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The Good Listener: Why Do Amusement Parks Still Crank Songs From The '80s?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the weekly magazine that seems to show up at least four times per week is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on the playlists at amusement parks.

Donna B. writes via email: "Why is it that the music I heard when I went to Six Flags Over Georgia as an adolescent — REO Speedwagon, Journey, Supertramp, et al, all of which was contemporary Top 40 then — is the exact same music I hear when I go to amusement parks today, 30 years later? It's like the soundtrack to theme parks got frozen in time exactly in my youth, and it creeps me out."

My first thought was to draw a parallel between amusement parks and their less-expensive cousin, the county fair — to suggest that "county fair" has become a genre unto itself, synonymous with the '70s and '80s classic-rock bands that so often play there.

But I think there's another, better reason: That rock 'n' roll theme-park soundtrack is programmed specifically for your precise demographic. If you're bringing along kids of your own, they're most likely happy just to be there, but you may well be a tougher sell. For its bottom line, the park needs fortysomething parents to feel like kids again — and, more to the point, to think of themselves as kids who are finally living out a long-forgotten dream of being at the amusement park with a wallet full of disposable income. With you in mind, that soundtrack is about re-creating sense memories and bringing you back to the happiest moments of your childhood.

Or maybe the folks who run the sound system at Six Flags (or wherever) just love REO Speedwagon, and who can blame them? The amusement park isn't about to program anything outside some past or present version of the mainstream, and I for one would much rather hear "Take It On The Run" for the first time in ages than hear, say, Pharrell's "Happy" for the eleventy-kabillionth time in the last two years. Besides, amusement parks are about a certain flavor of highly ephemeral decadence, and if you said to me, "Stephen, how would you like to stand in the shadow of the Zipper and eat six corn dogs while REO Speedwagon blares overhead?" I would be all in. That's what amusement parks and REO Speedwagon are for! I love Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell as much as the next hanky-wringing mope, but when I'm at Six Flags, I want corn-dog music, dammit!

I can't tell you not to be creeped out by it. But I encourage you to view that decades-old soundtrack as a feature, not a bug, and embrace the fact that carny historians are saving a little piece of your past, right where you left it.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at [email protected] or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)