As somebody who schedules music for a living, and who helps guide radio stations toward “playing the hits,” I have no trouble programming “Sweet Home Alabama” next to “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” I know that “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Cold Water” and other recent hits will continue to test for months, and it doesn’t matter that I never warmed to them in the first place. Knowing the difference between your taste and that of your audience is the first tenet of programming.
But I still cannot personally listen to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” on the radio. Or “Brown Eyed Girl.” Or “Jack and Diane.” If it’s on a station I schedule, I might leave it on—afraid to punch out and miss the transition. If “Carry On Wayward Son” comes on any other station that I’m listening to for professional reasons, it’s 5:13 that feels twice as long to me, and I just have to go and come back. I recognize that station as soundly programmed, but it doesn’t matter.
Part of working in music research is learning to understand the difference between listeners’ musical preference and burn. There are certainly songs, particularly “Sweet Home Alabama,” that are both well-liked and yet starting to fry for some listeners. There are also, amusingly, songs that come back as burnt that haven’t been played on the radio in any significant way for decades. Those are the songs that became perma-burned — listeners never recovered from hearing them as a current, even if that was in 1982.
What’s interesting is that even for people in the business, the distinction between sick and tired (and both) is sometimes fuzzy. I threw the question open to Facebook friends. What are the songs — current or classic — that you just cannot personally listen to, even if you know they’re sound programming? Some of the answers were quality songs that have become inescapable. But not all.
The multi-format mega-hits that still play at some combination of AC, Classic Hits, Classic Rock and the wedding hall were all represented: “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Forever Young,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Margaritaville,” “Maneater,” “Roxanne,” “Come On Eileen,” “Jessie’s Girl,” “Love Shack,” “American Pie,” “Maggie May,” and “most of the Bon Jovi catalog” (a comment made almost identically by several readers). There were also votes for anything by Queen, BTO, Billy Joel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eagles, CCR, and Steve Miller Band.
Readers who worked in other formats sometimes went to their own power gold. Rick Schmidt cited Live’s “Lightning Crashes.” Keith Berman named Alice In Chains’ “Man in the Box.” Marcus Chapman chose Maze’s Urban AC staple, “Before I Let Go.” (“It’s played at nearly every party I’ve attended since the late ‘90s.”) For New York radio veteran Fred Buggs, it was having to spin “Always and Forever” by Heatwave at weddings.
The homegrown songs that stations are required to play as part of their Canadian Content obligation were one of the first places I noticed perma-burn. In America, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and even “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are surprisingly enduring. In Canada, they never went away long enough to come back. Not surprisingly, Chris Myers named “most Cancon from the ‘70s and ‘80s,” but especially Trooper’s “Raise a Little Hell.” Bill Gable went back for the Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman.”
There was Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” generally a category of burnt song unto itself, especially if your kids were “Shrek” age at any point. “They played in Boston recently and I wanted to burn everything down,” wrote my Edison Research colleague Tom Webster. I’ve even heard a morning team play “All Star” and start trashing it on the air. But I work with an Adult Hits station that plays it, and I haven’t minded, perhaps because “Blinded by the Light” is on the horizon.
Then there were the recent hits that have become hard to avoid, especially as CHR, Hot AC, and AC share more music: A Great Big World, “Say Something” came up. “Please go away” said Dan Mason (the younger one) of “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots. “If ‘Happy’ went away for a year or two, it would be nice to hear again at that point, I’m sure,” wrote Robbie Mack. Inside Radio’s Chuck Taylor was happy to say “Hello” to Adele last year. Now “100,000 plays later … it’s on the never-again list.”
Finally, there was Christmas. “I hear the opening notes of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and that station is dead to me,” wrote Brendan McNulty. There was “Last Christmas.” There was even “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas.” (“Nothing sounds older than those background singers,” wrote Bob Smolarek.)
But there were also “Seasons in the Sun,” “Baby … One More Time,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” You might have gotten sick of them at the time, even if you liked them, but have you heard them on the radio recently? And any time a reader mentioned a song like that, somebody chimed in with similar sentiments—often adding, “I’d like to hear that.”
“If I ever hear ‘Chick-a-Boom’ by Daddy Dewdrop again. I’m going to climb the tower,” wrote Steve Clem. But you’re unlikely to have to talk him down anytime soon. There was the inevitable mention of Debby Boone. But where would you hear “You Light Up My Life” if you wanted to? And if Bullet’s “White Lies Blue Eyes” came on the radio, I’d ask Washington, D.C., radio mainstay Loo Katz to suffer through it for me.
Whether it’s “Come On Eileen” or “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” the comments made it clear that if you dig into burn, you will often find a lot of people who never liked that song in the first place. The difference between the two is that there are still enough people who like “Come On Eileen” for it to still be playable by many radio stations.
Many of the songs I can’t listen to now are indeed songs that I was outvoted on when they were new. But I liked Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” once. I think I liked “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” well enough. And in 1983, I thought “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was no more a record for the ages than, say, “The Politics of Dancing” by Re-Flex. Somehow, “Sweet Dreams” doesn’t bother me, although maybe I’m just giving Eurythmics extra points for “Missionary Man” and “Thorn in My Side.”
It’s also interesting that the vast majority of the songs mentioned were ‘80s and almost none were the pop songs that populated the Oldies radio “safe list” 15 years ago, when ‘60s were still the center lane and the format was still called “oldies.” CCR and the Doors, two of the last ‘60s acts hanging on to significant airplay, were mentioned. But I’ve long passed the point where I wouldn’t be able to sit through Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — even though I hardly need to seek it out. At this moment, it’s the ‘80s that are most unavoidable — even if they were your music, especially if they weren’t.