Has rock & roll become irrelevant? There are lots of reasons why rock may be beside the point, says Chris Willman, but bad commercial radio is the primary culprit
Tom Petty
Credit: Tom Petty: R. Grabowski/ Retna

The Last DJ

Has rock & roll become irrelevant?

If there’s anything music buffs love to do — even more than burn CDs of illegal downloads — it’s bitch about radio. And now a mainstream rocker has written an anthem to give voice to their carping, reupping his ante as a populist hero in the process.

”The Last DJ” isn’t the best single Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have ever put out: The hook is too easy and sing-songey, the lyrics too blunt and polemical, to go down in any hall of classics. Yet this song and several like it on Petty’s upcoming album have the galvanizing effect of suddenly articulating what just about everybody feels, which in this case is that rock & roll is on a slow side to complete irrelevance. Leading it there is a lockstop army of powerless disc jockeys and bottom-dollar-minded radio programmers.

Well, okay, maybe there are a few other culprits responsible for the musical mess we’re in today. Namely, the label execs who sign so much bunk; the careerist musicians who make it; the FCC, which in the ’90s deregulated radio to the point where a few corporations own most major-market stations; the radio listeners who don’t hang up when radio’s hired marketing guns ring up to do ”call-out” research and play 10 seconds of a song to find out if it’s a hit. Complicit, all. But I don’t have any compunctions about essentially blaming the mercenary folks who run radio today. They’re an easier target than Saddam Hussein, and possibly more deserving.

In case you haven’t heard Petty’s peeves — and some stations that would normally play a new tune of his aren’t, possibly for political reasons — ”Last DJ” is a fantasy about one lone soldier who refuses to give in to the system (”There goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to play…”). Our maverick jock even moves to Mexico rather than submit to playlists prepared at national headquarters.

There are passing nods to the phenomenon of ”voice tracking” — wherein chains hire one DJ for multiple cities, creating the illusion that he’s local when he’s being piped in from out of state — and even to satellite radio, which has been heralded as the possible salvation of the medium (”As we celebrate mediocrity/All the boys upstairs wanna see/How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free”).

Petty doesn’t take any shots at independent promotion, unfortunately. I guess you can only include so many damning verses in a song that, after all, Petty does want to get on the radio. But I can’t think of any greater single factor in the downfall of the medium. Just when you think there might be a popular revolt against this ludicrous mechanism for deciding what gets on the air, it gets more ridiculous.

In a development that can only be described as farcical in its labyrinthine logic, Clear Channel (the nation’s foremost owner of radio stations) announced that it would be dealing exclusively with a pre-selected set of indie promoters, who will pay the corporation for the rights to their internal research while being paid by the labels. If you’re wondering how that differs from payola — or indeed, why Clear Channel and other radio operators can’t just hire programmers who are smart enough to pick hit singles on their own, sans all this shady promotional influence — well, you won’t find an answer here.

Is there any hope for better radio? I think we’ve long since passed the tipping point for the salvation of ”local” commercial FM. But unlike Petty, I don’t think it’s such a terrible thing that we have to pay for what we used to get for free — which is to say, free-form radio where a DJ might even pick his own tuneage — via newfangled satellite radio services like XM and Sirius.

We’re used to paying for ”The Sopranos” every month, and I think music fans will ultimately have to get used to ponying up for the chance to hear something other than Nelly, Creed, or classic rock. I don’t even mind that Clear Channel, which is helping to destroy the taste buds of millions of impressionable young Americans as we speak, has a stake in the wonderful XM, which I subscribe to. Big corporations CAN use their superpowers for good as well as evil.

I just drove cross-country listening to dozens of different niche formats, happy in the knowledge that no independent promoter or market researcher had a hand in, say, Hank Snow getting played on the vintage country station I tuned in. I’m grateful for the new technology that allows that degree of narrowcasting to exist on a national level where it can’t, usually, on a local.

But there’s a loss worth mourning here, nonetheless, and I’m glad Petty is helping eulogize it. In the 1970s, I grew up in a city, Cleveland, where seemingly the entire populace had their radios turned on every Friday night to WMMS, which many radio observers — yes, even non-Clevelanders — consider the greatest rock station in history. You may have had similar communal radio experiences in your own youth.

Now, listening to satellite radio, knowing that I’m probably the only person in the nearest four zip codes tuned in to a particular channel — and that I have no chance of pulling up to a stop light and seeing a beautiful blond in a Corvette singing along with the same tune as me — I feel kind of lonely. About as lonely as Tom Petty’s fictional DJ, in fact. But I’ll take a little loneliness over the new Justin Timberlake tune.

The Last DJ
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