferson Airplane, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones and Buffalo Springfield ... not to mention original material and cover versions being played live in the living room. The new freeform FM format (Allison Steele "The Nightbird", etc.) was then my radio choice.

In the three and half decades since high school graduation my musical listening has followed the same eclectic path. I got married to a musician and community radio volunteer DJ whom I met while functioning as stage manager for a coffeehouse that featured folk and blues music. We both do reviews for an on line 'zine [] and so get a strange mix of CDs to listen to. These days we're listening to a lot of Scandinavian and eastern European folk fusion.

Our daughter is in her mid-twenties. Her favorite radio stations feature loads of "classic rock" (i.e. the same soundtrack her parents grew up listening to). She adds an interest in musicals (Rent, Wicked, Mystery of Edwin Drood). Her fave of the moment is Enter the Haggis - hard (folk) rockers with kilts and a bagpipe. Despite her own eclectic bent, I follow some of the current pop mostly through her, including a bit of rap or hip-hop (although I'm old enough to prefer "old school" like Gil Scott Heron or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.)

Among the younger "poppier" acts I enjoy are: Feist, Neko Case, Jeff Buckley, Calexico, Wilco, Phish.

Perennial favorites: Van Morrison, Steve Reich, Charles Ives, Kronos Quartet, Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Band.

Currently in the CD changer: Astor Piazzolla – La Camorra (Argentinian bandoneon great); Tarika: Son Egal (Afro-pop from Madagascar); Sigurdur Flosason, Leiden Heim Icelandic jazz saxophonist); Loopin' (a band my wife is in that describes itself as an 'Afro-Cuban- Latin American – Middle Eastern – Shake Your Bootie – Beat Patrol').

I'm with Peter Schickele; "If it sounds good, it is good."

Posted by: Chris White on April 20, 2006 11:16 AM

I was totally plugged in to current pop music until January 1, 1970. Don't know why, but I awoke about twenty years later and realized I knew absolutely nothing about who was who and what they had done. I spent that time looking for music I liked rather than let the generational tastes wash over me. I'm not saying that's good -- I sometimes wish I had something to say when the subject of popular music of the past 35 years comes up, but I don't. I spent the whole time mining a very narrow vein of jazz, country, bluegrass and opera, every once in a long while hearing something in the wind and jumping to it.

Today I have a nine year old girl. The soundtrack of my life is Disney Radio.

Posted by: Sluggo on April 20, 2006 11:38 AM

Well, I'm still what you'd probably call rather young, although I'm dreading the landmark birthday less than two months away. I'm very much into contemporary (mostly non-top-40) music, and here's my take in brief:

"Pop" doesn't mean popular anymore, and sometimes "popular" doesn't mean popular. I often mention my artistic interests as "poetry and popular music", and here what I mean to do is distinguish everything in that family of a) generally 3-5 minute songs, b) generally verse-chorus or otherwise ballade-like lyrics, and c) general tightness of composition, apart from things like classical, jazz, world music, and very experimental operatic rock. By "pop", I mean a style of melody, harmony, and orchestration that is notoriously difficult to define. (But I know it when I hear it!) Suffice it to say that the best examples, and even the most "pop" examples, need not be extremely popular.

So don't turn on the radio, bro. You should be hearing smart, literate pop artists with a sense of the tradition: Sufjan Stevens, Aimee Mann, The White Stripes, The New Pornographers. Not Creed's whiny repetitive stadium rock or Disney children's attempt to play wyldde grrrls or all the obnoxious versions of hard-edged rap-rock. It's a very bad time for music on the radio, not because it's a bad time for music, but because we are now after the death of radio as a transformative force. What music radio does for society today is either provide a limited palette for the experiences of unambitious teens, or dull the drudgery of a desk top with familiar soft rock. No, you ought to find somebody with a basic list that you respect, and buy a bunch of CDs cheap from Amazon. Also check out for a sense of what more "with it" adults are generally into these days.

PS: My primary love is for the Early XX-cen "standards". I'm more that a little obsessive about McHugh and Fields as towering geniuses, not to mention Cole Porter. One of the most frequent forms of praise I have for my favorite artists these days is that they can still craft melodies and lyrics up to the standards of the standards.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 20, 2006 3:10 PM

Chris White: I guess you listen to Schickele Mix then?

J Goard: If you're talking to me, I try, lord knows I do. This recent TCM promo got me to buy a Cake album, for instance, which I'm mostly diggin'.

Posted by: Brian on April 21, 2006 4:36 AM

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