The homages to Aretha Franklin continue, weeks after her death on August 16. NPR on offered guidance on how to stream and “fully appreciate” her funeral. CNN reported that black-and-white signs reading “Respect” were unveiled at the Franklin Avenue stop on the A/C line in Brooklyn.
These are entirely warranted. Franklin was a larger-than-life musician whose voice and cultural influence should (and I hope will) remain deeply embedded in American musical identity. “Chain of Fools” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” are probably my two favorites. Yet I’ve wondered, particularly whenever I listen to the radio, who is still listening to music like hers?
I rarely ever hear old R&B or Motown hits on the radio while driving around the Washington DC area. My first internet search on radio stations in my area told me several stations play such music — until I realized the Washington Post article I was reading was from 1999. According to a more recent story, the last oldies station in the DC area transitioned to classic rock in 2006. This was a national trend in the mid-2000s, when oldies began to vanish from the airwaves. This is a shame, and reflects the deteriorating musical tastes of American ears.
I can now trace several generations of American radio listeners through my experience listening to music in cars. When I was in elementary school in the 1990s, the Oldies and Motown were ubiquitous on the radio. This made sense, since the people who had grown up on that music were in their forties and fifties.
By the time I was finishing high school, I noticed a transition. I could only consistently find one station playing Motown hits by The Temptations, The Four Tops, or Smokey Robinson, or “Oldies” rock like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, or Chuck Berry. Far more common was “classic rock,” which at the time meant stuff that straddled the late 1960s and early 1970s: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, etc.
Now, listening to a station claiming to play “classic rock” while I work out in the morning at the gym, I hear stuff I never would have imagined possessing that label: Van Halen, Twisted Sister, and Motley Crue. The oldest stuff I hear on this station is typically Billy Joel, Journey, or Boston. Most of this music, in my humble opinion, is horrendous. My case that goes beyond personal musical preferences for why trading Aretha Franklin for R.E.O. Speedwagon impoverishes American radio.
The music of Franklin and the scores of other black musicians who hit the airwaves in the 1950s and 1960s had, to state the obvious, soul. It was not simply the pain and suffering many of these artists had suffered at the hands of Jim Crow, discrimination, and racial prejudice. Certainly they channeled those emotions into their music in profound ways. Yet there was far more.
Many of these musicians came from religious backgrounds. Aretha’s father was a pastor, and she grew up singing gospel music. Religious experience, even if not firmly believed, provides artists, be they musicians, writers, or painters, with layers of texture and meaning that can be unravelled for years. Of course, they were also exceptionally talented and classy.
When I listen to Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, or Otis Redding, my heart feels, to quote the great evangelist John Wesley, “strangely warmed.” Their music reflects a certain purity and power that has rarely been replicated in American pop music. There is an authenticity and innocence to the music that allows a white millennial raised in suburbia to spiritually connect with the experience of someone more than 50 years ago. This music is an essential part of American identity and history, and all American citizens should be familiar with it.
Even the “next generation” of music I encountered on the radio in my youth had something important to say. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang “Four Dead in Ohio” in memory of the anti-war protestors shot on the campus of Kent State. One can feel the blue-collar, anti-war emotional intensity in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or the frustration and betrayal with drug culture in the Rolling Stones’ “Heartbreaker.”
Vietnam, the Cold War, and rising rates of drug addiction were all serious moral dilemmas that young musicians were seeking to address and contemplate through song. Even Led Zeppelin’s attempts to connect the raw intensity and sexual passion of Mississippi Delta blues communicates something true, as does the Southern pride of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.
Yet the latest transition, which has taken place in the last 15 years on American radio, reflects a degradation in musical quality — a sterilization of inspiration. The rock of the late 1970s and 1980s, with a number of exceptions (U2, The Police, Bruce Springsteen), is noticeably less interesting than its predecessors. The music most commonly played on classic rock radio stations certainly is less inspired.
Moreover, I’m not sure what hair-band rockers are trying to communicate, apart from a passion for alcohol, drugs, and sex. Yes, Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is catchy, but I would never turn it on for my kids and urge them “This, you’ve gotta hear,” as if it’s an essential part of their cultural identity. When I compare Joan Jett to Franklin, or even to Joan Baez, the atrophy of American musical tastes is arresting.
What’s most amazing — and scary — about “classic rock” music is how the music of my own youth now falls within that genre. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden can all be heard alongside Elton John, ZZ Top, and Pink Floyd. Perhaps in another decade even Led Zeppelin will fade from the airwaves, replaced by the popular rock of the last decade. It’s natural that as one generation declines into old age, the presence of their age’s music on FM radio commensurately declines. I wouldn’t expect to hear the music of my grandfather as I scan stations in my car. But this is precisely the problem.
Even my grandfather’s generation, like my father’s, had its fair share of eternal rhythms and melodies: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole, to name but a few. As much as it’s a shame we don’t hear the heavenly voices of Aretha or Marvin Gaye on FM radio much anymore, it’s also frustrating we are so fickle with our musical tastes that we so readily dispense with true excellence in favor of novelty.
America needs a more concerted effort to preserve the best music of our nation. Although I’m grateful for all the August homages to one of the queens of R&B, perhaps the best honor would be to keep her music on the airwaves.