How Dreary Was 1970s Adult Contemporary?
Here's an interesting act on the brink of modern obscurity: What happened to The Carpenters?
They had a run of chart-smashing success in the 1970s, with a style of music best described as something between "jazzy" and "country lite," but really their main genre was plain ol' Soft Rock. Their biggest hits, "Close to You," "Rainy Days and Mondays," and "Top of the World," saw number-ones on multiple charts, powering sales of multiple platinum albums.
Then by the '80s, their charts just sorta faded out. Officially, of course, the band ended with the death of Karen Carpenter from anorexia in 1983, but surviving sibling Richard continued to publish albums of re-edited studio material into the turn of the century. Still, it seems like The Carpenters' popularity ended rather abruptly.
Recently on a music discussion board somewhere out there in the great Internet wading pool, I came across a young un' asking if the Carpenters were disliked by youth of the day? Speaking as a #Genx-er, I was catapulted back to this early, innocent era of music culture. I tried to explain, well, no, we kids liked the Carpenters OK… and many other artists playing on the same radio station as them, it's just that they were squarely in the Boomer genre. We associated them with pain. Let me explain.
Adult Contemporary Was the Soundtrack to Misery
The "Adult Contemporary" genre was virtually invented by popular American radio stations of the 1970s. There had been such a genre before, but it was just popular hits of the day. The 70s brought the "Soft Rock" sound to the genre which continues to distinguish it today. The central musicians in this genre's '70s stage included:
Carpenters, as mentioned
Now, these are all highly talented acts, and widely popular ones with many fans world-wide. But they are also the safest, smoothest musicians to ever chart. They're not challenging any social norms. They're not angry punks, or rebellious rockers, or daring heavy metal shock-rockers. The kids of the '70s were in two camps; one heading straight for Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath; the other following the funk / soul wave into disco to eventually land in the Bee Gees' lap.
We kids growing up in the 1970s only heard Adult Contemporary on one occasion and one occasion only: While hanging out with an adult. Doing boring, boring adult stuff.
A Cultural Perspective on the First "Adult" Genre
You see, the Baby Boomer generation was famous for establishing the very concept of a generation, because their numbers were so large. By the time the mid-'70s rolled around, the first Baby Boomers had begun to trace their first wrinkles and gain a pants size, suddenly realizing with horror that they, yes, the fabled "generation that would never grow up," were going to age and die too. This triggered history's biggest collective midlife crisis. Suddenly they flocked to New Age beliefs, the "Me Generation," and the most pampered life they could possibly provide themselves. Everything had to be cushy and comfortable just for them. The swinging Summer of Love was over and it was time to punch the work clock.
And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, was how the generation that brought you rebellious rock and roll in the first place suddenly flipped to music tastes more conservative and reserved than Mitch McConnell.
At that fabled 9 to 5 job, in every office, in every city, on every desk, was a radio tuned to the local Easy Listening / Adult Contemporary radio station. Boomers had the jobs; Boomers got to pick the office radio station. Which, to distinguish itself from the silly hard rock shenanigans of their kids, had to be labeled "ADULT ONLY!"
Think back to when you were a kid: Where were you whenever you had to put up with grown-up music? Why that's easy! You were at the dentist's office awaiting a check-up. Or the school principle's office when you were in hot water. Or waiting in line at the bank, a helpless volleyball of indifference being towed along on errands. Or shopping with mom!
God save us from that dreaded rite of passage for every grade-schooler, "shopping with mom!" Hours spent draped over a cart in the clothing department, many decades before phones existed. You would see somebody your mom knew coming and groan, because you knew they'd strike up an hour's conversation right there between Ladies' Lingerie and Sporting Goods, yapping about about boring adult crap while you melted into a blob of inanimate ennui sitting by a trashcan or something.
And what music would be playing on the store sound system? "On the day that you were born the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true…" Or "Yooooou light up my liiiiiife, You give me hooooope to carry oooooooon!" Or, almighty Odin and Thor in Valhalla forbid, the schoolbus driver insisted on all the kids singing along to The Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together."
Worst of all, these songs were set to a relentlessly cozy pace, canned sacarine. You figured this was the music they played in the mental hospital to signal patients that it was medication time. To an antsy kid, the tranquilized tunes were audio Thorazine. What reaction to these songs should you expect from the typical five-year-old at the time besides a hammy, theatrical gagging noise? That's what we did. Adult Contemporary music, by association, was how the Baby Boomers kept us under their cultural thumbnail for much longer than they should have.
Bad Stereotypes Stuck to Adult Contemporary
Through the decades, grown-up soft rock gained the worst of reputations. One might dismiss it as "elevator rock," calling it slow, sleepy, and artificially cheerful. It's no coincidence that staples of Adult Contemporary soft rock, like say, James Taylor's "How Sweet It Is," formed the soundtrack of many a TV and radio commercial throughout the '80s and '90s. Baby Boomers continued to be the biggest spenders. The boring pablum spewing from their RV sound system speakers blaring into the sunset.
So no, the Carpenters and all them were OK. We would have liked them better if they weren't used as psychological warfare.