While sight-seeing around the uncommonly-empty campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie on Thanksgiving weekend, girlfriend Pat and I flipped around the meager offerings on FM radio. Between strident sermons and the unctuous dreck that passes for “Modern Country”, we heard a familiar voice from beyond the grave: that of Casey Kasem.
Kasem died in 2014 amidst painful-to-hear circumstances. But for decades, his voice was familiar to radio listeners as the voice of American Top 40 and related music-chart countdown shows. The format was almost as old as radio itself, going back to Your Hit Parade, which began its long run in 1935.
Kasem’s on-air persona—and apparently, his off-air persona, as well—was that of a relentlessly-upbeat cheerleader of American pop music. The things he said, such as his usual closing line, “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars”, seemed to come from an earlier, gentler era. Coming from anyone else, such sentiments would have come across as eye-rollingly insincere and cheesy…but somehow Kasem seemed to mean what he said. Even his scratchy baritone, which would have sounded affected and fake coming from someone else, seemed genuine.
The show’s format is familiar to anyone who didn’t grow up in a cave: Kasem would start at #40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 weekly chart, and slowly work his way up to #1, intermixing anecdotes about the songs and artists with the music— and the inevitable weekly long-distance dedication (“Dear Casey: I’m in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. My boyfriend William was sent to Vietnam six months ago, and listens to you on the Armed Forces Radio Network….”). Back in the ’70’s, even sardonic teens like me would listen to the three or four hours of the show in order to hear new, upward-moving songs, and track the rise and fall of favorites. We would cheer or groan, depending on the turns of events, and bemoan the appearance of music we deemed as unworthy.
Speaking of which: the show Pat and I heard was a “Classic AT 40” show from 1977—and #1 was “You Light Up My Life”, probably the most groan-inducing song to ever hit the airwaves. Even amidst such stuff, Kasem came across as appreciative and genuinely interested in the songs he played. America had yet to enter the Age of Irony.
For many years Kasem balanced his DJ and AT 40 worlds with acting gigs, primarily cartoon voice-overs. The best-known of such characterizations was that of “Shaggy” on Scooby-Doo, a role he portrayed for an amazing 35 years. The idea of the clean-cut, straight-laced Kasem as the disheveled hippie with the voracious appetite is amusing, and a little disconcerting. That’s the miracle of voice-overs, no? (This video is as painful as watching Ed Sullivan addressing “the youngsters”….)
Hearing Kasem’s voice on that American Top 40 show led us to discuss how pop music had changed in the last 40 years. Having just watched Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week Beatles documentary the night before, the chart-dominance and omnipresence of the Fabs back in the day was fresh in our minds.
Our conclusion was that like many aspects of popular culture, pop music had become fractured, broken into a million sub-categories so thoroughly that no one artist could or would never again be all things to all people—as the Beatles once were. I know that even back then Billboard had multiple charts and categories (my older brother Chuck starting buying the mag back around 1965, not an easy feat in small town Minnesota of that era), but the Hot 100 was the chart. Now it’s one of dozens—there are half a dozen different “adult contemporary” lists alone. And what do the lists represent? Airplay? Record sales? Downloads? It’s all very confusing.
In my heart of hearts, I know that the apparently homogeneous music world was somewhat of an illusion, reinforced and perpetuated by a Leave It To Beaver culture. Like the three TV networks of the time, a limited range of material was produced for a fairly limited demographic, and the “specialty” fields were, simply, denied. It truly was take-it-or-leave-it, as there just wasn’t anything else.
And yes, I know that part of this is mythos perpetuated by grumps of a certain age, convinced that what was, is the best that will ever be. To my mind, such nostalgia is the worst kind of fatalism, a denial of the potential of the future.
And yet, and yet: can we point to anything today in the arts that is truly life-changing? That forces one to say, “THAT’S what I want to do with my life?” Plenty of nascent musicians were provoked into a life dedicated to music because of the Beatles or Dylan.
I sure don’t see that these days. But then, I’m a grump of a certain age….