A Life of Hearing Differently

Sean RossBy the time I was six, I had already figured out that my taste in music went beyond what was on the radio. My dad worked at WOL Washington, D.C., and it didn’t take long to figure out that some of what he brought home from the music library became a hit, but some of my favorite songs never did. With time, I would come to realize that even some songs that were hits at the time would maintain a different place in the firmament for me than they did with others. “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba was a moment in time for some; it remains in power gold for me (although that may be 10 spins a year).

I’m wondering if I should write this column about how my taste in music has differed through time from that of my friends. Or from the radio listening audience that I serve and protect as a consultant and music researcher. Or from people with, well, you know, normal good taste in music. Am I not just hoisting the freak flag, but parading it through town, then tweeting it?

But unless you are reading your first “Ross on Radio” column, you may have already figured out that my personal taste in music is eclectic. And if you’re here, chances are that your tastes go beyond the safelist as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean your tastes are eccentric. In a world where CHR is still 80% programmed by male PDs and 100% targeted to women — a perennial column unto itself — most PDs know they have to make allowances, no matter how mainstream their tastes. But if you’re a regular reader, your tastes probably go beyond today’s top 20 or the all-time top 300 ratified by Classic Hits.

Some people lord their differences in musical preference over others. It has been telling to watch the critical reaction to Bruno Mars taking home Grammys instead of Kendrick Lamar. (I like and respect them both and would have been happy with either outcome.) Any personal disappointment with the recent output of Justin Timberlake — which I’ve been candid about since “Suit and Tie” — has been overshadowed by the critical piling on that took place the morning after the Super Bowl halftime show. I’d become indifferent to J.T., but this week has actually made me feel bad for him.

I’ve never assumed that other people are supposed to share my taste in music. I’ve always proudly believed mine to be individual. I could usually find used singles I wanted at any used record store without negotiating access to the back room where the “good stuff” was. Used record clerks, known for their own eccentricity, would tell me that it was the most eclectic pile of singles any one person had ever bought, and I was proud of that.

A few months ago, I passed on listening recommendations to Ron Gerber, host of the retro specialty show Crap From the Past. They ranged from the merely overlooked to the obviously oddball. “So do you actually like these songs?” he asked. Yes, of course, at least on some level. Almost nothing I’d share with somebody (especially the host of Crap From the Past) is meant to be the musical equivalent of The Room — enjoyable only for being risible. Music occupies a place beyond good and evil for me. But I acknowledge that you might not see it that way

Nor do I expect you to, because I’m not judgmental about anybody else’s tastes. I don’t acknowledge the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” Music is meant to make people happy, not self-conscious. Having worked with Classic Hits stations in Canada, where Abba had far more hits than they did in America, I recently found myself discussing whether they were a core artist for the format. In Canada, Abba has as many playable songs as Supertramp (which, in Canada, is a lot). They’ll probably never tour, but they’d sell out within seconds (here, too). And they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So why should they in any way need an asterisk to their stardom because some people consider them campy?

Bubblegum has been a constant of my musical taste since it was a current phenomenon. For a moment or so in adolescence, I might have tried to “spake as a man” and like more dignified music, but I got over that quickly. For the most part, that has served me well as a programmer. My oft-discussed fave “Mickey” was already a UK hit by the time I heard it, but I still had a six-month lead on radio here, at a time when the radio was still “Rosanna” and “’65 Love Affair.”

Related to the bubblegum thing, I’ve always liked songs that used repetition strategically — even despite having acknowledged it as the trans-fats of songwriting. In recent years, I’ve refined that. I like repetition in the context of songs that are bouncy and fun. In today’s sludgier pop music, it sometimes feels oppressive. In any event, liking repetition distances me from guardians of good taste, but rarely from the audience.

I grew up listening to R&B first — I knew who the Supremes were at least slightly ahead of the Beatles. I listened to Country as a teenager in an era where few teenagers listened to Country, something hard to imagine now. I came to appreciate Led Zeppelin over time, but I liked the second, more melodic “corporate rock” era of Classic Rock more than the first, which often felt ponderous to me. These are not musical tastes that an insecure man might admit publicly, but again, they served me well through my career.

There are some things the audience generally likes that I never did. I liked “Don’t Stop Believin’” well enough the first thousand times, but I once made a convention panel audience gasp by volunteering that I disliked “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” as a current — now one of the most universal songs of all time. I don’t dislike it now, but I have a hard time sitting through it again on the radio, and I’m glad I have access to music research to know that you do not.

There are some things I like that I know the audience doesn’t. The worst-testing songs are often the most adamant-sounding, but I like the energy of those records. One of the first hits I liked as a kid was “Words” by the Monkees — their darkest, most garage-band like single, which never became anything close to the enduring crowd-pleaser that “I’m a Believer” is. I still regard “Perfect Illusion” by Lady Gaga as a genuinely great single. But I could tell immediately how it would play for most other people. I kinda liked “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift and, in any case, it was off the radio before I could change my mind.

For many people reading this column, being able to tell the difference between how they hear songs and how the audience will is part of the job. What I liked about “Perfect Illusion” is its classic pop structure — its 4/4 drive, the explosive moment at the bridge (ending with its now-infamous modulation). That structure has been rarer in today’s more meandering pop music, and part of what I liked about the Taylor song was its energy. Perhaps we have a new generation of listeners to whom the once-classic sound of a pop hit means nothing. But listeners aren’t voting yes on today’s sludgefest either.

History has shown me that radio often gets in trouble when it tries to enforce perceived good taste. And, for the most part, the audience doesn’t want it to. The enduring appeal of “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba is eyebrow-raising to some, but it’s empirical at this point. Same goes for “Wannabe” by Spice Girls as it resurfaces on the radio and in pop culture. And that tour will sell out within minutes, too.

Beyond that, what I have learned over the years is that having individualistic taste in music is not so eccentric. A few years ago, the Washington Post interviewed a D.C. city councilman about his Desert Island Discs. Eight out of ten were Classic Rock warhorses. But one was “Words” by the Monkees. I’ve come to think that 20% differential from the mass-appeal hits is typical for most people.

People generally, I now realize, enjoy having some music that is not yet common currency on the radio — otherwise, how would they have the enjoyment of introducing it to friends and family? Streaming stats have made that abundantly clear. And if radio maintains its current posture of no more than 15 consensus songs in any given format, that percentage could grow beyond 20%.

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  1. radiodad66 says

    It’s like I’ve told staff members time and again…in our format, it’s not about what WE like, it’s about what the LISTENERS want to hear. I’m burned out on some songs and artists (*cough*John Mellencamp*cough*) that our audience enjoys. I’m going to play them anyway, because it’s not about me.

    My tastes are eclectic, too…ranging from 40’s pop standards to today’s EDM, but if I programmed a station like that, I’d be the only one listening.

  2. trivialtony says

    Like what you said about guilty pleasures. I remember as a kid being teased by classmates when I mentioned I liked Johnny Cash, which my dad played consistently in the car when I was a kid. Bubblegum and teen groups like the Osmonds and Partridge Family were on the radio beside Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, and they created some exceptional pop singles (“One Bad Apple,” “Love Me For A Reason,” David Cassidy’s fine version of “Cherish”) which weren’t as cool but stood just as well beside those warhorses. One more point: I spent most of the 1980s (a lost decade for me) listening to Harvey Holiday on WDAS, Power 99, and later WOGL playing the great songs of the 1950s and 60s. How odd is it for him to play the 80s songs which took over the once powerhouse Oldies (now Classic Hits) 98, where people still love those songs and which bragged, “We OWN this town on weekends.”

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