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The Retro Music Genre That Will Change Your Life

Credit…Illustration by Brandon Celi

Distilled to its purest essence, rock music, my genre of choice, is somewhat embarrassing. I usually enjoy a Kiss song when I hear it, for instance — I wish you luck trying to resist the power-pop perfection of “Strutter” — but I would still prefer that no one walk in on me while it’s playing. (Doesn’t anyone knock anymore?) There are plenty of artful examples of rock music, definitely, but its power-stancing DNA will always be grown adults in silly outfits screaming about their broken hearts.

I don’t get the impression that Spotify, which I use often, values the questionable excesses of rock ’n’ roll quite the way I do. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing — nobody should just be sitting around listening to arena rock from the 1970s. But I have a theory about why the streaming giant favors certain softer styles of music: Perhaps the most ideal streaming customer is one who uses a service while working, racking up hours of passive plays. But you cannot have Kiss on while you work. You’ll quickly get irritated with the repetition or the obnoxious lyrics or the tinny production and want to switch to something more pacifying. And Spotify will be more than happy to offer an alternative, having become quite adept at recommending music that hits the spot, song after song, through its Autoplay algorithm. My experience with letting Spotify take the wheel is that it finds music that sits pleasantly in the background, and while listening with Autoplay on, my environs are like a coffee shop, no matter where I am. In other words, the platform doesn’t really get, nor effectively push, the core of the subgenre I crave most of all: classic rock.

You’re probably familiar with the peculiar distinctions of classic rock, even as they continue to morph in real time. Based on what classic rock D.J.s tend to play, we’re talking about music made from the mid-60s to the early ’00s at this point (sorry, I don’t like that any more than you do). But the songs are not determined by age so much as feel: Hoobastank’s schmaltzy hit “The Reason” is more than 20 years old now, though you would not classify it as classic rock. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ war-torn ballad “Scar Tissue,” however, released just a few years earlier, fits the bill. Classic rock is music you could see a suburban father listening to on a speaker while washing his car in the driveway. Painfully masculine, beautifully simple.

Take that car out of the driveway, and an alternative to streaming-induced banality awaits. I’ve found myself tuning in to 95.5 KLOS, my local classic-rock station, as I drive around the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles, which is an easy place to get sentimental about rock history. Turn a corner, and there’s Whisky a Go Go, there’s Laurel Canyon, there’s Sunset Sound. Leather-pants-wearing ghosts everywhere you look. L.A. was not built on subtlety, and it’s often best to commune with it at a high volume. A little bit of added radio crackle is fine; everything is grimy here.

Of course, the sugar blast of the most carnal rock songs cannot alone constitute a healthful diet, but a little can be rejuvenating. On my own, I would never fire up Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart,” and I doubt Spotify would serve it to me through Autoplay. I’m thankful for that — it makes me feel as if I need a shower afterward — but total abstention from a song that catchy is like never indulging in a milkshake.

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