Everybody likes some wimpy songs, just not the same ones.
As a researcher working with radio stations, one of the things I've always done for clients is to review their music test lists in hopes of coming up with other songs that might be worth testing. I always take my cues from the songs that are already on the PD's list. Inevitably, I suggest something that the program director is completely unwilling to consider playing. It's usually about something at the older/softer end of the format. And it's always a little bewildering.
"We're trying to modernize, and get away from all the softer, older music," responded one AC PD a few years ago. It was a legitimate objective. And one I would have gladly supported. But he was testing three Michael Bolton ballads.
Even before that, it was abundantly clear that programmers were subjective about what music they consider wimpy. Everybody has some softer, older music he or she likes. Everybody has some softer older music he or she considers reprehensible. Often the two are of a piece. Listeners have their own inconsistencies, but they don't always line up with programmers' own perceptions.
That's why there are AC stations that have jettisoned their '70s Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, and Elton John records, but kept Air Supply's "All Out of Love." Because it's from the '80s (by six months) and therefore somehow more contemporary.
That's why a friend recently told me that he thought the oldies/greatest-hits format wouldn't be viable much longer. He was in favor of switching oldies stations to the super-soft AC format heard in Miami, San Diego, and elsewhere. Was Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind" (a mainstay of that format) really hipper than "Go Your Own Way?" I asked. "I grew up with that song. I love that song," he said.
What listeners grew up with often has a lot to do with it as well. A year ago, I wrote about the city councilman who named his 11 favorite songs to the Washington Post. Nine were unavoidable Classic Hits/Classic Rock warhorses. The other two were the more obscure "Words" by the Monkees, and "Suspicions" by Eddie Rabbitt. The former is a garage-rock classic. The latter is a mostly forgotten melding of country and smooth jazz. And this was on a list that included "(Don't Fear) The Reaper."
Sometimes, however, not having grown up with a song actually helps. AC stations have pretty much stopped testing "Sometimes When We Touch" by Dan Hill. But it was a regular occurrence to see it test surprisingly well with anybody in the AC target, but a little better with younger listeners. I could only posit that it was still sort of novel to them -- just another pretty song from before their time. They didn't know it was any different than liking, say, "Your Song" by Elton John, not having grown up with either.
Then there's "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, which confounds in every way. There has not been a moment since its initial release in 1967 -- by a 66-year-old artist whose surprise 1964 comeback had already run its course -- when "What a Wonderful World" sounded like it actually belonged on the radio. And most Americans didn't hear it until more than 20 years later. Today, it's the song that occasions the most conversations with PDs, since the choice is usually between overruling the listeners, who still love it, or cringing as it brings the station to a halt.
We know that with a generation or two, harder songs soften. "More Than a Feeling" becomes an AC staple, while "You Shook Me All Night Long" plays at weddings. Softer, older songs have a more complicated arc, because they start out in different places. Some were your parents' music, but carry fond memories for just that reason. Some were just hit songs from our childhood that we didn't know we weren't supposed to like.
And some just aren't worth disliking anymore. In early 1982, "Through the Years" by Kenny Rogers represented everything that was wrong with top 40 at the time. I regarded it as the very lowest moment of the format. I wouldn't actively seek out "Through the Years" now. But when I encounter it, it rankles less. After 17 years with my wife, I at least understand what it's about.
How I felt about "Through the Years" was also a reflection of the wimpiness of what else was on the radio at the time: "Leader of the Band" by Dan Fogelberg; "Key Largo" by Bertie Higgins; "Sweet Dreams" by Air Supply; "Take It Easy on Me" by Little River Band. Then again, I liked "You Could've Been With Me" by Sheena Easton, even though I'd despised everything else of hers until that moment. Subjective.
As the '80s continued, and top 40 picked up the pace, the handful of MOR holdovers didn't seem as annoying. Last year, during top 40's spate of piano ballads -- Rihanna's "Stay," Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason," Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" -- I wondered if there was an equally disillusioned teenager thinking, "This stinks." But it was hard to find evidence of anybody who didn't like those songs, or of long-term damage to the top 40 format.
So to recap: It's how you felt about the song at the time. It's how you feel about the song now. It might be how you felt about your parents, but it's certainly how you feel about becoming your parents. Alcohol affects things, too. It was the rise of martini lounge culture that gave '50s and '60s MOR new currency in the '00s. An ongoing utility as barroom sing-alongs keeps "Margaritaville" and "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" relevant, even to people who didn't grow up with them. But they're of a musical piece with a lot of late '70s songs that have disappeared, including "Suspicions."
If PDs played only the wimpy songs that still endured in music testing and pop culture, they'd have only a handful of songs to deal with anyway. And there'd be no need to worry about whether "What a Wonderful World" is more or less cringe-inducing than, say, "She's Like the Wind." And if they just decided not to play any of those songs, they'd be making a bold decision of a different kind.