Archived Story

Remember the days when rock was on the air?

Published 9:40am Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pothole Prairie by Tim Engstrom

There was once a time when the radio played rock music. Yes, some of it was lousy, manufactured, formulaic music, but much of it was relatable, written and played by bands all across the country.

I am talking about the 1990s.

Sure, hip-hop went through transformative changes in the decade, and it was a time of over-played ballads by the likes of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.

But the radio was filled with new hits by rock bands, from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana to “Lump” by Presidents of the United States of America to “Loser” by Beck to “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas to “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica to “No More Tears” by Ozzy Osbourne to “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys to “1979” by Smashing Pumpkins to “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette to “Runaway Train” by Minnesota’s own Soul Asylum. What was first called alternative music became common.

Sure, on MTV or on some stations, people had to put up with Madonna, Britney Spears and Bryan Adams — pop music never goes away. But there was plenty of rock on the pop charts. Kids could afford to be picky over which rock was good or bad. For instance, Hootie and the Blowfish was lame compared to Stone Temple Pilots. Could Chumbawamba please disappear from the airwaves?

For the record — and call this a rant, if you will — pop music is almost always the lousy, manufactured, formulaic music that radio stations feed us. It’s hard to get the music world to change. The pop stations continue to feed people pablum these days, like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Pitbull, that spoiled Bieber brat and, cringe, Miley Cyrus. Even a great song like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams took off overseas before American programmers figured out what a good tune it really was. They’d rather feed us the garbage that sounds like whatever came out already.

And you notice something? There is a whole heck of a lot less new rock music on those top 40 stations. I would be thrilled to hear a mediocre ’90s band like Hootie and the Blowfish making a comeback on the charts these days. Sorry, Chumbawamba, not you.

At home, I tend to listen to Pandora on my cellphone or on my iPad. The station I listen to the most is called ’90s Alternative Radio. Now and then, it feeds me overblown bands like Oasis, Semisonic and Third Eye Blind, but most of the time I am happy to hear the likes of Everclear, Pearl Jam, Sublime, Jane’s Addiction, Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In my truck, I listen to classic rock stations. Sometimes, they play a tune from the 1990s, and I have this thought: Why don’t the stations stop calling themselves classic rock stations and just call themselves rock stations? That way, Gen Xers like me wouldn’t think it sounds awkward to have a “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam follow “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. There’s too much of a generation gap for ’90s music to be called “classic rock,” and I think the two generations that love rock the most — baby boomers and Gen X — would agree on that.

Then there is 93X in the Twin Cities. It does call itself a rock station, and it plays classic rock like Led Zepellin and AC/DC (never namby-pamby tunes like Eddie Money or The Cars), 90s alternative rock (not Hootie, the good stuff like Alice in Chains and Radiohead), the good stuff from the 2000s (when there was good rock, just less of it; such as Incubus and Audioslave, not Creed) and the modern rock — usually some bands we Greater Minnesotans don’t recognize.

The No. 1 song right now in the country, no matter the genre, is “Happy.” But the No. 1 song on the rock chart right now is “Pompeii” by Bastille. I have never before heard of the song or the band before I looked them up as I write this. A song titled for a volcano in Italy by a band named after a prison in Paris? I listened to it, and, um, it stinks. This is the No. 1 rock song?

What’s funny to me are Disney shows for kids where they portray the pinnacle of music success being in a famous rock band. From what kids tell me, when they want to listen to rock music, they have to go back in time to prior decades. Sure, there are some rock bands still out there today, like Foo Fighters, Green Day, Dave Matthews Band and Linkin Park — some even like the unintelligible hard metal like Slipknot and Korn — but the radio landscape of new music is dominated by blather.

We get Lady Gaga, not Eddie Vedder. Yikes! We are living in a music desert.

The fact is that the radio dial is so diversified these days that no single genre is really all that popular. No wonder people are listening to specialized radio stations either through music players, cellphones or electronic tablets.

Considering the popularity of rock music over the decades among teenagers and young adults, I must believe that it will be back. It’s just out of vogue right now.

My son is 7. He asks for “something that rocks” when I turn on music.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.