The mini midlife crisis hit four songs into a Cobb salad dinner on Ventura Boulevard. Up until that point, the meal was normal to the point of being forgettable. K-EARTH 101 was playing in the background, in the midst of a stretch of its usual oldies selections — or “classics” for those who don't want to offend the middle-aged. Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams” veered into Frankie Valli's theme from Grease, which led into Naked Eyes' version of “Always Something There to Remind Me.” They were songs that came out after my entrance into this world, but before I was old enough to really consider them mine. I knew them and in some cases loved them, but I could enjoy them without feeling like an old fart.
All that changed when the programming overlords of K-EARTH unloaded Oasis' 1995 hit “Wonderwall” upon my workaday dinner. If this were a TV show, blue cheese–coated lettuce would have spewed from my mouth across the tiny restaurant. In real life, however, I just quietly tried to compose myself and posted to Facebook: “K-Earth is playing 'Wonderwall.'” The post elicited a handful of likes and funny, shocked or sad emojis. A few friends left comments joking about our age.
To be fair, this wasn't the first time I heard a '90s jam on K-EARTH. A few months ago, Smashing Pumpkins transmitted into my neighborhood gas station via the venerable L.A. radio station; I felt the need to post something about that on Facebook, too. It's become a recurring topic of discussion among my friends recently: The songs of our youth are now oldies.
After years of reunion tours and Hot Topic–style babywear, it's inevitable. But for the Generation X person who grew up in Los Angeles, it's also profoundly strange. We can remember K-EARTH as the spot where our baby boomer relatives went for their dose of nostalgia. Back then, it was proudly an “oldies” station. Now there's a slight difference. Listen to K-EARTH long enough and you'll figure out the format: mostly '80s with some hits of the '70s and '90s. Where the latter is concerned, the station goes pretty far into the decade; I once heard them play “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the Green Day song from 1997.
Call them “classic hits” all you want
According to Radio World, this is what's called a “classic hits” format. An “oldies” station, according to the site, pulls music from the 1950s through '70s. So technically K-EARTH no longer plays “oldies,” but the difference is mainly a generational one, driven by marketing. Call them “classic hits” all you want, but these are Generation X's oldies. (I tried to find out more about K-EARTH's programming from the source but K-EARTH did not respond to my request for comment.)
Time passes; the distance between the 1960s and the 1980s is the same as between the 1990s and today. Hearing the hits of our teen years on the station brings with it the realization that we are becoming our parents.
So, when “Wonderwall” came on inside the Sherman Oaks restaurant, it felt as if I was watching myself age rapidly in a mirror. The song was released in the fall of 1995, not long after I went away to college. (By “away,” I mean moving from the San Fernando Valley to Loyola Marymount University, but with 18 miles of gridlocked 405 between the dorms and my parents' house, it may as well have been another state.) I still hear that chorus as if it's blowing out of the windows of cars filled with 18-year-olds.
On campus, the sounds of the day filled the air. “Gangsta's Paradise” was nearly inescapable; it now permeates memories of everything from walks to class to ill-conceived experiments in underage drinking. On the top floor of a nondescript building, Stereolab and Guided by Voices purred through the door of the college radio station. In the all-girls dorm that was my home freshman year, Smashing Pumpkins butted up against Maná. Meanwhile, a girl downstairs belted “You Oughta Know” in the morning hours. I would silently curse her while wiping remnants of glitter makeup from my sleep-deprived eyes.
Classic met modern that first semester when my new friend-for-life and I scored tickets to see David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails at the Forum. We took my sister, who was still in high school, along to the show and stood in line amidst a crowd of guys who must have been twice our age. I overheard a snippet of conversation about concerts that took place before the three of us were born. Would that be me someday, talking about some 20-year-old concert that still feels recent? Why, yes, it would.
This was starting to hurt.
The day after the K-EARTH–induced identity crisis, I flipped through radio stations while stuck in morning traffic en route from Chinatown to Culver City. Somewhere close to the destination, I landed on 100.3 The Sound and “Fortunate Son” filled the car. I thought of my late father and recalled our “your-music-versus-my-music” debates. I turned up Credence Clearwater Revival. Now, that's an oldie.
[pullquote-2]Oldies are the Elvis songs that made you and your friends giggle when grownups turned up the volume, probably on the same station that now plays Oasis. Oldies are your aunt's collection of 45s that piqued your curiosity when you found them by a record player that looked more like a piece of furniture. Oldies are the soul hits that a young DJ in mod clothes dropped the night you realized that you really liked your parents' music. They're other people's music, not yours. Or, at least, they weren't until now.
When the music you remember as new transitions to old, it's a kind of slow death. It's not the end of youth so much as it is the end of relevance in a society that's hyper-focused on the next big thing and the tastes of the young.
Years will pass and the songs of the early 2000s will become the new oldies. The sounds of the '80s and '90s will ultimately fade. Like doo-wop or cocktail music, they might be found only on specialty shows, if those still exist on the dial a few decades from now.
But like a health nut, you think you can prevent the inevitable. You buy new music, you keep going to shows, you hit up dance clubs. You mix the new with the old in your personal playlists to keep things fresh. You think you have found music's fountain of youth, but you didn't. Those '90s hits are as worn as the Doc Martens that you bought in high school and never purged from your closet. But like those Docs, they're comfortable and, despite their scuffs, they come back in and out of fashion, so you hang on to them.
Similarly, '90s Britpop has aged comfortably. Songs like “Wonderwall” still sound as good now as they did two decades ago, and they seem to be having something of a resurgence. In fact, a young band from New Zealand, Yumi Zouma, is doing a limited-edition, track-for-track remake of (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, the album that spawned “Wonderwall,” for Sounds Delicious, a vinyl subscription service that specializes in covers of classic albums. If your oldies are back in fashion, it can't be that bad, right?