Do you (mis)remember modern rock and roll radio?

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of their “Alternative” (nee “Modern Rock”) chart, billboard recently published a piece on the disappearance of OG modern rock acts on contemporary alternative radio. The piece reports that “tunes from the ‘80s to only comprise about two or three percent” of alt radio playlists because listeners are “really looking ahead more than behind” and want “what’s new.”

The way these stations “look behind” and represent 80s modern rock to alternative radio listeners in 2018 is especially interesting because it misrepresents 80s modern rock radio, which was comparatively diverse in terms of gender, race, and genre, in the gender, race, and genre terms of contemporary “alternative rock.” Tellingly termed “the forefathers of the format,” contemporary alternative’s perceived 80s roots are all white dudes. “when diving into the last week of playlists from the 65 or so alternative stations who report to the chart, the Top 10 most-played ‘80s songs were (according to Nielsen Music):

  1. Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)”
  2. Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”
  3. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
  4. Beastie Boys, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”
  5. Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey”
  6. The Cure, “Lovesong”
  7. R.E.M., “The One I Love”
  8. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
  9. Beastie Boys, “Paul Revere”
  10. Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?””

It’s ironic that this list is almost half Beastie Boys tracks, as one of its members is married to Kathleen Hannah, whose iconic groups Bikini Kill and Le Tigre appear nowhere even close to this list. However, Beastie Boys combine hardcore with hip hop, and depart from rock as much as they are grounded in it.

So the interesting thing about this top ten is that it looks NOTHING like modern rock charts in the 80s, which were, like today’s Alternative Songs chart, much more diverse in terms of genre and artist identity. The September 23, 1989 Modern Rock Songs chart was topped by The B-52s “Love Shack,” and the top 20 included songs by Ziggy Marley, Exene Cervenka, The Sugarcubes, Underworld, and Big Audio Dynamite. Commercial modern rock radio station WOXY 97X’s year end album chart for 1989 likewise had The B-52s at the top and included Big Audio Dynamite, 10,000 Maniacs, New Order, and local acts Guadalcanal Diary and Adrian Belew.

Popularity is the stated criterion that shapes that top 10 list–contemporary programmers say the only OG modern rock songs contemporary alternative listeners want to hear ““They’re generally the songs that have had the benefit of being a critical mass, almost top 40 song at the time,” says Kaplan, noting The Ramones, R.E.M. and The Cure as ALT 92.3’s go-to retro artists.” If contemporary alternative stations play only the most popular OG modern rock tracks, what, then, about “Love Shack”? In 1989, Rolling Stone readers picked it as the best single of the year. It hit #3 on the billboard Hot 100, and went to #2 on the BBC’s UK chart. It endures as a karaoke favorite. It was and is very popular, but it’s not on the list of 80s songs played today on alternative radio. Why?

In the 30 years since the debut of the Modern Rock chart there’s been a systematic re-telling of the story of 80s modern rock which transforms an originally omnivorous and diverse format into a litany of “forefathers.” We can see this re-telling as it happens in the history of the 97X Modern Rock 500, which ran from 1989-2009.

Every Memorial Day Weekend from 1989-2009 (with the exception of 2004, when the station was briefly off the air), 97X broadcast the Modern Rock 500. Named for the F1 auto race happening about two and a half hours west on I-70 in Indianapolis that same weekend, the Modern Rock 500 counted down what the station staff determined to be the best and most canonical songs in the station’s format.

The songs in the #1 spot fit the profile of the songs contemporary alternative continue to play. The first #1 song from 1989–The Smiths’s “How Soon Is Now?” was the #2 song on the last MR 500 in 2009, and it never fell out of the top 10. The only time #1 song was something other than  this Smiths song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or a song from R.E.M., The Ramones, or The Sex Pistols was in 2009 when The Pixies’s “Where Is My Mind?” topped the chart; that year was also the only year anyone from the listening area held the #1 spot (Pixies bassist Kim Deal was from Kettering, OH, a suburb of Dayton).

The shape of the top 20 does shift significantly. In 1989, the top 20 looks a lot like the 89 modern rock charts.

  1. The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now?”
  2. R.E.M. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
  3. Modern English, “I Melt With You”
  4. New Order, “Blue Monday”
  5. The Cult, “She Sells Sanctuary”
  6. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Cities in Dust”
  7. New Order, “Bizarre Love Triangle”
  8. Romeo Void, “Never Say Never”
  9. The Cure, “Let’s Go To Bed”
  10. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
  11. The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the U.K.
  12. Violent Femmes, “Blister In The Sun”
  13. U2, “Bloody Sunday”
  14. The B-52s “Rock Lobster”
  15. Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
  16. The Nails, “88 Lines About 44 Women”
  17. Time Zone, “World Destruction”
  18. The Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated”
  19. XTC “Dear God”
  20. The Cure, “Love Cats”

In 1989, there were several women and one non-white person in the top 20: Siouxsie Sioux, Gillian Gil (two songs), Cindy Wilson and Kate Pearson, and Deborah Iyall of Romeo Void were in the top 20, as was Afrikaa Bambaataa as part of Time Zone with Joyn Lydon. The Talking Heads and the Pixies are not on the chart despite having released major records by 1989.

Over the 20 years of countdowns, a canon solidifies. The top 20 consists of a mix of: first-wave punk (Clash, Pistols, Ramones), Manchester Post-Punk (Joy Division/New Order/Smiths), goth (The Cure, Depeche Mode), NYC Downtown Scene (Television, Talking Heads), American indie (REM, Pixies), American hardcore (Fugazi), and 90s alternative crossover stars (Nirvana, Radiohead).

However, by 2009 the range of genres and people in that canon significantly narrows.

  1. Pixies Where Is My Mind?
  2. The Smiths How Soon Is Now?
  3. The Clash London Calling
  4. Joy Division Love Will Tear Us Apart
  5. Depeche Mode Personal Jesus
  6. Radiohead Paranoid Android
  7. Violent Femmes Blister In The Sun
  8. U2 Sunday Bloody Sunday
  9. R.E.M. Radio Free Europe
  10. Elvis Costello Radio, Radio
  11. David Bowie Space Oddity
  12. Radiohead Creep
  13. Talking Heads Burning Down The House
  14. Fugazi Waiting Room
  15. Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit
  16. Television Marquee Moon
  17. The Replacements Alex Chilton
  18. Sex Pistols God Save The Queen
  19. The Ramones I Wanna Be Sedated
  20. The Cure Just Like Heaven

In 2009 there are no people of color in the top 20 Tina Weymouth and Kim Deal are the only white women–which is fascinating, as their bands released major records in 89 but did not appear in the top 20 of the 1989 MR 500. Even Gillian Gill gets written out of the top 20 as dancier, synthier New Order gets replaced with its more traditionally rock sounding predecessor, Joy Division.

The 20 years of the Modern Rock 500 show us how the modern rock canon was formed in real time. The story modern rock radio told about itself shifted over the course of the 20 years to center white forefathers and more straightforwardly rock sounds.

So the shape of 80s modern rock on contemporary alternative radio has very little to do with listeners’ tastes in 2018. As the 2009 MR 500 shows, this shape was already pretty well solidified ten years ago. It appears to be that the making of a modern rock canon involved reshaping a diverse and omnivorous format into a litany of forefathers because we can only imagine canons as composed of dads. So, this is less the fault of millennial listeners and more the fault of the gender politics of the concept and practice of musical canons. It’s as though we live in a world that can only imagine inheritance (especially the inheritance of whiteness) in patrilineal terms! (I mean, we do.) 80s modern rock is another thing millennials get blamed for killing when really the world’s shitty politics are to blame.

Modern rock was already too post-genre (or perhaps post-format) in the 1980s for today’s radio formats, which seem to cut a gender-based line between masculinized “classic rock” and feminized “adult contemporary”: “songs that may now be considered too rock-heavy for alternative stations spinning pop-crossover artists like Portugal. The Man or Twenty One Pilots might also be too keys-laden or genre-bending for stations dependent on more traditional rock icons like Led Zeppelin or Tom Petty.” In this context, “rock” functions as something that must be kept pure of synths or blurred genre boundaries, and as something that must be prevented from mingling with pop sounds. Modern rock follows the traditional “omnivorous” formula identified by Peterson & Kern in the mid-90s: highbrow genre (in this case, rock) + a diverse range of traditionally lowbrow genres (blues, reggae, synthpop, disco, etc.). In traditional omnivorous consumption, elite status is signaled by one’s ability to overcome old-fashioned commitments to purity and be down with new commitments to diversity. But modern rock seems to be out of place in a context where omnivorousness works differently. The previous quote frames “rock” as something that must be itself kept pure and must also be kept from contaminating otherwise omnivorous pop crossovers. Here, omnivorousness means anything but trad rock sounds, which read as something incapable of crossing over and accommodating diversity or flexibility (like a diversity of instrumentation or genre-bending). It’s almost as if rock is a stand-in for an old-fashioned toxic white masculinity that hasn’t been able to chill out enough to embody contemporary neoliberal ideals of white masculinity, which is above all tolerant, adaptable, and flexible.

I’m interested in this because it shows that there are reasons beyond the economics of fledgling online radio to blame for’s ultimate demise in 2010. The political economy of rock radio couldn’t accommodate the kinds of sounds and gender/race politics those sounds represent that WOXY’s history committed it to.