Music: Defining ‘classic rock’ |

Music: Defining ‘classic rock’

Craven Lovelace
Free Press Music Columnist
Craven Lovelace
Staff Photo |

What exactly is “classic rock?”

It’s one of those phrases, like “fine art” or “lightly used,” that we all think we understand. And yet, as countless Facebook threads will attest, when you try to pin down exactly what constitutes “classic rock,” it’s a tricky proposition indeed.

Now, a popular “data journalism” site has waded into the fray., the ESPN-owned nexus for all things statistical, published a series of articles this past week looking at the subject of classic rock from a demographic and data-driven perspective. What author Walt Hickey found might surprise some — especially those who consider themselves the musical genre’s biggest fans.

First of all, it turns out that the list of acts that can be called “classic rock” is a bit more fluid than you might think … and it appears geography plays a big part in deciding which musicians are considered classic rock, and what doesn’t qualify. For example, Billy Joel (not someone you typically lump in with the likes of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple) gets played a lot on classic rock stations in New York and Florida. On the other hand, Pearl Jam — whose 1990s-era ascendency some might consider as being too late to properly pass as “classic” — sees inordinately high radio exposure on classic rock stations in Los Angeles. You might expect the Allman Brothers to get the most air-time in some southern city, but it’s Boston where they get played 600 percent more often than in other regions. Classic rock means R.E.M. in Washington, D.C., and Nirvana in San Francisco. In Denver, it’s AC/DC. The playlist morphs, getting harder and heavier, as you travel toward the southwest.

Classic rock, it turns out, is also among the most conservative radio formats, in the sense of having very small playlists. Hickey’s data shows that five percent of all bands played on the 25 classic rock stations sampled accounted for more than 50 percent of all song played.

Another interesting fact culled from the research is that many of the acts played on classic rock stations — even acts which had multiple charting hits — are essentially “one-hit wonders” when it comes to classic rock. Joan Jett, for instance, who placed songs in Billboard’s Top 40 eight times over the duration of her career, is represented almost solely by “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” Don’t expect to hear “Africa” or “Rosanna” when listening to a classic rock station, but your chances are good that Toto’s “Hold the Line” will make an appearance if you listen long enough, despite the fact that it was technically a smaller hit for the band. Never mind that Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” didn’t sell even a tiny percentage of what “Addicted to Love” or “Simply Irresistible” did; it’s the former that gets played on classic rock stations nowadays, and never either of the latter.

There are other interesting conclusions to be drawn from Hickey’s studies. The bottom line? You can “Rock n’ Roll All Night,” and “Dream On” with “Sweet Emotion,” but when it comes to pinning down a precise definition for classic rock, the data is “The Joker” going “Crazy On You.” And while statistics can be illuminating, in this particular case, you might end up “Blinded by the Light.”

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: You may find him on Facebook as well.

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