WHO MADE WHO: Rock radio, targeted males, and the tyranny of nostalgia

In January 2018, rock radio in Chicago met its eschatological fate when K-Love ran the flaming sword of the archangel Uriel through the prostrate body of WLUP. The Loop had first declared itself the city’s loudest radio mouth in the late 1970s, when Steve Dahl burned disco records in a big fuck you to anyone who challenged the white male’s perceived right to be an obnoxious, ignorant clown. The station’s AOR format downshifted into hard rock, and a steady thrum of AC/DC, Def Leppard, Skynyrd, Foghat, and “Get the Led Out” rock blocks blasted from suburban garages, unfinished basements, and cinder block high school weight rooms, eventually traveling through the cocaine and Aqua Net hair metal era and onward to grunge and “active rock,” i.e. lots of Foos and Nirvana. But by the mid-aughts, radio listenership had splintered, coalesced, and splintered again to form into specific micro-demos, and The Loop’s blunt instrument approach was wavering. Its battering ram dulled, the Christians came calling, and with their “positive and encouraging” CCM niche, they squashed the dude rock bug dead. All stop signs, all speed limits; highway to hell, indeed.

Enter Labor Day Weekend, 2020. With the suddenness typical of terrestrial radio moves like this, iHeartMedia flipped its “Big 95.5” modern country format to “Rock 95 Five” and cued up a core playlist of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi, Green Day, Def, Foo, and Motley Crue. Radio bigwigs described the move as returning ”a key soundtrack to a large lifestyle group,” and white guys aged 25 to 54 driving around Chicagoland in their grey 2003 Ford Mustangs with a vinyl bumper sticker featuring Calvin pissing on a Chevy logo suddenly felt seen again.

The visual branding for “Rock 95 Five” is all blacks, reds, and bold dips, sort of the typographic version of a football lineman who does up his eye black in tragicomic kabuki. A recent playlist scan featured Foreigner’s loutish “Hot Blooded,” “Beautiful People” from Marilyn Manson (a song which reveals its extreme debt to Alice Cooper schlock as it ages), the Foos doing “All My Life,” and Steven Tyler’s lewd scatting on Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll.” A nod toward relative tenderness (or at least an acoustic guitar) came in the form of the Black Crowes’ heroin paen “She Talks to Angels,” and 95 Five finished out the set with the turgid knuckle dragging of Creed’s “My Own Prison,” a song and band where emo is bruised, battered and recast as the singular right of the white male animal to have what are otherwise known as all of the feels. There are no women here. (Maybe Alanis. Maybe.) There are no people of color, aside from a few Hendrix nuggets. And the imaging positioners that drop in between songs exclusively feature a smarmy white male voice shouting stock phrases like “Do you even lift, bro?” and leering that “we’ll melt your face, and melt it good.” A certain kind of male is in control again. As he sees it.

iHeartMedia said it flipped the 95.5 signal now in part because of research suggesting listeners are looking more to nostalgia for comfort during the ongoing pandemic. And it’s true that nostalgia is a radio format with legs. “Magic 104” debuted on Chicago radio in August 1984 with a format pinned to 1950’s and 60’s nostalgia; nowadays, “104.3 Jams” tugs at listeners’ fond memories of 90’s hip-hop and R&B. 

Lorelei Shark, WLUP’s first “Rock Girl.”
But while 95 Five definitely evokes rock radio’s past, it’s also bonded to the male listener’s own individual past, when he might have been king of his own little world. The modern day splintering of radio formats, demographics, and popular culture in general has made him less relevant, his music more muted. Request lines used to crackle, and nighttime “first time, long time” call-ins were more important than any heart, thumb, or like. Instead of tweets into the void it was XXL promotional T-shirts, and boorish bumper stickers, and domestic beer tent sponsorships, and making the scene at Saturday morning live remotes staged at car dealerships, where a giant inflatable station logo pulled at its stakes in the stiff summer breeze. When Metallica cranked from every beat-up Sony 5-disc changer, radio mattered. It influenced humans’ lives, instead of humans becoming influencers. 

And if rock radio mattered, then so did the world portrayed in the songs it played, when the male superego carried the world’s water. He mattered. He wielded his power and the rewards arrived. He was impervious to sorrow, shielded from pain. Breakups never hurt him. He bled only as a show of force. He didn’t need nothin’ but a good time. How could anyone resist?

It has been suggested that Foo Fighters are doing yeoman’s work, upholding the title belt of America’s Rock Band in a world with fewer and fewer contenders. As each successive generation is given its designation letter (does it flip back to A next?), it also settles into slimmer and slimmer niches, tiny spaces somehow filled with a million references and resets and throwbacks all at once, in 2:59 and at 120 bpm. But the clodding trad rock band and its dutiful male listener, who is two-fisting plastic cups of warm domestic piss on a hill at some shed in BFE, the bill of his backwards hat nodding furiously as Dave Grohl yowls and the band bangs away, forever pledging fealty to the rock gods of yore, they are in a niche now, too. There’s less room to move in there, but for them there’s still real comfort in the obnoxiousness megaphone, even if it’s inverted.         

JTL

The featured image is taken from the gatefold sleeve of Rainbow’s album, Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll (Polydor, 1978). There’s a fascinating story about the true origins of that photo.

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