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The Moody Views – The Rock Radio Problem, Part 2

So yesterday I suggested that factors like the increasing homogenization of radio playlists, the eradication of local talent, and the avoidance of new music was hurting rock radio. I wanted to take the time to explain how this affects rock radio on a cultural level today, as well as leveling my own criticisms towards some aspects of modern music, including its current personality.

Now, I don’t want to be a complete buzzkill here. After all, perhaps not all hope is lost. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters explained how his belief in purely good music and authentic sounds means that artists can always produce compelling material that transcends sales charts. And perhaps this collective drought of engaging new music on the airwaves is just what those who subsisted on the burgeoning alternative scene in the 1980s had to endure while hair bands and synth-pop overtook radio and the collective visual consciousness via MTV. However, it still doesn’t answer the question of “Why is the center of rock music so rotten?

Chuck Klosterman, apart from being an amazing writer whose work you should immediately read if you’re not already, was prescient enough to locate this problem in modern music in his seminal work Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. Most “alternative” or “modern” rock strives to be as obtuse as possible. Lyrically and musically oblique songs have dominated the past ten years of rock and roll, with Linkin Park creating music that once appealed to the masses before turning inward and struggling with maturity and creating more expansive, U2-esque ballads. However, Klosterman points out that country music doesn’t have this problem because the relationship between the lyrics and the listener is clear. Listeners are hearing a story being told about lives that they could live. Oh, it’s told in broad strokes for sure, but there are enough recognizable details that somebody could hear themselves in the story. The best hip-hop does the same thing, emphasizing bits of reality that can grab the listener and make them empathize with the lyric. There was a hilarious recent search for the exact date of Ice Cube’s noted relaxation period in his hit song “It Was a Very Good Day.” While I can’t begin to elucidate the reasons for this search, it’s also partly linked to the verisimilitude in Ice Cube’s song. I may never feel the effects of a black hole sun or know if there’s rest for the wicked, but I can certainly say I’ve had good days. Likewise, I think country music is the only genre that allows listeners to feel comfortable getting older and mature. It’s the only musical genre that really meets listeners and ages with them, whereas rock music is perpetually stuck in its teens and twenties because those formative periods are where the ardent musical tastes are formed. Also, we can blame Pete Townshend for that one. Who would have thought “I hope I die before I get old” would become the only standard statement in rock ‘n’ roll music?

I’ve suggested some pretty intangible ideas, but think about it: Why does your mom listen to Coldplay? Hell, why do you? Let’s get to their most popular chart song, “Viva La Vida.” This song is written from the perspective of a man that comes from a monarchic class, oversaw an entire empire, and watched it disintegrate as he died and departed to heaven. There is not a person alive that should be able to identify with this song, especially not based on the story being told, and yet I can understand a deeper meaning behind “Be my mirror, my sword and shield/my missionaries in a foreign field.” I’m certainly creating it and applying it to my life. There are certain details behind these oblique lyrics that make it stand out.

And it’s so easy to find details that are shared with other listeners while maintaining a level of specificity for the songwriter, but rock music so very rarely does this. So many other artists are engaged in writing songs that are impenetrable from a lyrical and musical perspective. Now I understand that rock and roll was never about progressively more complicated music, but there was a certain bit of mystery and allegory with music. Unfortunately, that lifestyle is now unspoken among alternative artists on the radio. It’s where lifestyle music is represented that I have the biggest problem with modern rock radio.

To begin to explain this problem, let’s look at one of the highest-selling rock records from the beginning of this decade: My Darkest Days’ song “Porn Star Dancing.” It’s a song about a stripper who will grind on lead singer Matt Walst’s crotch after having danced for others at the club because “you know those normal girls won’t do.” That’s it. If you’re watching on YouTube, you can see rock guitar god Zakk Wylde, rapper Ludacris and Nickelback singer/guitarist/songwriter Chad Kroeger in the music video with dozens of bikini and leather-clad woman at a pool in Las Vegas. Kroeger is in the video because he discovered the band and signed them to his record label 604 Records.

If you’re listening to a rock station on FM radio, you’re likely to hear “Porn Star Dancing,” which made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 2010. The different versions of the song had a combined 10 million plus hits on YouTube, which had no problem finding women to come and dance for the band in Vegas.

You might also hear the following songs if you are cruising FM rock radio at anytime during the day:

Nickelback “Figured You Out” (Sample lyrics: “I like your pants around your feet/and I like the dirt that’s on your knees;” #65 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and spent 13 consecutive weeks at #1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart)

Saving Abel, “Addicted” (“I’m so addicted to all the things you do/when you’re going down on me in between the sheets.” Sold 800,000 copies, #20 on the Billboard Hot 100 tracks and #2 on Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks)

Hinder, “Get Stoned” (“Go home and get stoned/cause the sex is so much better when you’re mad at me.”) Charted at #4 on the Billboard Mainstream Rocks Chart in America in 2005.

Theory of a Deadman, “Bad Girlfriend” (“My girlfriend’s a dick magnet, my girlfriend’s gotta have it/she likes to shake her ass, she grinds it to the beat/she likes to pull my hair when I make her grind her teeth.”). Spent 18 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and peaked at #75, with a #8 chart position for Alternative Rock. Their first song released from their newest album was “Bitch Came Back,” which was a song about how frontman Tyler Connolly turns off his phone because of his overbearing ex-girlfriend and how he likes her “so much better when she’s down on her knees.” The music video is a charming narrative about how a spurned female fan willfully murders the band after their manager refuses her entry into the party with other bikini babes because she wanted to give them a music box. (Actually, the video almost redeems the song. Almost.)

Puddle of Mudd, “Control” (“I love the way you look at me, I love the way you smack my ass/I love the dirty things you do, I have control of you”). Peaked at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100, #3 on the Mainstream Rock Chart and #3 on the Modern Rock Chart in 2001; it was the #40 spot on the end-of-decade rock songs chart. The music video was directed by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit.

Buckcherry, “Crazy Bitch” (“Hey, you’re a crazy bitch/but you fuck so good I’m on top of it/Get the video, fuck you so good”). Two million copies sold, peaked at #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Do you see a pattern here? If this is the lifestyle music of today, then what is that lifestyle supposed to be? I don’t think all the listeners of modern rock radio explicitly condone the intense sexual power dynamics that drive these songs, nor do I think everybody has a female romantic partner that is sexually dysfunctional. But every one of these songs glorifies the dominance of its lead singer over the female sex object, eventually reducing the unseen and unheard female to the spoken equivalent of a prostitute, gold-digger, or stripper. In the “Bad Girlfriend” video, the male “hero” of the video discovers his girlfriend has been moonlighting as a stripper, and he loves it.

These songs represent success and power in rock music. They are also misogynistic, which is a conflicting idea for me. I’m not advocating explicit misogyny against any group, particularly when you realize that there is a societal power difference between the majority of successful rock musicians and groups. The idea of rock and roll has personally been about release, fun, and escapist fervor, and sometimes (like after a breakup, an argument with your partner, or spurning) it can feel good to hear a song about how the other doesn’t understand. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that these songs go beyond that.

But here’s the thing: The prevalence of these songs on the radio and their subsequent success sent a message to the homogenized offices of Clear Channel and its programmers. In order to have a successful playlist, more of these programmers are going to fill the time between beer ads and used car sales with these songs because they think it’s representative of the audience. They think that if you listen to the radio, you will automatically like these songs and want more of them because that’s the lifestyle you want and/or have. This is an idea that is so repellant to me that I am shaking as I type this.

The relationship between listener and music is always going to be subjectively determined, and as tastes change with life experience and exposure to new sounds it becomes impossible to predict what the listener will always hear. Yet somehow it’s gotten to a point where not only do all the songs sound the same, but even the themes are the same. This isn’t representative of all the rock songs on the radio right now, but you have to think about the constant spins of classic rock radio. Van Halen, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin will have about five key tracks played throughout the day, and most times they will invoke the phallus via their lyrics (“hammer of the gods” indeed). That’s not to say that’s the only thing that these bands care about (at least not Zep after Led Zeppelin II). But that just adds fuel to the fire and a problem with most radio music: If it’s aimed at the lowest common denominator, then that denominator got really low over the last decade. Moreover, that lowest common denominator is now representative of an entire nation’s programming segment. And that’s scary to me.

So what will the future hold? Shockingly, I’m still an optimist. At some point the bubble of Clear Channel will have to burst, but I’m not sure it will be in my lifetime. We are still living in a car culture in America, one that supports the radio lifestyle and dynamic. While that might change in the future as our population heads towards larger urban areas and centers, the small-market stations will still be dependent on the force-fed playlists from offices 1,000 miles away. I hope that the increased homogenization of national playlists and the continuing creativity at the fringes of rock music drive more people to discover them. But I still worry for those persons entering the world of rock music through rock radio because it paints a picture of a scene that hasn’t changed since the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act.

But after writing over 5000 words on the subject and examining the cultural, economic and social elements at play here, I’ve come up with a hypothesis. Maybe the problem isn’t just that most rock bands on the radio sound like a faceless mix of oversexed and testosterone-laden, gravelly-voiced brawlers. I mean, that would mean that they’d all sound like Nickelback…wait…

Maybe the problem IS Nickelback…or at least what they represent.

At some point I want to pick this thread up again. I intend to address some of the criticisms leveled at Nickelback and see how the phenomenon of absolutely hating this band became a powerful force throughout the 21st century. I want to go through arguments regarding the band to come up with a possible answer to this question: “What does the existence of a polarizing band like Nickelback mean for 2012?”

And no, it won’t end with a prediction that it represents the end of civilization as stated by the Mayans.

Well, maybe it won’t…make sure to tune in and find out!

FYI, My Darkest Days released a new single in advance of their latest album. The song’s title? “Casual Sex.” It’d be funny if it weren’t so depressing.

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The Author

Kyle Moody

Kyle Moody

Kyle Moody is a PhD candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. His research and writing interests are digital media, online communities, popular culture, video games, and broadcasting/podcasting, and how online culture is responsible for expanding and shrinking communities. His blog Moodicarus explores these issues further, but with pictures and colors!
His entertainment loves include music from the Nineties, teen movies, karaoke and bicycling. He lives in Iowa City with his plants, LPs and video game collection, and hails from Georgetown, Kentucky. It’s not recommended that you make fun of his Kentucky Wildcats unless you want to get shown up on the court. Visit his blog - http://www.moodicarus.blogspot.com