Issue # 42
February 16, 2001
Pop Music For Grownups
By Rich Wilhelm

So I'm sitting here tonight, typing away and listening to John Hiatt's Crossing Muddy Waters and Willie Nelson's Yesterday's Wine CDs, while I'm (legally) downloading Merle Haggard's latest album, If I Could Only Fly. All the while, I'm thinking about the old commercial that a local country music station used to air, in which a thirtysomething music fan admits to liking country music and says, "Imagine that. Me, the old Philly rocker." I am becoming that person.

I'm getting older, just like everyone else. Nothing illustrates this as clearly to me as the fact that I seem to know fewer and fewer songs in Billboard Magazine's Top 40 singles chart every week. What's worse is that I don't even care that much anymore.

It didn't used to be this way. After all, I grew up on a steady diet of Top 40 radio. Elton John's classic singles, the immortal work of Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka, the "Sound of Phildadelphia" soul groups (The O'Jays, Spinners, Stylistics, etc.) that still sound great to me--this was the soundtrack of my youth. New wave and, to a lesser extent, punk rock, led me away from the Top 40 during my high school and college years, but I always knew what the big pop hits of the day were.

The day after my college graduation party, I drove over to the record store where I was working and bought every single in the Top 40 that week. The plan was that each week I'd buy the singles that entered the Top 40 chart that week. I rationalized these purchases to myself by saying that since I aspired to be a pop music critic, I should know what the big hits are. I did this for over a year, but unfortunately two events conspired to keep that sub-section of my record collection from being very interesting.

First, the pop charts in 1988 through 1990 were ruled by atrocious, just awful music. I don't know if you are familiar with the "Freebird/Baby I Love Your Way" medley by Will to Power but trust me, if you're not, you do not want to be. If you are, well, then all I can say is I'm sorry. To give you further evidence: 1989 was Milli Vanilli's big year on the charts (though I have to admit that I think owning all the hit Milli Vanilli singles with picture sleeves is actually kind of cool).

Second, in early 1990, the music industry began phasing out vinyl 45's, replacing them with cassette singles (or, "cassingles" if you prefer). Since I wasn't going to involve myself in casette singles, my Top 40 collecting eventually just stopped.

As the 1990's dragged on, I knew less and less about the Top 40 each year, but this process happened so gradually that I didn't realize how thoroughly clueless I'd become until just a few years ago. It now appears that the current wave of teenybopper pop (Backstreet Boys, 'Nsync, Britney, etc.--admit it, you at least know the names of the players in this game) has driven the final brick in the wall between me and the world of Hot Hits.

It's not that I dislike prefab teen pop in principle. The Beatles were teen idols. The Monkees were as prefab as they could be, but the songs can't be denied. I love Hanson's "Mmmmbop." Even New Kids on the Block (who I actually saw in concert with my friend Greg--I'll tell you about that sometime) held my attention for a little while. But this latest crop just has me yawning, and I think the reason why isn't just that I'm 35 years old now. It's the songs.

It all comes down to the music for me, or as John Hiatt was just singing in my ears, "Only the song survives." Great songs are great songs, whether it's the Beatles playing and singing them or Hanson. It seems to me that all that's missing these days is great songs. The Backstreet/'Nsync/Britney/etc. ad infinitum crowd certainly has talent (that is, they know how to sing and dance), but not much substance. It's all just big and bland and vaguely ridiculous, as exemplified by the SuperBowl halftime show featuring Aerosmith, Britney Spears, 'Nsync, Mary J. Blige and Nelly all huffing and puffing their way through Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." What was that line from Shakespeare about so much sound and fury signifying nothing?

But, anyway, I didn't start writing tonight to complain about "these groups today." In fact, one of my current favorite songs is "The Hardest Part of Breaking Up" by the very funny parody boy group 2gether, which is actually allowing me to appreciate the boy group thing just a bit more than I had before. But I came to celebrate the fact that pop music for grownups does still exist if you know where to look for it.

For example, you could jump over to (after you read this, of course) and look up the brand new CD by a band called Solid for Sixty. Their album is called The Secret of Magnets and it's a very cool thing. It's simply a great collection of rock songs covering a variety of styles (from acoustic ballad to brooding rocker to twisted funk to rough-edged pop) made by a bunch of guys around my age who have jobs and families, etc. but who made the time to record the CD because they really love the music. Music matters to Solid for Sixty and that's why Solid for Sixty matters to me.

Another place to find great music for grownups is to check out the nominees each year for the Grammy award for "Best Contemporary Folk Recording." It seems like every year a couple of my favorite albums wind up being nominated for this award. This year John Hiatt's Crossing Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash's American III: Solitary Man, Steve Earle's Transcendental Blues, Emmylou Harris' Red Dirt Girl and Wilco and Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 are nominated. Although I have only heard the Hiatt and Cash CDs, I can tell you that all of these CDs are filled with music that is passionate, sincere and just plain grown-up.

And, being grown-up isn't such a bad thing. Really.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)