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Rock Radio R.I.P.

Has the time finally come when we can all agree that rock radio is in a tremendous rut? Nineteen ninety-eight has arrived, and with it the dull strains of a national radio playlist dominated by the likes of Matchbox 20 and an endless string of their sound-alikes. Rock radio will survive, as it always has, but popular rock music has not sunk to such depths since the late '80s, when listeners were subjected to the ear- and mind-numbing vapidity of Starship, Cutting Crew and Sheriff.

Back then, my college roommates and I declared a war on rock radio. We could stand it no more, and would listen only to our collection of tapes (yes, we still had most of our music on cassettes). It was hard to find even the patently non-revolutionary sounds of 10,000 Maniacs, the Alarm and the Cure on the radio.

By the early '90s, rock had come out of its doldrums with the help of the Seattle sound, and at least for a while, the radio regained a bit of its former prominence in our lives. But decay set in a few years back, and rock stations are now, like David Lee Roth's love, "rotten to the core."

The list of insipid artists and bands basking in the barely flickering glow of today's LED dial is long and shallow. Turn on the radio, and tell me if that's Big Head Todd and the Monsters or Duncan Sheik. Can you tell them apart? Does it matter? These mellow, middle-of-the-road mopers are but the tip of the arid iceberg called modern rock.

Not only can you not tell one band's sterile sound from another (it's really all one sound), but even the names of the artists are beginning to meld with one another. I can't believe there are two rivals to the throne of dullness called Third Eye Blind and Dog's Eye View. It's enough to make one nostalgic for the days of Crash Test Dummies and Barenaked Ladies (they were two different bands, weren't they?).

These "artists" drone on ad nauseam in pseudo-angst about "3 a.m." and in pseudo-irony about their "Semi-Charmed Life," but does anybody out there care? Worst of all, they seem to have directed themselves squarely at me, an early-model Generation Xer supposedly mellowed beyond any yen for noisy, idealistic passion. But has my generation become so stagnant and passive that we want this vacuous moping rushing monotonously into our weary brains? Is irony all that's left? I think not.

And that's just the guy bands. On the other side of the gender divide, things are no better off. A new generation of female singer-songwriters was supposed to breathe new life into rock music. But as quick as any new sound in rock has ever become formulaic, these women have also coalesced into one sound. Is that Paula Cole singing about cowboys, or is it Shawn Colvin (sound-alike names again)?

Then there's Jewel, Lisa Loeb, Sarah MacLachlan, and the rest of the Lilith Fair crowd. "Fair" is about right. It's as good as any of them can be rated. None of them stick out.

The only interesting thing about the whole phenomenon is that it makes for interesting guessing games when trapped in a car, with nowhere to turn for aural relief. "Oh, it's one of those babes," we're often left with, or "It's one of those bands." "Which one?" "I can't tell . . . Dog's Blind Eye?"

If these adult album alternative selections are representative of the postmodern, post-feminist world, stop and let me off at the next Neil Young album (sans Pearl Jam). I know it's not their fault, but what have the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge wrought?

I do want to exempt the Crows (Sheryl and Counting) from too much blame. I will admit to liking them, at least at the outset. But their popularity has definitely had a negative effect. I want to say, "Stop it you two, you'll only encourage more of them." Unfortunately, their success has led to a parade of, as the Stones would say, "the kind of people you meet at certain dismal, dull affairs."

So now I guess we just bide our time, ride out this tsunami of mediocrity, and await our next saving grace. Something good will come along, but it may take some time. After all, the Lilith Fair crowd just cleaned up at the Grammys, lending an air of professional legitimacy to this non-movement.

Well, Dinosaur Jr. never won any Grammys, and no one I know seems to care. Let them have their awards, and share the stage with cutting-edge figures like Elton John and Tony Bennett.

I'll just go back to the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience, and stick to my CD collection for awhile. This current crew may resurface in the next decade on a "Stupor Sounds of the Nineties" collection, but you can be damn certain that you won't be hearing the Jayhawks and the Goo Goo Dolls on the radio in a few years. Hopefully, not in a few weeks.