Today’s WTF: Is Elvis becoming irrelevant?

I’m a regular reader over at The A.V. Club, an entertainment and pop-culture website that originated as part of The Onion. Recently, they posted an article that was rather thought-provoking for me as a music fan. It discussed the decline of oldies radio, and what effect that has on America’s understanding of rock and roll’s history.

The main point the article makes is that, for many of us who are of a certain age (and, no, I’m not tellin’ you what age that is), our only exposure to many of rock’s pioneers were the oldies stations that were still a vibrant and vital presence on the radio dial while we were growing up. Now that oldies radio – and, to be honest, terrestrial radio in general – no longer exists as we knew it, how will today’s young people find out about the forefathers of rock?

My own experience bears this out a bit. I did hear an awful lot of 50’s and 60’s music on the stations that my mom and dad listened to here in South Florida (WAXY 106, and later, Majic 102.7, both featuring the local legend Rick Shaw). My dad was a real fan of the 50’s artists he grew up with, so I heard a lot of things around the house anyway, including Dion, Elvis, and a ton of bands that performed the doo-wop style of rock that my dad is so partial to. But to get a really complete education about how rock started out, and how it turned into the Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac songs I was hearing on the “current” rock stations of the time, I could only turn to oldies radio.

As the years passed, and the music business changed, so did music broadcasting. Oldies radio became classic radio, and musicians from the earliest days of rock music got squeezed out by the artists that came after them in the 70’s and 80’s. More important was the shift away from the general idea of “radio” as it had been for decades. Terrestrial radio, for the most part, plays a minimal role in our daily exposure to music these days. We have satellite radio, iPods and several online options, all of which give us a more customized listening experience. Unfortunately, they also limit us in the variety of music that we hear. We build playlists based mainly on tried and true styles that we already know we like, or artists that are currently popular. Unless we go out of our way to do so, we are never really in a position to hear the artists that paved the way for everything we know and enjoy now, and that connection between rock’s past and its present has been lost somewhat.

I can tell you for a fact that my daughter would never have heard the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Who or many other legends of rock if she hadn’t been introduced to them by her dad and me. She, like most other “tweens”, finds music mainly through TV shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, or on the internet. Nobody is listening to WAXY 106 in the front room after dinner, and nobody is playing Majic 102.7 on a transistor radio during a family picnic.  Even casual exposure like that helped me fill in the blanks in my musical knowledge when I was a kid, but my daughter has no similar opportunities in her daily routine. She has become aware of some of rock’s past, because both of her parents and her music teacher often guide her toward those old-school acts that we grew up with ourselves. But I wonder how many other kids are missing out on stuff like that completely.

Rick Shaw, the beloved South Florida DJ who spent 50 years in rock radio, retired about 5 years ago.  When he did, he gave a marvelous farewell message to his listeners, recalling his career and how it had all begun. He mentioned the excitement that surrounded the birth of rock and roll, and the way that this new music reshaped the broadcast world, forcing radio programmers to switch over from the soap operas that had previously been their mainstay to these wild new sounds :

“Radio stations all over the country had bitten the bullet, [and] changed their format…stations that were literally nowhere in terms of audience ratings vaulted to the top of the heap in just weeks. It was a whole new way to do radio.”

That energizing, unstoppable “new way to do radio” was all about artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Bill Haley and so many others who were blazing a trail through American culture. It’s crazy to think that, today, all of those artists (and even most of the artists that came 10, 20 or even 30 years after they did) are irrelevant to today’s radio programmers. They have been left in the dust, emblems of nostalgia for bygone eras that the youth of today couldn’t care less about. No doubt they will all be recalled and honored for years to come for their contributions to rock, but as to whether they will ever be listened to on a regular basis by the kids of today or the generations of tomorrow, that’s anybody’s guess.

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2 thoughts on “Today’s WTF: Is Elvis becoming irrelevant?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree that there’s a distinction between whether they’ll be listened to on a regular basis, versus whether they’re recalled and honored, and there’s another difference when it comes to influence, as that can last long after an artist is forgotten. There’s definitely a cultural shift going on vis-a-vis early rock-n-roll and how we listen to music, but I actually started discovering new again once Pandora came along, and now I use Slacker. It’s like being back in college again for me, hearing about music from friends. Plus, I find that some music hangs on longer. Some high school kids still listen to Pink Floyd to rebel, which is weird but understandable.

    • Thanks for the comment – and your point about influence actually brings up another observation I’ve made. Although people my age can see the obvious influence that prior artists have had on current ones, the younger listeners haven’t got the same frame of reference, and they don’t know the connections. They might think that Lady Gaga’s the first person ever to use costumes and controversy, or that soulful female balladry began with Adele. So I do hope these blanks in their rock history knowledge get filled in somewhere along the way, and that some of the early artists will still get their due.

      The Pink Floyd thing is hilarious to me, since I’m old enough to remember the original punk era, and the T-shirt Johnny Rotten used to wear that said “I Hate Pink Floyd”. They were the antithesis of everything cool, and now the Flaming Lips do entire Pink Floyd cover concerts, and kids think Pink Floyd’s music is rebellious. The world has gone mad! MAD, I tell you! 🙂

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