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The Definition of Oldies

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Recently I was more than a little surprised to see some music from the nineties described as "oldies", but then I thought about it and realized it really isn't that startling because the definition of oldies obviously varies with your age and background. Still, I think most of us would probably concede it was the baby boomer generation that first popularized the term, so maybe their preferences have the most legitimacy. (I say this speaking not as a boomer myself, but rather as a sort of "pre-boomer" — if there is such a thing.) I'd also guess most boomers' favorite oldies would probably be the music of the sixties.

When you get to a certain age, your memories can sometimes seem like bubbles rising to the surface of a tar pit – slow and labored in transit, and often accompanied by a suspicious aroma. I think that might be what happens when I first try to remember how music was in the sixties because all I can think of is the Beatles. However, if I dig a little deeper I remember it was actually one of the most richly varied periods in pop music. In addition to the popularity of the "mop-tops" and their copycats, we were experiencing the evolution of early rockabilly and doo-wop into variations that ranged from bubble-gum pop to the Motown sound, while at the same time California was weighing in with surfing tunes, folk music, and the psychedelic sound of the "hippies" beginning to – er – flower in San Francisco.

The various California sounds provided the background for the rise of a singing group that exploded into pop music in the sixties and became a case study for everything good – and bad – happening in music at the time. The Mamas and Papas were a huge success musically with their "sunshine pop" mega-hits but their lives contained an almost endless amount of turmoil and trouble, with drug and sex scandals of a frequency and variation to almost strain credulity. The trials and tribulations of the members of the group have been well-documented and you can find all the stories you want by doing some searches on the web, so I'll only say the whole saga would probably  make a great movie — except it might not be believable. (Although I guess that wouldn't necessarily disqualify it.)

John Phillips, Michelle (Gilliam) Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Cassandra "Mama Cass" Elliot, (who did not die from choking on a ham sandwich) formed the original group that hit it big, and stayed together long enough to gain a lot of fame and prosperity, although there were occasional disruptions and separations along the way. Still, the music was impossible to ignore and is still a joy to hear.

The album I'm spotlighting, The Mamas and Papas — 16 of Their Greatest Hits, features exactly what it says – their biggest and best – including "Monday, Monday", and Mama Cass's unforgettable solo on "Dream a Little Dream Of Me", plus the songs I'm sampling here. First up is great little novelty song called "Creeque Alley", followed by a tune that was their first big hit, a song that sort of encapsulates their whole experience: "California Dreaming".

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  • Vern Halen

    The process of turning songs into “oldies” is simply another step in the bigger process of creating nostalgia. Not a bad thing necessarily, but I think nostalgizing (??? a coined word here?) a song is the equivalent of emasculating it – whatever power it once had has been relegated to a position where it can be regarded as historical and not of any current use.

    Some songs deserve just that. But there are others that we carry around in our heads and hearts that still drive us & motivate us in our daily lives. In the big picture, I think 60’s music will resist becoming nostalgia better than 70’s 80′ or 90’s music, which seems to lack that for the most part (jury’s out on the 21st century so far). I could be wrong here, but 60’s music seems to have more substance than the vacuous swill we’ve been fed for the last 30 years since the industry figured out how to co-opt rock and roll.

  • Couldn’t you take that one step further and say that oldies is really just a term coopted by corporate radio? What then becomes an “oldie” is then determined by management as to what songs will garner more listeners and thus sell more commercials.

  • If boomers popularized the term “oldies,” they sure as hell didn’t use it to describe their own favorite music. I don’t think the fans of any music since the 50s have willingly called their own favorites “oldies.” Every radio station I’ve ever heard that caters to fans of 60s music refers to it as “classic rock,” NEVER “oldies,” a term reserved for things like Big Band numbers, Sinatra tunes, or just maybe some of the earliest rock-and-roll from the 50s.

    Of course, now that the 70s, the 80s, and even the 90s are trying to crowd their way into the “classic rock” category, some people may be pushing to expand the definition of “oldies.” Not long ago I heard a college radio DJ describe 80s music as “oldies,” but that was clearly just because he was a punk kid who didn’t know what he was talking about. Nobody who grew up with 80s music would ever call it that.

    In fact I’d be surprised to hear of anyone younger than Korean War veterans who’d willingly place the music of their youth into the oldies category today.

  • Vern Halen

    I guess I’m referring to any artist who allows herslef or himself to be used to invoke nostalgic feelings in the audience – the sense that this was the music of our youth and no longer applicable or powerful otherwise. Do they no longer ave anything inew to say, so they just play the same old songs? Would a novelist just reprint an old book owritten in his prime and feel that to be equally sufficeint as writing a new novel – I don’t think a literate audience would accept that – neither should a musically literate audience.