Classic Rock Will Slowly Die or, A Musical Reminder of the Historically Singular Nature of Postwar America

I don’t drive much these days (living for 3+ years in the downtowns of compact, walk-able cities rather obviated the need for it), but just over a week ago, trucking my things back east, I found myself behind the wheel of a vehicle in Massachusetts for the first time in a long time, and my fingers instinctively twisted the dial to 100.7 WZLX – Boston’s Classic Rock. Just a few songs later, it was clear – almost nothing had changed. The tracks in rotation were the exact same as the ones in rotation ten years ago, when I first got my license. This isn’t surprising – the classic rock canon is more or less fixed by definition – it’s not like they’re making new classic rock these days. If they were, it’d be oxymoronic.

But I wrote “almost nothing had changed” on purpose, because there was one very noticeable difference, and it was a difference that continued a trend I’d noticed back sometime during the tail end of high school and the start of college. It was also a difference that prompted the formulation of the following theory: classic rock as a radio format will slowly die and it is a historically specific feature of postwar popular culture which will not be sustained into the 21st century. Allow me to explain. Or don’t – I’ll do it anyway. It is my blog post, after all.

For years and years  the ‘ZLX catalog stopped at around The Joshua Tree-era U2, and even that seemed like something of a stretch given that almost everything else they played was, as you would expect for a classic rock station, straight out of 1977. But then at some point I remember hearing Guns N’ Roses occasionally worm its way into the rotation, and then in this most recent aural encounter it was a Nirvana song which stuck out as a distinctly new addition. In fact, the decision to include Nirvana in the station’s programming, along with other staples of 90s alt-rock radio like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam, seems to have been motivated as much by the desire to fill an emergent gap in the Boston radio landscape as anything else, but it also serves as good evidence for my theory.

Classic rock as a radio format was, and continues to be, financially viable due to a combination of Baby Boomer purchasing power and a historic pop monoculture. That is, Boomers have enough money that a radio station catering to their tastes can generate sufficient advertising revenue to succeed as a business, and Boomer musical pop culture is unitary enough that those tastes can be successfully reproduced by one station in any given media market. Because, through the mid-90s, rock bands playing music very obviously identifiable as rock were dominant on pop charts and operated at the top of the hierarchy of this pop monoculture, the model still works for Generation X favorites like the alt-rock (yes it’s a terrible descriptor, but you have to call things something) bands mentioned above, so it make sense for a station like ‘ZLX to slowly age into that genre along with the genre’s listeners.

But since then, rock has been dethroned at the top of the pop culture league table and popular music culture itself has fragmented, leaving megastars like Taylor Swift, Kanye, and Beyonce towering over an increasingly diffuse landscape of artists cultivating astronomically smaller followings. So the circumstances which allowed classic rock to be a profitable radio format and which have allowed it to (slowly, partially) adapt to the aging of Generation X will not hold for Millenials. It’s not that we’ll be any less enthusiastic about listening to old pop hits, it’s that almost none of those pop hits will be plausibly describable as rock, and none of the rock hits will be plausibly describable as popular. At least, not popular enough to sustain an entire radio format. Instead, backward-looking radio stations will bifurcate into classic pop and classic indie, the former playing mostly Calvin Harris, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Kanye, and that one fun. song, and the latter playing, I dunno, Grimes, Tame Impala, Arcade Fire, Chairlift, fun. deep cuts, and, like, that Calvin Harris song featuring Haim.*

It would be foolish to draw too significant a conclusion from an untested theory of American pop radio, but insofar as you buy any of what I word-vomited out above, it serves as yet another example of the degree to which postwar 20th century America is either a historical aberration or the first foray into a world that is so entirely sui generis as to make useful intertemporal comparison a real challenge. And despite this, we still derive our sense of normal from this time period, and we do so in politically relevant ways. I will be sad, for nostalgic reasons, if in twenty years I can no longer tune into 100.7 WZLX as I cruise west (or east) on the Mass. Pike. But if I can’t, that may be indicative of real epochal change. And that wouldn’t be so bad.

*That song is “Pray to God” and it is excellent