Life Out Here: Top 40 radio kept us together

For those who grew up in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, something important united us.

I’m not referring to religion, family, television or love of country, although those brought us together, too. I’m referring to Top 40 radio.

Yes, I’m talking about the stations with fast-talking, trash-talking DJs, endless giveaways, request lines which few requests were taken, and songs repeated until they became parts of the national consciousness.

My wife and I have been traveling a lot by car recently, sometimes with our 23-year-old son. While I tend to be a CD listener in my car, relenting occasionally to KPBS/KQVO, KXO-AM and the right-wing talk hosts who get my blood boiling, my wife listens often to the radio and my son is a consummate radio channel-flipper.

What I’ve found through our travels is Top 40 doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the Imperial Valley, elsewhere in Southern California or Arizona. We now have hip-hop heavy urban contemporary, rock, alternative rock, adult hits, oldies, older oldies, even older oldies, glossy “country” and various Spanish-language formats.

And that is sad, because Top 40, when I was growing up, brought us together.

We all were sadder than sad with Pagliacci and Smokey. We all wanted Rikki to not lose that number. We all sang, “Oye como ova” even if we didn’t know what it meant. We all wanted to know what a pompetous of love was. We all hated that horrible man who named his son Sue.

We didn’t marginalize “Tears of a Clown” as urban contemporary. We didn’t balkanize Steely Dan as light jazz. We didn’t turn off Santana because he had songs sung in Spanish. We didn’t mind that Steve Miller made up words. We didn’t tune out Johnny Cash because he was categorized (wrongly, basically) as a country singer and was being played on Top 40 stations.

We just loved those wonderful songs. Those songs were us and we were those songs. We sang those songs in our neighborhoods, on our school buses.

We sang about that brown-eyed girl with Van Morrison and about our ding-a-lings with Chuck Berry. We all sang, “War, what is it good for?” with Edwin Starr.

While we were of different races, religions and economic circumstances, we were one because of those songs. My wife grew up in the border area of Mexico/California and I grew up in north-central California, yet we have the same musical reference points, which means we can and do sing such songs together.

Certainly there were bad songs on Top 40 — “Copacabana” or “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” anyone? — but there were so many great songs, too.

A few years ago I was singing in class, as I often do, this time a fun piece of pop/rock called “Beverly Hills” by the once-great American band Weezer. “Beverly Hills” was a huge hit at the time on MTV, VH1 and on rock and alternative rock radio.

“Mr. Kofford, what are you singing?” I was asked by a student.

“Beverly Hills,” I responded. She seemed baffled, so I asked how many students had heard the song. Maybe a fifth of the hands went up.

Then I asked what the students listened to on the radio. Many said they didn’t listen to the radio. They listened to recorded stuff going into their ears through plugs. Some listened to the hard rock or hip-hop stations from the Coachella Valley. Others listened to the rock en español, banda or dance music stations from Mexicali.

What I started to realize, and what I’ve come to firmly conclude, is not only do we lack music to bond around, our music listening habits are pushing us more into our own worlds and our own cliques.

I think Smokey would agree with me that that is something sadder than sad for America.

Bret Kofford teaches writing at

San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus. He can be reached at Kofford@roadrunner.com
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