time to change the way we view music and the arts

What’s My Age Again, Part II: What the heck is an “adult” anyway?

Arbitron logo

Consumer research company, Arbitron’s official logo (Cit. Arbitron.com)

Haven’t we been here before…

Doing a “part II” is a first for me, (if you’re curious, “Part I” is here) though it’s not a 100% true sequel. The title at hand is back because there’s yet another baffling case of demographic confusion. There’s a part of me that believes by the end of everything said, some degree of acceptance will inevitably settle in a spot on the page but we’ll see.


Last time, I was illuminating the contradictory behavior and lyrical decisions of a band in how it opposes their current live and radio play demographic. The space of confusion was between adults and kids, for whom explicit language shouldn’t necessarily have to be a regular member of their vocabulary; particularly when said terms are not even used in the way they were originally intended, thus warping their linguistic severity to something less than what it should be.

This time, there’s a disparity I see between two sets of “adults.” Adult by definition in sound and adult by definition in reality. Radio is at the center of everything in this and Arbitron is a national entity involved in the placement of rankings on radio stations from data around station audiences and active listeners. How necessary and effective is a business like Arbitron though, if radio can’t even get its act together on who their audiences are and what defines that?



There’s a discussion waiting to happen over what it means when the industry calls something “Adult Contemporary.” This is generally applied in the context of radio format and playlist generation. Inclusion or exclusion from a singularly AC defined radio station’s daily rotation depends on the individual company and as such, varies when it comes to selection criteria. For the sake of setting a bar for discussion though, there is the objective definition, like the one given by allmusic.com and then there is the slightly less polished or  exacting definition, likely to be perceived as more subjective but, in my opinion, more relevant to the here and now of how I perceive radio play.

An excerpt from the text in the above link to allmusic:

“Adult contemporary is essentially a continuation of the soft rock style that became popular in the ’70s, with a few adjustments that reflect the evolution of pop-music production techniques. Adult contemporary has the same lush, soothing, highly polished qualities as soft rock, and it works the same “middle of the road” territory — in other words, it largely lacks the grit of even the slicker varieties of rock or soul music, but it’s too indebted to those original sources to qualify as traditional pop or easy listening. The main dividing line between soft rock and adult contemporary is that the latter commonly features synthesizers (and other electronics, such as drum machines) as an important component of the music’s smooth studio sheen. Both as a style and a popular radio format, adult contemporary was heavy on romantic ballads, but there was also room for catchy pop/rock (often updating styles — early rock & roll, smooth soul, Beatlesque pop — that adult contemporary’s main audience had grown up with) and thoughtful singer/songwriter sensibilities…”



Now that there’s a line to walk from, mull over this question:

When does a band go from, “Hey our song got played on the radio so much (think overkill) last year/month/fairly “recent” amount of time,” (understanding that “recent” is a debatable term in the music industry,) to,

“This is clearly fit for the “adult-contemporary” category;” as if implying the typical 18-34 popular  demographic -the polar opposite target of AC radio- will suddenly find anything that sounds like this hypothetical band, now too boring/complicated/sophisticated/not cool (bottom line outdated and not desirable) because there are/is no: hot guys/girls, dubstep bass drop…etc. whatever the lacking case may be.

Now, there are plenty of groups and individual musicians who are anywhere but at the corner of ‘breakout’ and ‘star’ and wouldn’t fit into the immediate “peer star” category, as far as having an immediate chronological relation to those whom these people are revered by as popular.



1. Plenty of artists that have certainly crossed generations (meaning new listeners get into them and their currently active careers now, even though they weren’t alive at the original height of so-and-so’s career.) Ben Folds is one of the first that comes to mind, as his band just got back together after a nearly 13 year break up. Furthermore, what the heck about bands like Green Day and The Offspring, that are clearly decades into their careers but have a generally established sound agenda that can jump right alongside whatever younger people of the moment are into that agenda, whether they be 80s kids or born in the year 2000?
2. Going back to the mentality that industry “recentness” has a short shelf life: If you’re not staying constantly on top, a few months, maybe a year…(even being liberal and saying two years,) this period of time goes by and suddenly you’re relegated to the less immediately-remembered AC rotations -and before anyone scrolls back up to the all music text to tear my subjective dialogue to shreds, what’s on textbook case paper and what gets played are two different things. As examples, two long established, AC-classified radio stations in the tri-state area, (WEZN in Bridgeport CT and WLTW in New York, NY) frequently play tracks of artists I would come to remember were just on the Top 40 lists not long prior or perhaps even still are, (completely breaking format ‘rules,’) hence the ‘liberally up to 2 years’ comment.
This amount of time, give or take, does not at all equate to someone suddenly being “old” by real time standards. The industry seems to run on a different life scale akin to that of domesticated animals. (Dog years anyone?)

Running with the apparent “logic” we have been presented with, the implication is, you can be “pop” but not be “popular” and if you’re not ‘Top 40 material,’ one possibly gets relegated to ‘adult-contemporary status.’ Yet, one is allowed to be something other than “pop,” be “popular,” Top 40 material and not be “new,” “young” or “cool” when it comes to one’s sound and/or overall industry existence, if that’s what catches on. (e.g. Mumford and Sons. From 2007 but not the same techno/synth/club/dance vein as most everything else that has (in last last few years) flooded the Top 40. Sound older in the “this isn’t typically relevant” sense, yet are received by the masses, so deemed “popular.”)

I went through all of this because in the more textbook definition by allmusic.com, lists of those labeled Adult Contemporary have come to mention long established musicians with recognized legacies and serious accomplishments in the industry. Allmusic.com’s given lineup of core AC artists include: Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Air Supply, Michael Bolton, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Chicago and Celine Dion.

Though that list is hardly a scratch at the surface of classic, reputable artists in every of music’s genres, the commonalities between them remain their steadily built reputations of signature artistry development and identity development. Later budding artists are always going to have influence from their predecessors and associations are inevitable. However, and at the risk of possibly inserting a drop of the elitist old-guard for the sake of making a point, isn’t there some degree of time and/or hard work and/or referenced credibility that should be taken into consideration before someone starts being heavily connected to another who has “put in the time and earned their stripes” so to speak?

Whether one likes an artist’s sound or not, if they made a mark on the industry, they made a mark. To leave you with one more example, in the June 2012 issue of Details Magazine. the publication went ahead with the idea to imply Adam Levine is the “New King of Pop;” a title long associated with late musician Michael Jackson. Love or hate the music, Jackson kept fans and relevance across several decades and broke ground on several different levels. Levine is headed in that direction but is he there yet? Perhaps one thing Jackson and Levine could have in common is that if you go back far enough in their discographies, some of their once popular songs are circulating the lighter side of radio and in Levine’s case, this is the case even as teens continue to shout and cry and drool over everything the man does minute to minute going forward and moving farther from his musical past, now deemed “for adults.”

Here’s that degree of acceptance I saw coming from the start. For now, this is the way of the music world, even if it is a backward and pointless mess of terminology at times.

If genres ever go, radio formats should follow…

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