Once In A Lifetime

Same as it ever was? Not really.

The Glorious Noise breakroom is always alive with chatter. Over cheese sandwiches and red pop, arguments erupt and fizzle at breakneck speed. But one conversation that’s never off the table is the cyclical nature of popular music and radio programming. We’re currently in the midst of yet another shift in taste, one that has seen the rise of the new garage and the fall of much of the nu metal that had so dominated radio and MTV just a few short years ago. What’s really interesting about the current shift is how similar it is to about ten years ago, when the grinding rhythms of grunge were tempered by the jingle jangle jams of nice guys like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Hootie & the Blowfish, and The Gin Blossoms. But there IS a difference behind the latest cyclical shift. And it’s all too clear who’s changing the channels.

In the early 90s, Toad the Wet Sprocket was riding high with hits like “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean.” With the golden throat of singer Glen Phillips and the band’s sunny California pop, Toad couldn’t have been further from the amps and anguish of the Alternative Nation. While Nirvana and Alice In Chains introduced a mainstream audience to the rhythms of punk and indie, Darius Rucker sat down on his couch, had a beer, and felt sorry for himself. And in the wings were women rockers like Sheryl Crow, Sarah Mclachlan, and Melissa Etheridge. All of these sounds competed successfully for listeners during the early to mid 90s. Did you find the Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You” annoying? No problem. It would likely be followed by flutter of Crow’s “Strong Enough.” John Popper’s jabbering harmonica might appear for a moment on MTV, only to be replaced by Dave Pirner looking around for someone to shove. Was this lump out of her head? I Think so.

But pop music goes in cycles. In 2002, the slithering hip thrust of The Hives’ “Main Offender” is tempered by Jack Johnson’s beachfront campfire vibes. Atrocious nu metal also-rans Puddle of Mudd submit their latest Nirvana impersonation with “She Fucking Hates Me,” only to have young John Mayer run through the halls of his high school. It’s interesting that radio stations can find the commonality amongst these artists; one thing that HAS changed in the past ten years is the radio industry itself. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed radio corporations to own multiple stations in single markets, paving the way for Clear Channel dominance, broad-based homogenization, and the pin-point classification of artists, songs, and demographics. Tightly constricted playlists are now the norm. But somehow Howie Day’s “Ghost” still finds its way into an hour of modern-rock radio that also features “Come As You Are,” Disturbed, Nickelback, and Avril Lavigne. Why’d they have to go and make things so complicated?

That’s easy. Radio has circled its wagons. The network of conglomerates, regional directors, reps, indie promoters, and program directors view the music that DOES make it through the iron curtain as singular commodities – tiny bits of rock and roll revenue. Hot punk, cool funk, even it’s a piece of Billy Joel-sounding junk, the song (and the artist) is still a paycheck to Them.

Back in the GLONO breakroom, the cyclical argument continues. But it’s stained with the slime of the stuffed shirts in offices somewhere, deciding that new garage should replace nu metal, or anointing Mayer as the next Glen Phillips. Nirvana’s 1992 breakthrough was thorough and totally unexpected. Today’s pop music cycles just don’t seem as surprising.


14 thoughts on “Once In A Lifetime”

  1. And now will the release of a Best Of… and “new” single from Nirvana yet again shake things up? Probably not. Courtney Love also treats the newly almost-released “You Know You’re Right” as a commodity to be exploited for maximum ROI (return on investment). Everyone, do yourself a favor and turn off the radio.

  2. Radio? Is that still around? I am my own dj.

    I haven’t listened to radio since the late 80’s, except for PBS. Love that Kojo Nambe!

  3. Johnny, etc…this seems so totally obvious…of course music is cyclical, just like fashion and architecture and everything else marketed to popular culture…of course it’s cyclical, if it wasn’t people would get bored and stop spending their money, but when there’s always the “next big thing,” “orange is the new pink”…then people keep spending their money…simple social psychology…or is there something more inciteful to this argument that I am totally missing?

  4. Yes, that the cycle is not powered by public whim but by a very small number of corporate entities who control radio in America. At least, that’s what I got from it.

  5. Does anyone who visits this kind of site listen to commercial radio at all? Doubtful. The entire GLONO demographic gave up on commercial radio long, long ago.

    I think the question is this: Will commercial radio stations continue to be gobbled up, homogenized, and automated from afar by faceless corporations like Clear Channel, or could there be a more gradual return to regionalism and (interesting) niche programming? Thusfar, the outlook is bleak.

  6. But I think it’s still important for us to discuss. Radio has, and oddly continues, to play a huge role in shaping popular culture in the US. It may suck and I may not personally listen to it, but commercial radio is still IT as far as record sales go. It’s facing some real competition with the Internet (and since the Net can’t really be controlled, the music industry is freaking out) but as it stands, it’s still King.

  7. Pretty much all the radio stations in my city have been eaten up by the Clear Channel behemoth. It’s kind of amusing though that they just bought our local “Rock” station, which has been locally owned for like 20 years. And we’re talking about “rock” like Golden Earring, Foreigner kind of stuff. B/c of this, its enjoyed a long and devoted following of the local hick population. Anyway, Clear Channel apparently is turning it into a hip-hop station. I can’t help but be amused at the thought of the first time some redneck hears Nelly blasting out of his radio instead of his beloved Whitesnake.

  8. Phil’s right – radio is still an enormous barometer of popular taste, or at least what The Suits would like that taste to be. That’s important for GLONO to keep an eye on, and we will continue to do so. It’s true that GLONO and its constituency gave up on radio many moons ago. But I think it’s important to listen in and see what the rest of the world is doing every now and then.

  9. rock radio has sucked ass for most of my life, there is one good mainstream station in Austin and thats a clear channel country station KVET which i think is a rarity in that they have control to avoid much of the new “hot country” and inistead goes with a lot of classics mixed with the better new stuff.

  10. I dunno, listening to ‘XRT* just depresses the crap outta me sometimes. Even they have been swallowed whole by the corporate giant, and it’s all too obvious by their playlist.

    Is it just me, or is the music discovery process still a bit more organic in the UK? I’m an avid NME.com reader and a die-hard Mojo mag subscriber, which hipped me to the Strokes and Hives months before they crossed here. I mean, sure they’re plagued with crap like Robbie Williams and Steps, but they also seem to have their collective ears to the rails for the next train coming. I could be totally delusional on this one; please correct me if you know otherwise.

    One of my favorite toys is still my 10-disc changer in my car. It’s great when you can cut the natural claustrophobia of rush hour with some Loud Family, Replacements, or Primal Scream platters to keep you occupied. To be forced to listen to Chicago radio in its current form for the commute home? It would be “pass me my shotgun, this tailgater’s gonna pay”. OK, slight stretch there, but you know what I mean.

    Yea, I crawl through the valleys of asphalt and steel at the terminus of another nobly-toiled workday, but with Alex Chilton and Animal Logic as my co-pilots, I can truly chill. And may the Lord have mercy on radio’s suffering soul. Somewhere in Tartarus, it’s screaming to be set free from the corporate shackles.

    *For non-Chicago readers, I apologize for the assumed familiarity that WXRT up until the mid- to late-’90s was the last stand for independent free-thinking somewhat-adventurous radio… until they were bought by Group W/Westinghouse radio. They are under some other huge FM conglomeration now; the fact that it doesn’t readily come to mind is indicative of the esteem that I hold said conglomeration in. For Chicago readers, I apologize for the recap.

  11. In the UK, i think the music industry probably is more organic, mainly because most people don’t have cable so don’t have MTV. Also, the main national radio stations are state run and financed. NME is fickle, but at least its diverse.

  12. The UK is also smaller and “scenes” tend to pop up and get a lot more coverage. I both love and hate the NME for the same reasons: because they constantly declare new Best Bands in the World and then tear them down. Funny to read.

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