NPR Survey Lays Bare Baby Boomers’ Cultural Conservatism


You can’t really get angry at a radio station over the taste of its listeners, so it seems kinda silly to get upset at NPR for the lists it published on its website yesterday. The venerable public broadcaster ran a series of online polls last year, surveying its readers as to their favorite records. Their approach was pretty simple: All Songs Considered hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton posted a bunch of albums, and gave readers two options for each record (“Love it” or “Don’t love it”). The results are in, and… um, well, all songs might have been considered, but the only ones to get universal love were made by men and recorded in the 1960s. Yikes.

As an experiment in creating a rock ‘n’ roll canon, this has clearly fallen short; if your list of “most loved” records is 40% The Beatles and 100% old dudes, you’re clearly lacking in both diversity and general contemporary cultural relevance. Here’s the “most loved” list in full:

To see exactly what’s going on here, it’s worth looking at NPR’s demographics. The yawn-inducingly boomer-centric nature of the list starts to make sense once you realize the median age of an NPR listener is 49 — these people were young about 30 years ago, so they were in their teens in the early ’70s, and… well, even then they were apparently listening to music that had been released years ago, which doesn’t say a great deal for their adventurousness, but hey, whatever.

The fact that, three decades later, this audience can’t agree on anything released any later than 1971 also reflects rather poorly on their sense of adventure. Even NPR itself seems rather nonplussed by this: “Every single one of these albums came out in the 1960s,” notes Hilton’s commentary on the NPR website. “Were the ’60s really that much better than all the other decades? Or do our tastes tend to favor records that have been around long enough to be declared classics?” The answer is, duh, the latter — only for “our,” substitute “the generation of whom your listeners are indicative,” because honestly, it’s only boomers who seem beholden to this idea that only albums from their halcyon days can be Classics.

The lack of women makes less sense. You’d expect NPR’s audience to reflect the gender dynamics of its little section of American society as a whole, and so it does — its national site doesn’t list gender demographics, but New England Public Radio’s site goes into more detail, suggesting NPR’s audience is “54% men and 46% women.” NPR’s list of Beloved Albums is 100% male and 0% female. Um. What’s going on here, then?

Again, NPR itself seems underwhelmed by this: “Perhaps the most glaring issue with the top ten most-loved list is that it’s all-male. Where was the love for … the many amazing, life-changing, profoundly treasured albums by women?” Where, indeed?

Perhaps the interesting thing here is that NPR’s audience seem to have internalized boomer mythology, bless them. Women’s liberation was as much a part of the 1960s as civil rights and wearing questionable kaftans, but when it comes to the history of Important Musicians from the period, hey, they’re all dudes: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, etc. Janis Joplin gets a look-in because she is a Tragic Figure and member of the 27 Club, and there’s the occasional cursory mention for Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, but apart from that, it’s Y chromosomes all the way.

It’s a reminder of the fact that the nature of history tends to reflect the people who write it, because hey, look at the custodians of boomer mythology… they’re all men, too. Jann Wenner. Hunter S. Thompson. Ken Kesey. Tom Wolfe. None of this is entirely surprising — the pernicious influence of entrenched patriarchy is difficult to escape, even if you think you’re tearing everything down and starting again — but still, it’s rather depressing that apparently NPR’s female listeners appear to have internalized this just as much as their male counterparts.

The other thing that comes out of these lists is just how terrified this demographic is of hip hop and contemporary R&B. It’s impressive that 50% of the most loved albums are by black artists; it’s less impressive that 90% of the least-loved are by, yes, black artists:

If you’ve ever endured some sort of tiresome uncle going on about how he “just doesn’t understand hip hop” and/or how it “all sounds the same,” you’ll know just what’s going on here — this audience doesn’t understand hip hop (or, apparently, any other contemporary music) because it doesn’t want to, and because it’s easier to just keep celebrating your own culture rather than investigating anyone else’s.

But all in all, if the legacy of that culture is “we love white dudes from 40 years ago, and we don’t like women or hip hop,” you’ll forgive me if I refrain from endorsing your version of the rock ‘n’ roll canon. Of course I’m not suggesting that all boomers are like this, or that this is their only legacy, but it’s kinda depressing that this is a reflection of the people who listen to one of America’s great cultural institutions, and also reflective of what’s become of people who 30 years ago thought they could change the world. It’s a reminder of the creeping conservatism that can come with advancing years. I hope that when it comes to the time that it’s my generation making these lists, we do better.