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Why are ’90s bands played on classic-rock radio?

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Smashing Pumpkins, you are hereby ordered to vacate the classic-rock station. Thin Lizzy will escort you out.” I posted these words a few weeks ago on Facebook after hearing Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” on one of my local classic-rock stations. Immediately before “1979,” the DJ played Creedence Clearwater Revival. After it, he played Thin Lizzy. One of these things, I felt compelled to let the Internet know, was not like the others.

My post riled some of my Facebook friends, but lots of them agreed with me. Granted, most of my friends skew toward my age group: those born in the early ’70s through the early ’80s. If I may grossly generalize, many of us 30-whatevers view the alt-rock boom of the ’90s—as much as that music defined and was, in part, made by us—as distinct from the sound and attitude of classic rock. And by classic rock, I mean the ’70s-and-’80s format we’ve all become accustomed to like an old, comfy pair of socks. A glance at the website of the radio station that played “1979”—Denver’s 99.5 The Mountain, “A Mountain Of Classics”—reveals a recent playlist featuring the following: Journey, Billy Joel, The J. Geils Band, The Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Collective Soul, and The Cars.

Wait. Collective Soul?

I don’t mean to throw Smashing Pumpkins—a decent band in its prime—into the same scrapheap as Collective Soul, a band that sounds like its own members could care less about the half-assed music they make. But regardless of the respective quality of these two bands, my gut keeps telling me they have one strong thing in common: Neither belongs on classic-rock radio.


I understand and appreciate that a lot of ’90s alternative rock was heavily influenced by classic rock. To me, though, there’s a huge difference. There’s a pre/post-Nirvana friction—okay, a zeitgeist shift—that jars my brain out of joint when I hear Bush, Collective Soul, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, and yes, Nirvana played alongside Hendrix and Zeppelin. It just doesn’t fit. In the middle of a tough workday—say, when the sun is up, my shirt is off, and sweat pours down my calloused hands and onto my grease-smeared keyboard—I don’t want irony. I don’t want slack or smirks or mumbly fucking Hunger Dunger Dang. I want rock music that owns itself.

I want classic rock.

Again, this isn’t a qualitative issue. It’s purely emotional. Classic rock serves a specific purpose in my life: nostalgia. Given that I turned 18 in 1990, the nostalgia I feel for the ’70s and ’80s is vastly different than the nostalgia I feel for the ’90s. When it comes to mainstream rock, maybe the ’90s are better than previous decades. Not that I could imagine a convincing argument to that effect. But that isn’t the point. By nature, the classic-rock format is frozen in time. Or at least it should be. It isn’t meant to progress or evolve. It’s a snapshot of a tableau, one in which the grit of Lynyrd Skynyrd mixes with the atmosphere of Pink Floyd. Where Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant are the pastors of megachurches. Where the cool hum of The Cars and Dire Straits coexists with the nerdy complexity of Rush and Yes. Where rock ’n’ roll, even when it gets brainy, has yet to deconstruct itself at a foot-shuffling, self-negating level.

Demographics and economic reality, of course, have dictated otherwise. For classic-rock radio to survive at this point in history, it needs to attract younger listeners. And that apparently means shifting the format’s bracket to include more grunge and grunge-related accessories. But this is cheap math—and I don’t think David Lee Roth approves of math. That may sound flip, but I earnestly believe the number-crunchers just don’t get it, and that their calculated efforts to update classic-rock radio will only hasten its downfall.


I’m not part of the original generation that classic rock appeals to; that would be my parents’ generation. Classic rock resonates with me because of—not in spite of—its hermetic nature. That time-in-a-bottle quality is the exact thing that can attract younger listeners, not drive them away. In a musical landscape rife with an increasing rate of flux, classic rock is an anchor. Even when that master of meta-rock, David Bowie, is played on classic-rock radio, it’s understood that he was embraced at the time as simply a dude who rocked. And he can still be embraced as such, by anyone of any age, postmodernism be damned.

Digital outlets—most recently Spotify—have, to some extent, edged analog radio even closer to the abyss. I still prefer classic-rock radio, cheesy ads and all. Spotify does have ads of its own; they certainly aren’t as fun as bombastic monster-truck-rally commercials. I listen to and enjoy things like Spotify and satellite radio, but I worry about a future where that’s all there is. Neither have that same level of warmth, sloppiness, and comforting repetition. Yes, I love that too: the repetition. I love Two-For-Tuesdays and Triple-Shot Weekends. I love griping to myself every other hour when Eric Clapton comes on—and then listening to the whole song. One of the problems with instant access to unlimited choices is this: People no longer have to listen to things they don’t like. Sometimes the most comforting of comfort food is the dish you hated as a kid, but that you were forced to eat.

Another randomly jerky thing I posted on Facebook recently (which also got my friends in a tizzy) was this: “When I first heard Pearl Jam, I thought, ‘What the fuck is this? Bob Seger?’ Twenty years later, I’ve grown to love Bob Seger. But I still hate Pearl Jam.” To be honest, though, I don’t really hate Pearl Jam. In fact—and in a way I never thought I would—I’ve come to respect Eddie Vedder and crew as artists and rock stars who aren’t dicks. But Pearl Jam’s sexless, humorless, colorless music drives the point home even more: That group doesn’t belong on the radio between unashamed juggernauts like Roth and Plant and Bowie. Give ’90s rock most of the spots on the FM dial, for all I care. Just save one sliver of the spectrum for unsullied, old-school classic rock—beer commercials, blowhard jocks, and all. I know that’s a reactionary thing to say. And the day I listen to nothing but classic-rock radio, feel free to haul me to the crematorium. Until then, though, I’ll be counting the hours ’til the next Two-For-Tuesday. And praying someone forgets to cue up Bush.