Shuffle play

If you were born after 1971, you probably don’t care about this, but oldies stations are disappearing. This is, of course, inevitable, as what constitutes an “oldie” must evolve with the passing of time. When I was a little kid, the oldies station in Philadelphia was EZ-101, which played the music that was, by the time I had become a teenager, banished to AM 950, the “Station of the Stars” — Frank, Dean, Ella, Glenn Miller, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find this stuff anywhere on a radio today.

What I think of as “oldies” is the pop music from the 1960s and very early 1970s, up until FM killed the AM top-40 format. I was a nincompoop as far as pop music went until I mastered the oldies repertoire; I knew nothing beyond the music I listened to in high school — from the 60s I barely knew anything beyond the Beatles. But in college I worked/lived in a diner where they piped in a Central Pennsylvania oldies station, and my tastes underwent a revolution as I became acquainted with the source material for the 80s music I was into. When I moved West, my knowledge base expanded, on long drives across the desert back and forth from Tucson to Las Vegas, as I tuned into stations out of Phoenix, Kingman, Laughlin and Vegas. Oldies stations have regional biases, even though regional scenes (a staple of 1960s pop) have entirely disappeared in the wake of cable television and the development of a more centrally controlled culture industry. The regional biases of oldies stations had nothing to do with where the music originally came from, it apparently had something to do with the population in regions now. In Philadelphia, oldies stations are dominated by Motown. In Central Pennsylvania it became more obscure, more garagey — you’d hear left field tracks by The Bubble Puppy mixed in with the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful. In the Midwest, on cross-country trips, I would hear Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gary Lewis and the Playboys. In the West I heard Johnny Rivers, the Buckinghams, the Five Americans, Gallery.

Anyway, that’s all disappearing. In New York, CBS-FM, the longstanding oldies station here, switched to an idiotic format called “Jack,” in which a robot Max-Headroom voice introduces random songs and makes irritating cracks. The whole point of the format seems to be to annoy you, which is odd, because I thought people generally didn’t like to be annoyed. The other ingenious concept is that they play “trainwreck” segues of songs from different decades and different genres, Dan Fogelburg into Grand Funk Railroad into Teena Marie. This is supposed to be really great because it simulates that effect achieved on the iPod of someone with indiscriminate tastes. American culture is so fascinated by iPods that they seem to forget how mundane many of its features really are. We seem to want a new hyperdesigny, ultraindividualistic, superrandom culture based on the promise implicit in the iPod. What astounds me about this is that radio programmers act like the technology for this kind of shuffle play just came into existence with the iPod when in fact it has been around for a very long time: It is called a radio dial. When I turn mine I get a crazy “trainwreck” of Kelly Clarkson into some badass merengue breakdown on one of the Latin stations. Neato!

Why people would think this is a good thing puzzles me. Diversity is great, but that doesn’t make total randomness desirable. Randomness seems like a radical strategy to thwart real diversity, to hollow out the notion of all its meaning. Randomness simulates diversity while exploding the idea that any culture could have any pertinent qualities that are specific to it. It’s all just another song, another cool, unpredictable trainwreck.