As I was reflecting on what a great year 1972 was for albums, I realized that all of the albums I wrote about are still an active part of American popular culture, 50 years later. If you go to any large American city, rent a car, and then try to find a radio station, you’ll scroll past multiple options that play “classic rock,” where you’re likely to hear a song from one of those 1972 albums–and for that matter any rock ‘n roll songs that have been recorded since the British invasion in 1964. People of all ages listen to those stations, advertisers pay money to advertise on them, and the musicians who recorded the songs, in many cases, are still touring and playing those same songs, decades later.
That’s odd, when you think about it. Fifty years is an incredibly long time for a musical genre to remain at the forefront of American culture. If you went back to the ’20s, fifty years before that magical year of 1972, the dominant form of music featured crooners like Rudy Vallee, shown above, and people danced the Charleston to early forms of jazz. By 1972, however, you couldn’t find a radio station anywhere that played Rudy Vallee tunes, or ragtime, and Rudy Vallee wasn’t touring and playing to packed venues, either. The music of the ’20s had been relegated to the dustbin of history, having given way to “big band” music in the ’30s and ’40s, and lounge singing and early rock ‘n roll in the ’50s. You’re not going to hear those forms of music played on any on-air American radio stations, either (although Sirius XM has ’40s and ’50s stations, if you’d like to hear that music). But once you hit 1964, the ever-changing musical tastes of a considerable portion of the American public stopped changing and became locked in place.
To be sure, punk, rap, and hip-hop have come into being since the ’60s, and “urban” stations provide stiff competition for “classic rock” stations on the radio dial–but the fact that music that is 50 years old is still findable and regularly played on the radio is pretty remarkable. Does that mean that the rock era reached a kind of musical pinnacle and just hasn’t been knocked off the peak–or does it mean that the Baby Boomers and successive generations stubbornly refused to open themselves up to newer forms of music, as their parents and grandparents were willing to do? Perhaps many of us just lack the musical flexibility of earlier generations, who didn’t hold on to Rudy Vallee when Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington came along.