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What is "Classic Rock?" One Man's View on a Genre's Debatable Classification

Classic rock n' roll: the go-to genre of any baby boomer's car radio, especially in the South. If you step into a southern man's vehicle when he turns the key, there's a good chance you'll hear the howling guitar solo of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird", or the blaring synth of Rush's "Tom Saywer," among other hits of the 60's, 70's, 80's, and even the 90's these days. Plenty of radio stations consider themselves to be purveyors of classic rock (Shoutouts to our two local stations: 100.7 The River and 106.9 The Fox). Search "classic rock" on Spotify and you'll be inundated with playlist after playlist with varying formats of rock music all mixed together: arena rock, blues rock, hard rock, hair metal, pop rock, southern rock, alt rock, prog rock, and the list goes on and on. Many people say they are classic rock fans (Hell, just look at my name on here and the Country & Cold Cans podcast), and many will debate which artists and songs fit the genre until the cows come home...

...but what exactly is "classic rock," and is it an actual genre of music? This millennial with too much time on his hands looks to explore the big reason many songs are lumped into this category, and if it even is a viable way to classify rock n' roll of bygone eras. Now to everyone who saw that big dirty word "millennial" and immediately discredited my opinion on music from before my time, let me lay out my experience. I grew up with my parents playing classic rock radio every time we drove anywhere, especially when with my dad. Driving to school every morning to get dropped off was always accompanied by the sounds of talk show hosts John Boy & Billy in between batches of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Pink Floyd, and more. As I got older, I kept with classic rock. I developed my own personal tastes, branched out a bit beyond the hits played on the radio, and even (gasp) liked other genres, but classic rock is the foundation on which my musical tastes are built.

Let's get the big question out of the way: Is it a classification of the time since the song's release? Well in that case, why is there no agreed-upon time frame to determine what is and isn't classic rock? Is it 20 years since the song's release? 25 years? 30? When is a song too old to be considered classic rock and then falls into the category of "oldies"?

From my experience, classic rock is very fluid in its concept of time, and it varies from person-to-person. When I was a kid in the late 90's and early 2000's, classic rock's frame of reference, at least to our radio stations, was the late 60's to the late 80's. As time passed, the early 90's soon entered the fray, with acts like Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, and Nirvana traveling over the air waves while the late 60's and some early 70's were phased out, with names like The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix getting less airplay than before, much to my father's dismay. Our stations also leaned more into harder rock as time went on. You rarely heard Ozzy Osbourne or Black Sabbath on our stations when I was a kid, but today you'd be hard-pressed to not hear at least one song sung by the "Prince of Darkness" in a set. Phil Collins, in Genesis or on his own, barely gets a play outside of "In the Air Tonight" nowadays, nor do other less "hard" artists like Peter Gabriel or Supertramp. Of course, this is my own experience with the one or two radio stations from my youth. Living in other areas, their classic rock stations have wildly different tastes and sets. The station I used to listen to on the way to my night shift job in 2016 had an hour of metal every night at 10pm, where I gained more of an appreciation for bands like Quiet Riot and Dokken. To be frank, the answer to the big question is "It doesn't matter." The time in which songs were released and when they were popular plays a role, but as long as its a rock song a person from their 30's to 70's can identify, it can be called "classic rock." Classic rock is honestly just a label used to signal to the older crowd that the rock music that was popular when they were kids, teenagers, and young adults is probably played here. Hell, one day in the not-too-distant future, classic rock radio stations will be playing Nickelback, Paramore, and Fall Out Boy, among other artists of the late 90's and early 2000's, and that will be the day I let the Earth take me back as I crumble to dust. Classic rock is, at the end of the day, a catch-all term merely meant for marketing, plain and simple. Every classic rock radio station DJ will play their preferences over the song they don't like, and they often only play the hits. Classic rock radio is not the place to go if you want a deep cut off an album or to hear a one-hit wonder's other songs. You're better off searching an artist online to see what else they've done or what other acts sound similar instead of getting the same song or two from them every day on the radio.

Let me back up my point about time not mattering with a tale from a few years ago. During a beach trip in 2017, I found a classic rock radio station that hosted Alice Cooper's radio show at night, where he played "classic rock" songs he liked in between listening to him talk. Now Mr. Cooper, being a rocker that changed the game in the 70's, should know classic rock, right? He immediately plays "Dragula" by Rob Zombie. Now let's be clear here: I like "Dragula" by Rob Zombie. However, that song was released in 1998. I was five-years old when that song came out! I had lived my whole life thinking classic rock had to be from 25 years ago or more, and here's a rock legend passing off a song from 19 years ago (in 2017) as "classic rock." I remember being appalled, flabbergasted, and even offended at the notion that this song was considered "classic rock" by a huge name like Alice Cooper.

In the years since then, it has dawned on me that the definition of "classic rock" shouldn't be taken that seriously. One person's classic rock is another's oldies. To a third, their songs may not even qualify to hold the lofty title. I've heard a lot of different artists on classic rock radio over the years spanning many different genres: Elton John, The Beach Boys, Def Leppard, Counting Crows, Styx, KISS, Tom Petty, Alice in Chains... now that's an eclectic bunch of acts right there, and I have barely scratched the surface. Classic rock is whatever your local radio station DJ wants it to be, and it's whatever you want it to be too.

And if you can't trust Classic Rock Carter about classic rock, who can you trust?


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