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It’s the End of the World as We Know It

When It Comes To The Death Of Modern Rock, Go Ahead, Feel Fine

Smell of Steve Inc.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 5/11/2005

The venerable, much-loved local “modern rock” station WHFS (99.1 FM) met a natural demise in January, done in by market forces, replaced by a new zeitgeist that hablas Español. And yet it did not go quietly. Its corpse was kidnapped and propped up Weekend at Bernie’s style for nightly broadcasts over at Live 105.7 FM. And now the venerable, much-loved annual HFStival returns to Baltimore where true believers and ready-to-party day-trippers alike are gonna shock the stiff with defib paddles so that it jerks around the M&T Bank Stadium stage for a day.

But that won’t bring it back. And that’s OK. Really.

It’s OK because the musicians are still here (in the case of HFStival headliner Billy Idol, somewhat surprisingly), and most of them are still making music that finds an audience. (They Might Be Giants has morphed into a kiddie band, but hey, a whole new generation of young women will be getting epidurals through their lower-back tattoos before long, so it’s only smart business.) The bands, DJs, etc. are playing Baltimore this week, and they’ll play somewhere else next week and the week after, maybe only until the hype around their latest album wears off, maybe for years and years to come. (There’s always the state fair.) It’s not the artists or the music per se that needs a decent burial, it’s the idea that somehow this music, packaged together as a commercial radio format, signifies something other than a product that has reached its sell-by date.

WHFS did not die alone. Modern or “alternative” rock stations in many other big markets, including Philadelphia’s WPLY, recently switched to other formats and with plenty of reason. According to an April 28 article in The New York Times, Arbitron ratings of modern-rock stations plunged more than 20 percent in the crucial 18-to-34 bracket during the past five years. Modern-rock radio succeeded in the first place because a young, relatively hip audience wanted something to listen to on the radio other than Top 40 pop and unreconstructed classic rock. While it’s nice that a coupla iterations of dewy new music fans have gotten to know and love the Violet Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” or the Cure’s “Pictures of You” through stations such as HFS, apparently a major fraction of the young, relatively hip audience now wants to listen to something else. Or listen to it some other way. If you build your base on what marketers call early adapters—the folks who are into everything before everybody else—and don’t change much, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when evolution leaves you behind.

After all, 2005 is a very different place than, say, 1995. The rise of the internet, with its earth-scouring search capabilities and file-sharing options, has made people less reliant on still-stringently formatted-no-matter-how-”alternative” radio to hear new (or new to them) music. Download even a few hundred MP3s onto your hard drive and you have instant customized access to a library of songs exponentially larger and, most likely, more omnivorous than the HFS playlist, and you never have to sit through commercials or identically smarmy DJs or songs you don’t like. Roll those files over to an iPod or some such and you pretty much never need to listen to broadcast radio for music anywhere ever again except maybe at the swimming pool.

Again, no hatin’ on the music itself here—clearly that’s not what’s happening among fans. On May 5, the new album from mod-rock radio staple Nine Inch Nails was No. 1 on the iTunes Top Album Download chart, while quasi-mod types Ben Folds and Ryan Adams sat at Nos. 4 and 5. The new singles from HFStival 2005 acts Coldplay and Foo Fighters landed on the May 5 Top Song Download chart at Nos. 4 and 8, respectively. Plenty of people still wanna hear Chris Martin’s brand-new piano-driven sigh, but now they don’t want to wait by their dial for it.

And then there’s the continued rise of hip-hop. Though hip-hop music, hip-hop fashion, hip-hop language, hip-hop culture in all its forms permeates American culture, mod-rock radio—like pretty much all rock radio over the past 40 years—has hung onto its longstanding fear of black people not carrying guitars. But that’s not always the case with its target young, white demographic. While there is a whole wave of mod-rock fans of a certain age who dabbled in De La Soul and Public Enemy back in the day and haven’t bothered since, there’s a new wave for whom sluggish Houston hip-hop hits or the latest NYC mix tape is every bit as necessary, immediately dissected, and wholly subsumed as the new Interpol. And while it’s true that a mind-bendy cut from the new Edan album or a Mike Jones shout-out would probably sound a little odd coming over the airwaves sandwiched between Louis XIV and the Bravery, what do you think people are listening to on their ever-shuffling iPods?

Maybe we have to think of modern rock as the distant poor relation of modern art—that is, a movement that made a break with the values and approaches of the past, inspired and energized much that came after, and soon came to seem somewhat retrograde in light of what it helped usher in. It was in the past easy for HFS fans to mock dudes still listening to Skynyrd in their Monte Carlos, but that Depeche Mode sticker on the bumper of the ol’ Neon is starting to look mighty 20th century. And for all its vaunted alternativeness, mod-rock radio went through the same sort of programmer massaging as any other radio format. The artists that defined whatever it is commercial mod rock is (hey, isn’t that what’s left of Echo and the Bunnymen playing the HFStival?) probably wouldn’t make it on the alt air these days, especially not with the albums they’re turning out now. Again, modern rock isn’t really about rock music or modernity—it’s about marketing, selling otherness, but selling nonetheless. That ’90s commercial with the Central Casting hipster doofus telling you to buy a Subaru because it was “punk rock” probably didn’t work back then; imagine how it would go over now.

None of this is gonna keep people outta M&T Bank Stadium. If this year’s event does well, there’ll probably be another, and maybe more. Go, have a good time. You probably will. But let’s not pretend that it somehow means much more than a daylong stroll down memory lane. After all, Dinosaur Jr didn’t reunite for cred, or for love.

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