Make Radio Great Again | By River Grey
Come on a nostalgia trip back to a time when listening to the radio was the soundtrack to your life. Each song was so different from the one before yet so perfectly illustrated your day, your week, your month, even your year. There was a time prior to the new millennium when this was Top 40 Radio.
Some have argued the 1990’s were the last great decade for music; a period when the airwaves were still fresh and diverse. You could go from listening to the grunge of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the bubble gum pop of Paula Abdul. In the same hour you’d hear the country twang of Billy Ray Cyrus’, “Achy Breaky Heart,’ to the West Coast rap of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. A myriad of genres were represented and exposed. So what happened? When did top 40 radio decide to ditch diversity and traffic in the crap du jour of mumble rappers and recycled urban and EDM beats? I would be remised not to mention the same 15 songs are shuffled over and over in between 5 minutes of commercials as well.
Let’s Make Radio Great Again.
I want to break down a few staples of popular radio that have been missing in action for arguably the last 15-20 years on your local airwaves.
Once upon a time a slow to mid-tempo song could pack so much punch and emotion that it was dubbed “a power ballad. These songs were favored by the charts from the late 70’s all the way up to the early 2000’s; than like a thief in the night, vanished from the Billboard Hot 100. Since the 2010’s Adele and Sam Smith have had some glory with their brand of ballads; even Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have recently topped the charts with a 90’s style country-rock ballad. However, where are the “Celine Dions” and “Mariah Careys” hiding? Where’s the 2010’s answer to Whitney Houston or the powerhouse rock ballads, à la Bon Jovi and Poison? The closest we have in capability is Ariana Grande and her talent is squandered on half-baked Nicki Minaj raps and more focused on the barely legal porn star aesthetic her management is so focused on shoving down our throats.
It’s not like we don’t have the star power in our arsenal. I’d love for Beyoncé to put her impressive vocal range to use and drop an epic power ballad that would have “I Will Always Love You,” shaking in its boots. I’ve heard it said that people don’t want to hear these types of songs anymore yet the iTunes charts and views and likes on YouTube tell a very different story. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow,” was in and out of the #1 spot on iTunes for 5 months between 2018 and 2019. If “Shallow” had come out in 1995 it would have sat on top of the Billboard Hot 100, haunting it like a Celine Dion ballad. Could the fact that Gaga is 33 years old and Cooper is 44 have anything to do with it?
Radio stations have black-balled artists past the age of 30. It’s as if once the clock strikes midnight on a singer’s 30th birthday, they’re immediately dead to pop culture. When in the past radio was quite welcoming to artists that were 30, even more so, 40 plus years in age. 1998 housed monster hits by acts that were well into their early 50’s. Look at Cher’s “Believe” or Aersomith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” #1 hits that’s didn’t budge from Billboard’s top 10 for what felt like an eternity.
Also in his late 40’s and early 50’s, Elton John had huge radio success with a string of hits throughout the decade. (“The One,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” “Circle of Life,” “Believe,” “Something About The Way You Look Tonight,” “Candle In The Wind”) Madonna, closing in on 40, was killing it with chart toppers in 1998 with the record, “Ray of Light” and even into the early 2000’s, was scoring major hits for a seasoned veteran of the business. (“Frozen,” Ray of Light,” “Music,” “Don’t Tell Me,” “Die Another Day.”) We’re missing out as a culture on talented, hardworking artists who are still very well in their creative prime just because they fall out of a certain age bracket. In fact, these artists still have a lot of rock & roll bite left in them.
Now it’s often said that “rock is dead.” Its last commercial breath was taken sometime in the early 2000’s but alas has not come back to life. Once upon a time Gods and Goddesses of the genre ruled the airwaves; wielding electric guitars and screeching, glass shattering vocals. Icons like Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Billy Idol, Heart, Prince, Mötley Crüe, pummeled radio stations with high octane, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. The 90’s re-imagined rock with a grittier, darker lens through the eyes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and Radiohead. All these bands were influenced by the decades that preceded their fame, many tracing their roots back to Elvis Presley or The Beatles or Janis Joplin; and you felt that spirit in all of them.
Today’s rockers are virtually ignored by pop culture. Contemporary rock stars like Ghost, Arctic Monkeys, Alabama Shakes, Volbeat, HAIM, are out there and they’re everything you loved about 70’s and 80’s rock. Their catalogues beg to be in heavy radio rotation with catchy choruses and fist pumping guitar solos. Perhaps the ultimate cosmic joke in all of this isn’t so much that “rock is dead,” rather it’s too punk-rock to be commercialized. No one likes a “sell-out,” just ask original Maroon 5 fans. Maybe commercial rock should be kept on “Do No Resuscitate.”
Missing in action is the smooth, sexy soul of R&B. What happened to the vibe of Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Al Green, Diana Ross, TLC, Boys II Men, and Toni Braxton? Why aren’t there more R&B acts in rotation on the radio? There is no reason Janelle Monáe shouldn’t be a household name. 2018 had her delivering one of the best albums of the year. Everything you loved about James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson, this girl has it all. John Legend has soul coursing through his veins and is very reminiscent of R&B crooners that came decades before him. Sadly Top 40 radio has only given him one hit single (2013’s “All of Me”) out of his 15 year career.
The very same goes with country music. Another genre that in the past has been written and sung from the artist you saw performing. The soul and the experience and the heartbreak, it was palpable because you genuinely believed the artists went through what they were singing about. As of recently the country music industry has become a pop factory with image and song writing teams orchestrating the look and the lyrics, while some pretty faced singer performs words that were handed over to them. Storytelling has been stripped and it’s all about the shallow. This is a very telling allegory for our social media facades.
With the music industry being so robotic and the focus being more on image and sex appeal rather than creativity and depth, it’s easy to sacrifice the heart, soul, and pain of these genres. Most of the songs on today’s popular radio, focus on one vapid theme; partying. Don’t get me wrong, I love a party anthem as much as the next person but that’s only so relatable when you’re getting out of work on Friday and you’re geared up for the weekend. The harsh reality of a Monday morning or a weekday are way more distinct; just ask The Bangles.
So what do you do when you thirst for a colorful spectrum of new music? This takes a lot more effort on the listeners end. You have troll Spotify or Apple Music and hope and pray for a good recommendation based of your tastes. The great thing about these applications is the algorithm that tracks your listening history and recommends similar styles based off your musical patterns. Although wasn’t it nice when your local top 40 radio station played a cornucopia of varied hits from all backgrounds? These days, artists must rely on YouTube or other streaming services like the before mentioned Spotify or Pandora to be heard or seen. Lord knows MTV isn’t playing their music anymore. However that’s a whole different rant for a whole different blog.
So why is the radio even still a thing? Why isn’t it as dead as disco or MySpace?
Simply put, most music streaming services have a price tag while radio is free and you can’t beat $0.00 a month to listen to music. If time has proven anything it’s that all trends have an ebb and flow to them. What goes out of fashion always comes back in but I feel like we’ve been waiting since 2001.
Until then music streaming provides a fantastic outlet for discovering new and old music for typically around $10 a month. YouTube is still free and offers different playlists based off genres you frequent. However, until the pendulum swings back we must do a little more work to find those earworms that are the essential soundtracks to our lives.