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Who Decides What Rock Is "Classic Rock?"

Are you prepared to get the Led out? Again? Again? Again?
Are you prepared to get the Led out? Again? Again? Again?

Not everyone has the luxury of having an auxiliary jack in their car stereo. With the amount of leaks, holes, and weird noises coming from my engine, I'm lucky my beat-up truck still runs period. I can't be asking for a decent stereo. So my commuting music consists entirely of FM radio, which is still pretty nice, if purely for the serendipitous element. Rather than fiddling with my iPod at every red light, good songs just occur naturally. I like not having control over my life for one second of every day.

But radio isn't exactly in its prime these days, and the more I listen, the more I get confused by particular radio formats. For example, what exactly is "classic rock"? I often ask myself this, but I don't exactly have an answer. So I tried to find out. It led to deeper questions like "What ISN'T classic rock?" and "What is music supposed to be for, anyway?"

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A little poking around on Wikipedia revealed that Sandusky Radio owns KDKB 93.3 (billed as "everything that rocks"), KSLX 100.7 (billed as "the classic rock station"), and KUPD 97.9 (billed as "Arizona's real rock.") There are few, if any crossovers, between the three stations because they all appeal to different audiences. There are plenty of other points on your FM dial to find rock, including the wonderful KOOL 94.5 and KWSS 106.7, but they're more varied and not strictly rock or classic. Aside from the mysterious and sometimes spotty-reception wise KCDX 103.1, it appears Sandusky has somewhat of a monopoly on "rock" in the Valley, don't they?

I will use KSLX as an example, because they're the most popular "classic rock" station (actually, they're the only one) in the Valley and I've been listening to it since I first heard "American Pie" back in 1996. Nowadays, 100.7 will often play a Nirvana or Red Hot Chili Peppers track, admittedly choosing from the most tame and overplayed songs in either '90s bands discography. At first this seemed strange, then I remembered these bands are 20-plus years old. Does that deem them "classic" now?

The Velvet Underground: Not classic rock?
The Velvet Underground: Not classic rock?

Okay, so why don't they play Brian Jonestown Massacre or Neutral Milk Hotel cuts? Where's Joy Division or Orange Juice or the Pixies, My Bloody Valentine? These bands are all as old -- or older -- than Nirvana, and their influence is widespread. The most glaring omission is, of course, actually '60s bands, like The Velvet Underground and the 13th Floor Elevators. I believe they'd fit in nicely with the station's sonic aesthetic. (Editor's note: You'll occasionally hear VU on KCDX 103.1.)

If your response is that these bands aren't mainstream enough, please, strangle yourself with cassette tape. Lou Reed isn't obscure. The truth is, Nevermind just celebrated its 20th anniversary and it became a huge media circus. That's why it gets to be categorized as classic rock. Why I have to hear "Werewolves of London" or "Cat's In The Cradle" so many fucking times over "Venus in Furs" or "Atmosphere" is irritating.  

The Rolling Stones are awesome, but they are also very, very old.
The Rolling Stones are awesome, but they are also very, very old.

In contrast, if KSLX will play tracks from the newest KISS, Rolling Stones, or Van Halen albums, why don't we hear The Black Keys or The White Stripes or even Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? What distances modern popular rock artists from inclusion with the musicians they imitate? Far be it from me to suggest what songs KSLX should play, but there are a few glaring errors and contradictions in this concept of "classic rock." And it isn't limited to KSLX, but any "classic rock" station you might tune into elsewhere.

The only conclusion is "Classic Rock" doesn't actually mean anything. It's just a way to market a bunch of Top 40 hits from past decades and not these decades. "Classic Rock" is a never-ending shuffled playlist of the best ofs, the one-hit wonders, your parent's nostalgia. It doesn't challenge you or encourage you to do anything different and it rarely educates you on the history of music. Sing-along, 'cuz you already know all the words.

Don't get me wrong, KSLX is still a great station. Their "Lunchtime Themepark," "Nights with Alice Cooper," and Sunday evening's "The Deep End" are my personal favorites. But for the remaining 18 hours in the day, it's the same songs played ad nauseam.

This article in LA Weekly described classic rock as a "cancer on society." I wouldn't go that far, but I understand where the author is coming from. Lately, there has been a heavy focus on the glamorous days of rock n' roll's past. In fact, Billboard magazine's top tours of 2000-2009 were almost exclusively outfits from 20-plus years ago, including the Rolling Stones, U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John.

Music has a lot of power. It can really unite a generation, but once it gets to a certain age, it loses that edge and feels more like a museum piece than a cutting-edge ideal. If the focus is purely on the past, where does that leave the future?

If we define the past this loosely, this repetitively, this poorly in general, then we might not have much.


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