It’s a familiar memory for most Americans around my age (at 33, I’m an old millennial): riding in the car with one’s parents, or perhaps one’s grandparents, listening to “oldies” radio. It’s an experience that’s nearly obsolete today, with streaming services and satellite radio offering more variety and customization than good ol’ FM. Analog radio is still a thing, however, and one I turn to for kicks in my early ‘00s Volvo when I grow tired of my stack of CD’s. I’ll listen to NPR, classic rock, and those “mix” stations that zig-zag randomly between Rick Springfield and Sugar Ray and Taylor Swift. But I can never seem to find “oldies” anymore.
Oldies radio, loosely defined as the hits of the “birth of rock” era — the late 1950s through the mid-1970s — came into existence in the early 1970s due to a surge of nostalgia for the music of the ‘50s, fueled by the film American Graffiti. (You see, millennials aren’t the only generation obsessed with reliving our childhoods; we just do it via Buzzfeed.) The format had major longevity, and though it has been on the wane in the past decade (or, rather, as music of the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s has forced the ’50s out), there are still plenty of places to hear the “oldies” as they were originally characterized — satellite radio, for one, as well as a treasure trove of compilation CD’s in the used bins.
What does that single, silly word “oldies” bring to mind? If you’re like me, you picture sun-soaked backseats, and fighting with a sibling on a family road trip. Drinking a milkshake at Steak ‘N’ Shake, or an equivalent faux-‘50s diner. Or maybe it’s Kevin Kline and Glenn Close dancing around with salad in The Big Chill. Four girls riding bicycles in Now and Then. Your mother aerobicizing to Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies on VHS. But the real cultural contribution of oldies radio is of course its music and its spot-on curatorial ear, so unlike your average mix station or JACK FM that just tend to simply grab from the most popular tracks from the past twenty years and throw them on the air.
Oldies radio is not the place to go for the underground, the cool, or the experimental. That’s what you discover on your own. Like any radio format, oldies playlists are narrow in scope, but unlike other formats, they create a specific sonic world — fitting for a format borne out of a film, which in turn was born out of one man’s adolescent memories (that would be George Lucas, writer/director of American Graffiti).
It’s true that the music of this era has been endlessly mythologized, alongside the other notable events of those post-war years when our currently dominant media-makers and storytellers, the baby boomers, were coming of age. People of my generation, of course, had our own music, just as much a part of the fabric of our childhoods. But when I was too young to really choose my music, those impressionable single-digit years when our brains learn how to make meaning, I was listening predominantly to oldies, glorified and “golden.” One of my earliest self-conscious memories is a moment when, as a kindergartner, I was singing along to Bobby Darin’s “Dreamlover” in the car. “She knows all the words,” I heard my mom whisper to my dad, before I even realized I was singing.
Most music on oldies radio is sunny and optimistic-sounding, or melancholy in a wistful, buoyant sort of way — the exception being any Brian Wilson-penned Beach Boys song, best followed by a perky Lovin’ Spoonful tune to rescue listeners from the brink of despair. It’s The Four Tops, the Temptations, The Supremes. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Dion, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. It’s “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” “This Magic Moment,” and “Stand by Me” (and there’s always plenty of carefully chosen early Beatles and Stones mixed in).
Perhaps what’s so appealing to me about the oldies format is the fact that it is mainly about nostalgia, one of my favorite intangibles. As a child listening to a station like the local “Cool 101.3” (with its soothing dad-like DJ’s proclamation of “Good times, GREAT oldies!”), I heard the music of my parents’ childhood, and my grandparents’ adulthood. I felt not nostalgia, exactly, but a desire to feel nostalgic. I was too young to be nostalgic, but it was a feeling I could imitate, and could stare out of car windows and imagine.
Most of the songs I heard on oldies radio were love songs, but then there were those more complicated tunes that I didn’t quite understand, due to cultural context or maturity. There was something so heart-tugging to me hearing Chubby Checker sing, “Let’s twist again / like we did last summer,” not realizing this could basically be decoded as, “Buy Chubby Checker records like you did last summer.” To me it still feels more like a melancholic reminder of how time slips away than a crass commercial. Similarly appealing was Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which I didn’t understand in the least but nevertheless attempted to memorize. My mom eventually explained it was about Buddy Holly dying, which did not clear things up, and I had no idea what it meant to take a “Chevy to the levy” (and now that I do: it’s a bit of a stretch, Don). His sweet voice and precise rhymes gave me chills anyway, and the song still does, though to many of my serious music fan friends it represents the cheesiest self-glorifying tendencies of the early ’70s.
Most rock and pop music shares one emotion in common: longing. That, in particular, is what oldies radio taught me: the ability to long for something, even if I didn’t know what it was. There’s a singular joy in longing, especially for a child who’s not conditioned to pair it with worry. I longed to be an adult, to experience, to live the brooding fantasies of these love songs, even though they were decades older than me and positioned in a retrograde culture that no longer existed. In my young heart, I felt the regret of the Four Tops as they sang, “Another day, another night / I long to hold you tight” and the urgency of the Righteous Brothers singing “I’ve hungered for your touch / a long, lonely time…” And I felt the deep sadness of Brian Wilson when he sighed, “Well it’s been building up inside of me for oh, I don’t know how long…”
Before I was old enough to choose my music, oldies radio chose it for me. And with so many years and so much rock ’n’ roll history to discover, I didn’t care that I wasn’t listening to kids’ music, or the latest Paula Abdul. I’ve never understood the value in background music, personally: if there’s something playing, turn it up. I will hear it and feel it, memorize the words, and think about what they mean. And this is what I did on all those long car rides as a child, between games of My Little Pony and arguments with my brother: I began to feel music, to turn these songs over in my head and expand my verbal and emotional vocabularies. I began to learn about the world, less as it was than as we want it to be. And as I got older, I maintained this relationship with music. I’m now able to curate my own playlists, but I still long for that warm fuzziness of oldies radio, and that quaint voice on the other end, introducing me to the past.