On the purging of all things comfy from Radio 2
The Sunday drive and the country dog walk I enjoy with my good lady have recently taken a turn toward the postmodern philosophy lecture in our futile endeavor to find a comfy radio station to listen to during the drive. I can't stand adverts, so that knocks out the commercial variants and I find playlists boring and predictable. I wanted advert free easy listening with a DJ who sounded like a reassuring, knowledgable uncle. Soothing tones speaking authoritatively as I was surprised once again by how much I love Al Stewarts Year of the Cat and the weird but not scary intensity of A Horse With No Name. I could grin and endure Whitney Houston if the hope of Bread's The Guitar Man lay waiting on the other side of the cacophony. Remember Supertramp's Logical Song with its spooky and ominous undertones of an innocent mind being fiddled with by political ideology and ‘‘education’’? It sounds better now.
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh, it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily
Oh, joyfully, oh, playfully watching me
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh, responsible, practical
Then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh, clinical, oh, intellectual, cynical
The radio station I’m describing here existed until recently in Britain and we called it BBC Radio 2. Alas, the comfy uncle with a vast knowledge of Mary Hopkins and the early 80s New Romantics scene has been metaphorically taken out back and shot like Old Yeller. His wisdom was purged and his colossal collection of forgotten Boomer greats scraped off the boot of the inclusion and equity diversity Tsars. As a person of diversity Whitney still just manages to cling to the playlist but waiting on the other side now could be The Prodigy or Drill Rap. Don’s American Pie and the odd bit of Simon and Garfunkel still bob about like icebergs among the rapidly melting icecap of another institution disintegrating in the solar glare of ‘‘inclusivity’’.
The pattern is by now depressingly familiar. I endure, what David Starkey described as the ‘‘Jamaican patois’’ of the new DJ, in the forlorn hope that there’ll still be an audial respite only to have my hopes crushed once again when Riannha replaces the Wichita Lineman — inevitably resulting in my wail of ‘‘What the hell sort of Radio 2 song is that?’’.
Here we run into the definition game, what exactly is Radio 2 music? Or to whittle it down to its essence: what is easy listening music?
The dictionary definition of easy-listening music is ‘‘popular music that is undemanding’’. An example of an ‘‘undemanding’’ song that would’ve peppered easy-listening playlists for decades would be Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Metallica’s Master of Puppets is not easy-listening music or undemanding. However, here we come to the problem because such statements beg the question of ‘‘Says who?’’. The interpretation of what is and what is not easy-listening or undemanding is highly subjective and therefore difficult to defend as a cultural form. As is ever the case, the inability of normal people to clearly define what it is they’re defending leads to a rearguard action of ad-hoc rationalizations and poorly designed defensive positions. I have a sense that all such arguments have already been pre-empted and countered by the new capos at Radio 2.
For example, one common complaint from traditional listeners was that there was too much modern music being played now. Such a paltry papier-mâché defensive line was obliterated by The Chemical Brothers or Born Slippy’s hardcore dance anthems being well in advance of 25 years old, so now whatcha got? The managers know very well what the listener of easy-listening music desires to hear, however, they also know that the rhetorical wordplay and definition game is so poorly constructed that they can torment and cajole, insult, and bully them. We’ve seen this all before, on far more contentious issues such as race or even sex.
A friend of mine somewhat mockingly raised the issue that all the people who listened to the music I enjoyed were dead now and no longer constituted an audience for easy-listening. The plummeting audience figures of Radio 2 would suggest that this isn’t the case, however, implied here is that the easy-listening genre will itself be subject to change over time. In this framing, each generation will be sentimentally tied to the music of their own era more than to something that is fixed. Noel Harrison’s Windmills of your mind will make way for ABBA who will, in turn, make way for The Beastie Boys who are succeeded by The Prodigy. By this dubious standard in the year 2040, we can expect Drill Rapper Digga D and guttural ditties on street stabbings and rape to be classed as easy-listening.
Radio 2 still constitutes the largest radio audience in the UK despite its falling numbers. So it isn’t the case that older music performs poorly, quite the opposite in fact because the younger demographic hardly even listens to the radio, and those that do will listen to Radio 1. Nevertheless, because Radio 2’s appeal was never formally codified and locked down with a formal description the termites have arrived to invert its meaning and gnaw away at its fabric — reducing it to mush.
Fundamentally it is an example of a cultural niche or institution whose form and meaning were informally understood by the people. The Radio 2 playlist wasn’t actually a list in the sense that some acts were on it and some were not. Rather, the listener and the DJ could use their intuition as a guide, their ‘‘common sense’’. It wasn’t the case that Radio 2 simply played old songs or that it had a ‘‘demanding’’ litmus test wherein the loudness of the guitars or intensity of the singing was filtered out. Yet, it would have been commonly understood that Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall anthem would be suitable, and the meandering and somewhat artsy Sheep track from Animals would not. However, if one day Steve Wright decided to play Sheep to fill in some dead space it would not be seen as an egregious faux pas — but it would be seen as an outlier, the external ring of allowable weirdness for the station.
For the more modern and progressive DJs there is no external ring of weirdness, there are no outliers and there doesn’t have to be precisely because the rules were not formally written and codified so they can now run rampant.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar then it should because using an outlier to establish a norm is the all-pervasive and dominant dialectical tool of the progressive mindset, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. What they’re now doing to Radio 2 they also did to the English, Scots, and Welsh. Consider this for an interaction:
‘‘Ok, so define Radio 2! You do know Ken Bruce once played the Sex Pistols right?’’
‘‘Yeah, but the Sex Pistols are like 40 years old’’
‘‘Ah, so loud music is only allowed if it’s old, not because it’s loud music?’’
‘‘Erm, I suppose…’’
‘‘Ok, so what about Marilyn Manson, that’s loud and old. So is Nirvana and Slipknot?!’’
‘‘Erm…I just miss hearing Bryan Ferry’s ballads really’’
‘‘Bryan Ferry is still on the list, nobody has harmed your precious Bryan Ferry!’’
Your fave old crooners are not being replaced, there’s just more ‘‘diversity’’ and inclusion now. There is no set tone, atmosphere, or informal agreement just a dictatorial blancmange of non-descript jello where once a form existed that everyone could recognize, enjoy, and understand.
It’s fashionable to ‘‘bash the Boomers’’ these days but the hard truth is that the body of music they produced during the 60s, 70s, and early 80s stands over pop culture like a colossus, overshadowing and dwarfing the output of the succeeding generations. Radio 2 is/was an oddity because trendy Gen X and Millennial DJs would be responsible for pitting Bruno Mars against David Bowie, Lizzo against Diana Ross, and Ed Sheeran against Bob Dylan. It is a competition that simply can not be won on an equal playing field and so, as is so often the case, the game has to be rigged in favour of the inferior resulting in yet more cultural decay.
Perhaps there’s an analogy in that too…