Are 80s and 90s Rock Songs Classic Rock Now? It’s Complicated…
As a longtime fan of the genre with more than more than a decade rock station experience under my belt, I bump into this ongoing debate every so often. I'm talking about the now fairly common, yet divisive topic of whether or not 1980s and 1990s bands are "classic rock." This happened again yesterday and I realized that not only is there no correct answer to the question, but there also isn't an incorrect one.
Before you start yelling, hear me out...
80s rock began sneaking onto classic rock playlists much sooner than the 90s guys, and with much less debate. This was mostly because a lot of the 80s rock that stations were adding, like Gn'R or Bon Jovi, was much less jarring when dropped in after 'Foxey Lady' than say, 'Man in the Box' would be. So this debate really started becoming a frequent conversation among rock enthusiasts around the time that Pearl Jam and company started hitting classic rock stations, which was the late 00s if I remember correctly.
Before I make my case for why everyone is both right and wrong on this subject, we must first ask the question, "what is classic rock?" The answer is, well, as complicated as the titular debate of this article.
What is Classic Rock?
Believe it or not, classic rock as a radio format is about the same age as MTV. The format was an offshoot of the AOR (Album Oriented Rock) format, with more of a focus on rock hits of the 60s and 70s than that of deep cuts, multiple consecutive tracks from the same artist, or even full albums (AOR was wild). The earliest stations branding themselves as "Classic Rock" began popping up in 1980 and by the mid-80s they were everywhere. And thus, classic rock as we know it (or knew it) was born.
While they began predominantly with rock hits of the 60s and 70s, they gradually expanded further into the 80s through their core that were still active like Tom Petty and Aerosmith. Oddly enough, the cutoff point for a long time was 80s hair metal. Sure, most of it was a little heavier, but so much of that music was clearly dancing in the shadow of 70s hard rock. To me, a lot of 80s hair metal songs feel like an answer to the question, "What if Led Zeppelin were Amercian and only wrote fun party songs about bangin' chicks?" But, hair metal was the contemporary music of the time so it wasn't embraced by classic rock until much, much later and in small doses.
Do We Define Rock By its Age?
At the time that classic rock became a popular format, let's call it 1985 for the sake of this argument, they were playing mostly the hard rock hits of the 60s and 70s, rock music that was at the most 25 years old. However, most of it was between 10 and 20 years old in 1985. So if that means that classic rock is rock music that is around 10-20 years old -- the 90s bands have been classic rock for a while now.
Do We Define Rock By its Era?
The music that most think of as classic rock is what the format started out as and continued to be for many years -- the hard rock hits of the 1960s and 1970s. That era of rock did have a sound, and most of its music fits together pretty well. I think for a lot of people, particularly those of us over 25, that time period and its artists are cemented in our heads as defining classic rock, because that's all it was for so long.
Is There Such a Thing As New Classic Rock?
What I've always thought is weird about the format is that they rarely give love to new music from their classic artists. It would make sense to me if a classic rock station bumped the latest Rolling Stones or AC/DC albums, but that doesn't happen too much. You usually just get their classic stuff, which supports the theory that classic rock is defined by era and not age or even by the artist in most cases. It even puts forth another counterpoint to all the arguments mentioned thus far that classic rock isn't defined by your sound either. I'm getting a headache...
Here's the Thing...
None of this really matters. What is and isn't classic rock? Who cares? Why should we spend our time and energy trying to come to a consensus over what fits under some largely undefined and non-specific label that some corporate radio guy came up with in the 80s? There was no consideration for what would and wouldn't fit under that umbrella in the future -- it was just a name that worked for that music at that time.
I think classic rock is both things -- a radio format and an age classification, both of which can operate autonomously from each other. I think we can classify a song from the 90s as classic rock and agree that it doesn't belong on a classic rock station. I think we can do the opposite too. New bands like Greta Van Fleet would fit right into a classic rock station's playlist. It's definitely not classic rock, but it sure does sound like it.
All Things Must Change
For people around my age and beyond, we're probably always going to think of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix (and so on) first when someone says "classic rock." But for those under 25, "classic rock" could mean Pearl Jam and Nirvana... hell, maybe even Papa Roach. Everything is relative. The rock music from one generation's formative years is the next generation's classic rock. It's the circle of life.
So, in summation, do 80s and 90s rock songs belong on classic rock stations? Yes... and no... and sometimes. You figure it out.