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The Rise and Fall of College Rock

How yuppies and NPR gentrified punk

Yves / Flickr

Of all the types of rock music, perhaps the one that is least considered and most overlooked is “college rock.” Like today’s “indie rock,” it was named for the circumstance of its proliferation, rather than some characteristic or aesthetic of the music (such as heavy metal, noise, punk, grind, et al). Anthemic and clever, college rock produced clean pop songs which still resonate with listeners today. But what was college rock exactly and why did it disappear? And why is there no cult of stalwarts who maintain its legacy, as there is with nearly every other subcult of rock ’n’ roll (goth, ska, mod, punk, rockabilly, etc.)? There is, for example, no Robert Gordon (seventies rockabilly revivalist) or Paul Weller (the second-wave “modfather”) figure of college rock rallying a “college-rock revival”; at least not on the near horizon.

Akashic Books

Though usually associated with groups of the early 1980s, college rock existed for a short time before and afterward as well, through the heyday of college radio. The genre’s groups, though often signed to major labels, did not typically enjoy mainstream popularity but were instead cult favorites—a musical counterpart to the then-popular “midnight movie” craze where gonzo flops and campy outrages were displayed to a knowing, fun-loving, and unpretentious audience. (Of course, some of the college rock groups—such as Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, and REM—eventually became very successful.)

The genre wasn’t called “college rock” because it was produced exclusively for or by students but was instead named for the radio stations which were its champion and proponent. In the sixties, when FM radio was less typical, the FCC issued many Class D radio licenses to universities, which allowed them to create noncommercial stations on the little-used left side of dial (typically 88.1–90.5 FM). Despite residing in the hinterlands, many of their signals were powerful, with tens of thousands of kilowatts.

By the late seventies, FM had become paradigmatic, and the college stations were burgeoning and sometimes influential. As opposed to commercial stations, which were committed to a highly restrictive “Top 40” format, college radio was fairly free-form in its programming. College stations saw promulgation of lesser-heard groups as their responsibility; their sacred mission. They were staffed by music enthusiasts who worked without pay, and who saw college rock as a desperately needed alternative to the platinum tedium of “classic” and Top 40 drivel.

While university students certainly comprised some of the audience of college rock, all kinds of people were potential listeners. Still, because of its ivory-tower associations, a certain type of education and class background were assumed of both the producers and consumers of college rock. If Lou Reed and Iggy Pop are the “godfathers of punk,” Roger McGuinn and Jonathan Richman could arguably be considered the alpha college rockers.

College rock often had a vaguely political or satirical bent. After the campus takeovers of the sixties and seventies, universities in the 1980s were still considered progressive institutions, places where social consciousness and political activism could be found alongside toga parties and keg-stands. Universities had deftly weathered the culture wars of the sixties by pretending to be outside of commerce—benevolent institutions created as places for pot smokers to congregate and talk trash. By the eighties, St. Elmo’s Fire, Animal House, and the Reagan-era frat revival were incinerating all traces of campus radicalism, but there were still a few lingering totems of the student power movement; one was college radio. College rock could therefore be seen as a last gasp of the revolutionary student movement of the sixties.

College rock could be defined as a middle-class and art-conscious permutation of radio rock, without the Year Zero pretensions of punk. Though just a scant decade earlier rock ’n’ roll or “rock” had been vaunted as the vanguard of a new revolutionary consciousness, by the seventies it had become codified, established, and even conservative; particularly since its courtship of the country music audience with its “Southern rock” gambit (which begat Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, America, Molly Hatchet, Crazy Horse, et al). At the other end of the spectrum from rock’s Southern affectation was rock’s punk mode, which—though initially entertaining—had become alienating, remote, militant, and noxious (-looking and -sounding). A college rock variant was therefore necessary for casual middle-class rock fans, left cold by heavy metal, punk rock, Southern rock, and the breezy West Coast sound of Steve Miller Band, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles.

As previously mentioned, college rock’s musical characteristics are not necessarily apparent to the listener. While it had some of the same bourgeois sensibilities as modern “indie” rock, it lacked the willful obscurantism. Indie rock is marked by “slacker” cynicism, aloofness, introversion, and formalism, whereas college rock was still goofy, political, risible, idiotic. There was hope and playfulness in college rock. It was still rooted in the ambition of making a “hit”: popular music for radio play. College rock had to be fun; frat rock (i.e., Swingin’ Medallions, Kingsmen, John Fred & His Playboy Band) and soul revues had long been mainstays of campus life, so college rockers were under pressure to entertain in a visceral way. Therefore, there was often a novelty, populist component to college rock that is missing in today’s opaque, elusive, and willfully obscure “indie” world.

Many college radio stations had powerful bandwidth and far-reaching influence. These stations published their own nationally syndicated newsletter (College Music Journal or CMJ) about college rock trends and happenings. As a result, college rock’s production values (with regard to discernibility, high fidelity, etc.) were configured for perceived “mass” tastes. Still, it was distinct from normal rock in that it was elitist, artier, and pandered to the Anglophilia of its middle-class audience. While college rock was informed by punk, new wave, and other subterranean trends, it was more “M.O.R.,” with a roots element that would have been eschewed by those more radical elements, intent as they were on artifice, newness, aesthetic orthodoxy, and the destruction of tradition. Popular college rock bands included Violent Femmes, Guadalcanal Diary, REM, Love & Rockets, Robyn Hitchcock, Feelies, Shriekback, Fleshtones, Rank and File, Replacements, Hoodoo Gurus, Pixies, Elvis Costello, Haircut 100, Throwing Muses, XTC, the Church, Connells, and Let’s Active. Most groups from Britain or Australia were given sanctuary at the left of the dial as its campus programmers would read the Anglo accent as cultured or educated; “one of us.”

Simultaneous to the college rock phenomenon, the “yuppie” archetype of monied liberal connoisseur had been developed—a foil to lingering post-60s leftist boomers. The yuppie was an adult version of the privileged campus longhair who had outgrown the juvenile provocations and naive politics of his youth and now had a “pragmatic” approach to changing the world. This mostly consisted of buying things that were sensible, bourgeois, and decorous, such as Volvo station wagons and imported Italian olive oil. Their coed activist impulse was channeled in adulthood into improving their “quality of life,” using material things which reflected their values: quality, wholesomeness, worldliness, and decency. French cheese, Scandinavian design, Italian espresso, olde-time American folk traditions, and many of the same sundries that would have been admired by the folk and protest movements centered around sixties college campuses.

The yuppie lifestyle was itself a cousin to the “Back to the Land” movement of the hippies; a protest against the grotesque mechanization of fast-food culture and the pervasive plastic crap of postwar America. But while the hippies’ attempt had been revolutionary, the yuppies’ concerns were merely aesthetic.

Central to the yuppie ideology was mature pragmatism; activism, communes, and protest weren’t pragmatic and carried few palpable dividends. Making lots of money, though, was considered very pragmatic. Political opinions were measured. Shrill voices were a sign of imbalance. Privilege was to be enjoyed, though not too ostentatiously; this was in poor taste. Yuppiedom was heavily rooted in the Protestant aesthetic of moderation and decorum. Liking a sports team was a stand-in for community outreach; wearing a proletarian-style ball cap with the logo of a favorite team showed solidarity with the less fortunate better than any donation ever could.

As yuppie tenets became codified during the eighties, its adherents needed a mouthpiece through which to promulgate their values, spread their seed, communicate to one another, and also define themselves. This would be vital for them if they were to develop their ideologies, as well as to grow and flourish as a people. NPR, a public radio project of LBJ’s Great Society legislation, was chosen as their party organ. Instead of becoming a target and whipping boy for “small government” privatization proponents (as the libraries, public schools, US post office, Amtrak, and NEA famously did), NPR grew muscle through generous donations by well-heeled corporate sponsors (Joan Kroc of McDonald’s donated $250 million, for example) and set to work colonizing station after station at the end of the dial—right where the college stations traditionally hovered.

Claiming they were a detriment to broadcasting, NPR lobbied aggressively to destroy these small-fry noncommercial competitors, who were often forced to disband or convert to closed-circuit (campus-only) format. By the early nineties, college radio was squeezed to pathetic micropower status. Bullied and pummeled by All Things Considered, it ceased to exist as a variant to mainstream radio rock. An entire class of groups was disenfranchised, cut off from the casual listeners who wanted an “alternative” to the hair metal/R&B/classic rock triumvirate but who also weren’t interested in the immersive, fanatic cults of American hardcore and postpunk.

The college rock groups died off. Into the breech leapt something called “indie rock.”

“Indie” was a term borrowed from the English music papers and which initially meant “independent,” as in “independent record label.” The English music papers included “indie chart” Top 10s for groups like Felt and the Smiths to supplement the major label charts for people like Cher, Michael Jackson, and Bon Jovi. “Indie” was first adopted in America by Anglophilic, self-styled “pop” groups that arose out of the postpunk underground and who were influenced by these more obscure “independent” British groups. Indie fans, like yuppies, were extreme connoisseurs, seeking out groups to love that were so remote as to be essentially only rumored to exist. American indie groups took on the homemade aesthetics and subsistence economy of the US hardcore and postpunk bands—something not typical in the industry-driven UK music scene—and merged them with the yuppie’s tastemaking and post-hippie civic sensibility.

Stylistically, indie was usually “shambolic” guitar music which looked for the same amateurish spontaneity as punk but omitted the punk rocker’s expressions of anger and their commitment to being unloved. Indie groups abandoned the possibly embarrassing politicking, kept some noise, and replaced the rough-and-tumble clobber with respectable jumpers and cardigans. Though they were in part a refutation of hardcore and punk, indie rockers were united to their black-clad cousins through economy; all of them used the same small clubs, record plants, copy shops, record stores, distributors, etc.

Chosen signifiers were subtle indicators that the group in question admired a certain class of British ne’er-do-well bands. Sixties revivalism of a certain type and a kind of sophisticate infantilism were the earmarks of early indie. Many of these groups would have been college rock, but without the college stations to play their music, populism in record cover design or in sonic production was no longer a concern. It was also less possible without cash flow; the record company budgets which could have sponsored the college rock group, with its capacity to produce a small market “hit,” had disappeared. Therefore, when “college” switched to “indie,” it became much more obscurantist, lo-fi, remote, and personal.

Punk had been, in part, a response to the boomers’ smug boasts of former glory; the ex-hippies’ reminiscences of sixties street fighting, narcotic bravado, and bohemian politics pervaded the culture. Punk rock one-upped these claims to radicalism by creating a psychotic, sci-fi-cartoon, cul-de-sac version of leftism. It challenged hippie hypocrisy with an all-or-nothing model of doomed absolutism. It was as immersive as a motorcycle gang or membership in the Mafia; part-time participants were derided as “poseurs,” while any deviation from orthodoxy was a “sellout.” The punks were hyperconscious of race and attempted to mimic the black experience by transforming themselves into a distinct caste which was reviled and discriminated against by squares. Such militancy was for a time successful in creating an economic and social ghetto which was nearly impenetrable to corporate infiltration and which only adventurous or deranged souls dared enter.

The punk’s jackbooted existentialism hastened the former hippies toward their pragmatic yuppie endgame. With nowhere to go, the next generation—the “indie” bands—played their guitars sheepishly and dutifully. The hippies, of course, had come out of a time of unparalleled affluence and the punks had been committed to poverty. But the indie rocker, scared of recession, didn’t feel as heroic as these forebears and inherited some of the yuppie’s fearful “pragmatism.” They were also horrified by the proletarian element of the hardcore punk cult, which sometimes attracted “rednecks” or army types, and was ritualistically violent.

Since the pretense of the yuppie was a slightly world-weary wisdom born of the fractious street battles of the sixties and seventies, home and family were central to their image. While the yuppie was a traveled Europhile who loved the paella of Valencia and the chocolate of Belgium, he or she also adored a certain brand of Americana. Folky comfort and conservatism pervaded the aesthetic. Real estate therefore became a pet project, particularly redoing what became known as the “homes” of economically abandoned postindustrial US cities, in an evangelical attempt at urban “revitalization.” Besides money, a nostalgia for the America of their parents was at the heart of their project. This was a guilt-ridden attempt to mend fences with now-deceased families against whom they had once rebelled so vociferously, and for whom they now felt pathos, kinship, and class allegiance. Posthumously, the yuppies celebrated their once-reviled elders as the “Greatest Generation” and moved to reinstitutionalize an imagined version of their world.

As the yuppies took on a long-term project to “gentrify” American cities and remake them in their own image, the indie groups, typically the scions of NPR listeners (affluent, decorous, white), took on the mission to “gentrify” punk. With indie, the independent record label—instead of being an emotionally driven, “punk” rebel gesture against major label conglomerates who were considered clueless, exploitive, and evil—became a kind of “do-it-yourself” hobby similar to the restoration projects featured on yuppie fave TV program This Old House. As an indie label grew from hobby to business, it would self-consciously mirror major label tactics and business practices, but infuse them with the homeyness and wholesomeness of Martha Stewart’s cooking and crafts.

Just as the yuppie colonizers took the rough, downtrodden, dangerous, sometimes nihilistic city neighborhoods which—though crushed by neglect—often housed vibrant communities, and “flipped” them for big bucks by making them palatable to middle-class normals, so did indie entrepreneurs take American punk and hardcore—similarly rough, tawdry, and ignored and reviled by capital—with its highly effective framework of distributors, fanzines, concert promoters, and community, and remake it into something which could be sold to mainstream rock fans of a certain class; the very people who had been abandoned when college rock collapsed. The term for this personal, individualist, capitalist, apolitical, entrepreneurial version of punk was “DIY” (“do-it-yourself”). DIY segued neatly with the by-now-paradigmatic yuppie creed and its emphasis on local, quaint, and homemade products. Underground shows, like the “revitalized” neighborhoods of the inner city, were cleansed of their wildness and strangeness, along with their skinheads and endemic bouts of violence.

The absolute success of these two movements is such that at this stage, “indie” and “yuppie” are meaningless designators. The yuppie aesthetic of connoisseurship has infiltrated everywhere and now there is only—for many of us—either luxury gelato or food made of chemical waste. Ikea, Martha Stewart, and Whole Foods make yuppiedom no longer a chic and extravagant choice but an enforced mode. It’s either that or eat at a toxic toilet such as McDonald’s. The indie aesthetic is likewise de rigueur. H&M, Urban Outfitters, and American Apparel sell the floppy “Brit on a holiday” look to all Americans. Radiohead and Arcade Fire music is blasted from speakers at stadiums. For many poor souls, there is no alternative to the alternative.

Excerpted from Censorship Now!! copyright 2015 by Ian F. Svenonius, used with permission of Akashic Books and HIGHWAY Magazine.