The strange death of easy listening
If, like me, you spent an unfortunate amount of your young adult life digging through the record stacks at thrift stores, you probably realized it at some point: Nobody actually listened to Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. Setting a period picture montage of Vietnam protests and assassination to footage to "All Along the Watchtower" is Boomer Whig history. The crates don't lie: Most people were listening to Andy Williams and Herb Alpert, not whatever San Francisco Blueshammer crap you just bought in a deluxe vinyl reissue.
What I didn't realize until recently is that this was a good thing. Unlike most of the stuff on the pop charts, what used to be called "easy listening" was music for adults. This was true in any number of senses. One was simply that distorted guitars and one-note basslines and cheap cymbals only sounded okay on tiny integrated stereo units or car speakers. If you had the kind of halfway decent stereo equipment that an adult with a job could have afforded at the time, even the best engineered pop albums would come out sounding roughly as euphonious as a power drill demonstration video. Audiophile dorks who spend thousands of dollars obsessing over factory matrix numbers in the hope of finding a pressing of Rubber Soul that doesn't give the impression that it was meant to be played back on a toy are wasting their time. If you want something that can actually take advantage of the twin Conrad-Johnson monoblock power amps and vintage speakers you blew an eighth of a mortgage on, try this instead.
Rock music was essentially adolescent. It was written and performed by very young people who had nothing of particular importance to say about a world they had very little experience of. All the songs were about premarital sex — wanting to have it soon, being sad because you can't have it soon, being mad because someone else is having it, and even, occasionally, just about having it. Their response to these no-doubt very serious emotions was to scream about them over the same three or four chords — even their seemingly daring experiments with things like time signature were drug-abetted infinite-monkey theorem-type accidents. The AC/DC lads were only half right: Rock 'n' roll is noise pollution, but it has survived anyway.
You can argue that Barbra Streisand, whose voice Glenn Gould once proclaimed "one of the natural wonders of the age," is impossibly campy. What you can't argue is that the remarkable (I would argue even unsurpassed) stretch of albums from her debut in 1963 until Guilty is anything but easy to listen to. That's not because it's not cool: It's because it's pleasant to the ears and enjoying it doesn't require you to be either on drugs or jumping up and down like a child, which is the whole point.
What easy listening did in its heyday was fill the gap between classical music and jazz on the one hand and kiddie fare on the other. Not every day is a Bruno Walter Mahler No. 9 kind of day. Not every night of relaxing listening will last long enough for you to make it through four sides of your favorite Duke Ellington live release. This is why Doris Day existed — so grown-ups would have something to put on while they were doing grown-up things, like drinking cocktails and talking about how that idiot McNamara was losing the war in Vietnam. When Glen Campbell is singing a song by, say, Donovan he and his arrangers treat "Catch the Wind" with the respect that its composer never dreamed of affording it. A lot of the time the easy listening tracks didn't even have vocals, something that was commercially viable in an age where the average person had a smattering of basic musical education.
Were easy listening releases sometimes cringe-inducingly lame? Sure, lots of them. I would rather have the first Bad Company record blasted straight into my eardrums 10,000 times in a row than hear the version of "What's New Pussycat?" on Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits ever again, even though the latter is otherwise one of my all-time favorite records. But even at its most excessive, easy listening is never as bad as the average bad rock song: 101 Strings Present Their Golden Oldies is a bad listening experience because the arrangements are schmaltzy, not because its producers were tone-deaf.
Until very recently the ghost of easy listening still haunted FM radio. But Train and Savage Garden were just neutered and spayed version of the same adolescent product you could hear on the top 40 station in the late '90s, not an attempt to do something radically different, much less "adult." The good news, though, is that nothing really stands in the way of an easy listening revival. (The only reason Cheek to Cheek didn't work is that Tony Bennett no longer has the pipes and Lady Gaga never will.)
Spend a month alternating between old Angel pressings of Beethoven symphonies and Perry Como. I bet you will never want to hear an overdriven guitar again.