No Radio Free Lunch!

A blog about pop music and everything else by Eric D. Johnson

Readings: Formats

Eric Weisbard, who teaches in the American Studies Department at The University of Alabama has a new book coming out, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, that looks very interesting.  Weisbard’s topic here is formats. From the introduction:

Let’s begin with the radio in the 1979 Chevy Nova my grandma Cele gave me. A volume knob, a tuning knob, and five preset buttons for cementing a relationship with AM radio—that was it. At one point, driving, I came upon a venerable Top 40 DJ from Philadelphia who called himself the Geator with the Heater. Later, after hauling the indestructible green machine to the West Coast, I wondered at the Quiet Storm shows on KDIA that took Oakland soul listeners into sleep. In those same Bay Area years, circa 1989–92, Hot New Country was flourishing on my Nova. For an indie rocker who’d spun records on college radio by groups with names like Butthole Surfers, this country stuff beamed in from another planet. But as a captive to the Garth, Trisha, Clint, and Wynonna flow, I learned to hear another format on its own terms: the small rebellions and innovations that made sense when set against a constancy of sound and attitudes.

Keep those car buttons in mind for a bit longer. Each potentially represented a separate music format: Top 40, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, country, or album-oriented rock. And each station played, consistently, proven hit records, whose basic qualities a regular listener could anticipate even before pushing the button. The identity of those listeners varied as much as the music did, to let advertisers target different consumer segments. In the 1950s, Top 40 had emerged as a programming style to help radio compensate for television’s absconding with syndicated network shows. By the mid-1970s, the format system I will focus on offered different musical flavors of Top 40, rooted in divisions of age, gender, race, region, and economics but also blurring and crossing between those rival categories. The result was a particular model of commercialized cultural pluralism: a formatting of publics.

There’s another take on introducing this material and approach here.  Given that my longest sustained piece of writing dealt with genre, its really interesting to me to see a talented scholar like Weisbard take on a similar structuring force in the intersection between music and commerce.  I have to admit that I haven’t paid enough attention to formats (or to radio in general) in my work.  Weisbard has done some thinking about genre and format though:

Formats let music occupy a niche in capitalism and—as with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, with its monologue and interviews structure and MOR appeal—connect music to other show-business realms as well. Genres are different. Ordinary people don’t proudly identify with formats, but some do identify with genres. One can have a hit song that goes “I was born country”; probably not “I was born adult contemporary.” Music formats like MOR, AC, and Top 40 were crossover spaces, with no single dominant genre. A trickier category is music, like country, with both format and genre identity, making for something more porous in definition than honky-tonk, soul, or that Bruce Springsteen fans might prefer. Black-oriented pop divided between rhythm and blues (R&B), a format, and soul or hip-hop genres. Rock, in its 1970s form, was the Uncola of formats: a lucrative format posing as a rebel genre. Music genres, more inherently ideological, chafe at formats, with their centrist, commercial disposition.

I want to press on those last two sentences a little, because I think that they open up some interesting doorways. First:
Rock, in its 1970s form, was the Uncola of formats: a lucrative format posing as a rebel genre.” This is undoubtedly true, and and something that I struggled to deal with in the latter part of my dissertation.  Whether you sided with Nat Cole in “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock and Roll” and dismissed rock and roll as a cheap showbiz fad, or took the retroactive boomer critic line that it was a vital, integrating force in American culture, rock and roll had a distinct enough form that the arguments about what did and didn’t belong in the genre and what that meant made some intuitive sonic sense.  But “rock” as it emerged in the 70s had no such sonic coherence.  I couldn’t make much sense of that with the tools that I was working with, beyond the fact that “rock” represented some kind of transition in what genre in pop music meant, and possibly the death of a certain kind of generic determinacy regarding musical style.  Understanding “rock” as a format rather than a genre, but one that’s disguised as a genre and thus does some of the same discursive work, really helps with this.

The following claim also holds a lot of truth: “Music genres, more inherently ideological, chafe at formats, with their centrist, commercial disposition.”  Musical genres are inherently ideological and rhetorical.  The very shortest version of my take on musical genre is that genres aren’t categories, they’re  ongoing arguments about what kind of music goes in those categories.  But the arguments have to be understood as simply assumptions or judgements, as mostly self-evident for the arguments to do the discursive work that they do of charting borders, origins, and meanings. Its these charts, or narratives, that define legitimacy and authenticity for a given genre.  And these narratives are, I’d argue, per Frederic Jameson and Kenneth Burke, socially symbolic narratives, discursive acts that speakers, writers, listeners, etc. use to try to provide aesthetic resolution to felt, real world contradictions.

The only caveat that I’d offer is that contrasting ideological genres and centrist formats suggests a certain level of rigidity in genre that I think is more part of genre’s illusory, narrative-creating engine than it is a description of what genre, especially musical genre, is and does.

So, I see a couple of interesting roads out of this. One of them has to do with the relation between genres (as I understand them) and formats. If musickers use genres as part of the narrative structure that helps them understand and negotiate the lived contradictions and everyday alienations of capitalism, then how do formats play into this? On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss them as simply industrial attempts to manage those narratives for profit.  But this kind of understanding is too overtly teleological to account for the roles that formats play in people’s lives, the unintended effects of the attempts to shape genres, and the way that musickers might incorporate formatting into their own generic narratives.  Weisbard’s opening gambit, focusing on his encounters with and reactions to different music via radio format suggests that this book will have some interesting insights in this area, and I look forward to digging into it.

The other path that I see here requires taking into account yet another way of dividing and categorizing the acts and artifacts of musicking: style.  In the past I’ve tended to assign to “style” the kinds of concrete and discrete musical practices and sounds that, as signifiers, are the building blocks of these generic narratives.  Its not a clean division, and as Weisbard notes regarding genre and format, there is some confusingly common language.  Arguably, “country” is a style of musical practice, a genre with long argued borders and origins that define the (authentic) limits and meanings of those stylistic acts and artifacts, and a format that disciplines the delivery of those acts and artifacts to members of one of many pluralized sub-publics who, in turn, discipline the borders and meanings of the format itself.  I need to think more about this, but provisionally I’m wondering if genre, style, and format could all be part of an inclusive set of tools that together help us understand the complex ways that music and commerce combine to help us make meaning of our lives at the intersection of art and commerce.

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