Cashless and Cheap, We Killed the Radio Star

Sometimes I mourn the loss of acts like John (I Still Call You Cougar) Mellencamp and Tom (a hell of a lot more so) Petty on Top 40 radio.  This post, from June 2009, is about missing acts like Black Lab and The Flys.  Remember them?  They came out in the summer of 1998 along with bands like Semisonic and Harvey Danger and Days of the New.  I worked in the music section of BestBuy that summer, so I remember these things…

…a week or two after I loaded  my new dorm-room-employee-discounted-fridge onto my best friend’s Tempo and secured it with 300-odd feet of rope, I was in college discovering mp3s and file sharing.  Even if you didn’t use Napster, you probably used your campus network to copy songs from your friends’ computers.  It can’t be a coincidence that so many of the bands that came out right before the industry shift this practice created haven’t stayed in the Top 40, which is to say we have only ourselves to blame for forfeiting popular radio and the lost art of music video to the market defined by our allowance-spending, dial-up connecting kid sisters.  Hello, Brittney Spears, Backsteet Boys, NSync, et al.  Hello and you’re welcome.  To all the good bands we killed in the process, I’ll apologize on behalf of all of us.  We didn’t do it on purpose. We were just cashless and cheap.

It’s hard to think of a major pop or rock band to emerge circa 1998 that’s still super popular now.  You might come up with a few, but they don’t spring to mind like bona fide stars of the mainstream.  Go back to 1996 or 97.  Where are the Wallflowers? Why didn’t Primitive Radio Gods become the new Peter Gabriel? Come on, Better Than Ezra! Maybe it’s all very zeitgeisty. Remember that “Take a Picture” song by Filter from 1999?  That song killed.  I know, I know, Coldplay.  But they’re so post-2000.

Everyone knows the saccharine pop side of what happened next. There was also the continued hip-hop move to the mainstream that started with The Chronic and Snoop’s early records, continued through Tupac, Biggie, Puff Daddy and Missy Elliot.  Streets Is Watching came out when I was at BestBuy and then Eminem came in the fall.  Oh, how we laughed at Slim Shady.  “Who is this clown? What’s Dr. Dre thinking?”  Well, we know better now. But hip-hop and rap records, huge as they were, didn’t kill alternative radio.  That was never an either-or kind of thing.  Then came the post-grunge, which started okay but became something else.

Somewhere in all of this, people stopped purchasing alternative pop into the Top 40.  And I’m not talking about all the high-brow indie stuff.  I’m talking about accessible, quirky, well-crafted music with some hooks and a few jangles.  I could tie this in to the recent posts about irony, about how our tastes shifted as a way of escaping sincerity blah blah blah.  I always liked that “Old Apartment” song by Barenaked Ladies.  But “One Week”?  Come on.

“So long ago, remember baby….”  I would hear this at BestBuy and sort of know I was in the process of losing something.  How about that look at 00:28?  Video here.

“I think you’re smart, you sweet thing…”  This is one of my all-time favorite videos.  Do I miss circa 1998 Katie Holmes the way I miss circa 1998 myself?  I think so.  Or maybe I just hate the 2000s.

“Phonebooth” is one of the smarter songs of the decade, circa 1996.

How about Tonic? (The “You Wanted More” video from 1999 is here).  Lemon Parade came out in 1996:

6 thoughts on “Cashless and Cheap, We Killed the Radio Star

  1. I wonder if our accessibility to music was what killed it?

    When I could download individual songs (for free or for $.99 circa iTunes) rather than having to spend $$ on an entire album, I became a lot less choosy about who I’d spend time and money on.

    I remember Tonic’s ‘Lemon Parade’- there was only one or two radio hits, but I ended up LOVING the album because I paid for the whole thing and listened to it over and over again before I could go out and buy another album.

    But iTunes made it easy to preview songs and blow them off because they weren’t initially appealing.

  2. Musicians have been selling the whole diseased cow for FAR too long. Other artistic mediums (films, novels, paintings, cuisine) are judges, critiqued and sold based on their entirety. The Full Sum. The majority of my CD (tape and record) collection have a hit or two and 15 pounds of fluff. Free (or cheap) per song music might actually make musicians accountable for their art. The Full Sum. No more showing up at the studio wasted and excreting the last few filler tracks in time for the drop date.

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