All My Friends Call Me a Fool
Sometimes I feel silly carrying the torch for AM radio. Ultimately, I know this is a hopeless affair. The radio isn't ever going to be what I want it to be, which only proves that I care about the radio more than the radio cares about me. Or is it so simple? It hasn't always been this one-sided, after all, and we've had a lot of wonderful times together just because our aspirations are so divergent. No matter what those sophisticated-type songwriters say, unrequited love is not a bore. You learn all kinds of things.
Like so much of the best popular culture, AM radio once attracted an audience diverse and open enough to encourage creative latitude but not so spread out that it could be covered only with a mass-cult leveler. This audience began to develop in the midfifties, when certain programmers decided that teen-agers, who consumed most popular music anyway, would consume it more enthusiastically if made to feel it was theirs by proprietary right--ergo, top-forty rock and roll. For a long time, however, the programmers couldn't bring themselves to abandon adults and grownupoids altogether, which together with the ups and downs of rock and roll itself meant that pop pap persisted. The Beatles hit just when the top-forty audience became identical to the rock and roll generation, clearing away the crap for a golden era that lasted roughly into 1966.
Inevitably, the disintegration began. Some of the most acute rock and rollers banded with reprobate folkies and others to form what was then called the underground and has now broadened into the FM rock audience. As Beatlemania waned, ex-teen-agers went back to being grown-ups and demanded music to soothe their not-so-savage souls. The black audience became more self-conscious, its music less accessible to white listeners. Programmers discovered preteens. The result was AM radio that tried to provide a little schlock for everyone.
Yet because it is so massively impersonal, AM can still give me a thrill. I guess it's the thrill of being a citizen. Tired of selecting my own music or afflicted with a busted changer, I put on some FM rock, but because it is programmed by members of my presumed subculture, I expect too much, so that I end up annoyed with its bland pretension rather than excited by some bold discovery or juxtaposition. But driving along with my ray-dee-oh, I discern a gem amid the dreck and wham on the volume--for the Marvellettes' "Playboy" or the latest Stones or some concoction from the music biz's vast left field. Suddenly I have made contact with the outside world. Thousands of people, most of them nothing like me, are listening to this song.
As in so many things, the faults of AM also function as virtues. The repetitive tight format ruins songs that can't live up to their own popularity, but it also forces us to live with songs (and subcultures) we might otherwise ignore. Just because its audience is so broad, AM broadens us, and I am grateful to the nine-year-olds and the housewives and the self-conscious blacks for all their gifts--I'll name "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and "Everything I Own" and "Inner City Blues," but there are many others.
The hip FM audience is justly proud of the breadth of its own eclecticism. Certainly, tastes that range from Poco to Pink Floyd, from Don McLean to the Who, from Judy Collins to Rod Stewart, aren't narrow in the obvious sense. Like the FM audience itself, however, all these artists (good and bad) partake more of the spirit (or appearance) of experiment than of its substance. That is narrow. It's narrow to reject finished products, products others prefer, as plastic (a term that has become unfashionable, and about time, since everyone's records are made of it)--or commercial (a term so ironic it makes record executives laugh all the way to their conglomerates). Above all, it's narrow to define yourself by polarization. I defy anyone who sneered at my three exemplary AM songs to find me an FM song as transcendently silly as "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" or as true to adult love as "Everything I Own" or as representative of the upwardly mobile black ghetto as "Inner City Blues."
The virtual absence of black popular music from FM is especially ominous. Not that FM people aren't happy to listen to blacks who subscribe to their (white) values and styles, from Jimi Hendrix all the way to Billy Preston, or that standard black geniuses like B.B. King and Aretha Franklin and (finally) Marvin Gaye aren't in most FM formats. But programmers admit that a white female singer as good as Ann Peebles or Denise LaSalle would be played immediately, and that the bias of their audience is so subtle and pervasive that any new black artist has to be eased onto the station. On AM, meanwhile, black music has made yet another comeback. Just a few weeks ago, eight of the top ten records were by blacks, and if the current crop of black successes includes the 5th Dimension and Sammy Davis, Jr., well, that's the price of mass cult.
I suppose it's just that I grew up when I did, but I'm happily hooked. I will never turn my Toyota into a personalized module with a tape deck or even an FM receiver, and even though I know that the best popular culture appeals to a relatively narrow audience, I'll remember magnificent exceptions like Chaplin and the Beatles as I punch the station selector, tuning out Sammy Davis in hopes of finding the Chi-Lites somewhere. That "Oh Girl" is a helluva song.
Newsday, June 1972