Late Thursday night, legions of functioning adults donned lightning-bolt scars and wizarding school robes and flocked to the cinemas to bid a fond farewell to Harry Potter. While they watched their youth slowly fade with the end credits, I stayed home and said goodbye to a relic of my adolescence. Q101 (WKQX), Chicago’s only major alternative rock format radio station, went off the airwaves early Friday morning. It will remain in existence as an online-only station – without the personnel, the programming, or the comfortable space on the high end of the dial. 101.1 FM is expected to become an all-news station.
Despite the station briefly enabling Creed spinoff band Alter Bridge, Q101 had a positive and significant impact on my musical growth. The first gig I ever attended was a station-sponsored show — ‘Twisted,’ their annual holiday festival. I was 13. The lineup included Pete Yorn, Alien Ant Farm, Sum41 and headliners Blink-182. It was right after the 9/11 attacks; I remember a lot of people being really angry a lot of the time and not really knowing why (this will probably be the excuse the music writers of the early 2000s give when explaining why nü-metal existed in the first place). Before Blink-182 came on, the station brought out Chicago Cubs PA announcer Wayne Messmer to sing the National Anthem. People waved lighters. There was an obligatory ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ chant and I think the only time I’ve ever seen this done without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness. I remember Blink-182 referring to the audience members who tried to leave before the encore as ‘dog-fuckers’ and feeling slightly uncomfortable by how many people were so gleeful while singing ‘Adam’s Song.’ I wore my first overpriced concert t-shirt to school the next day and told classmates that it was the best night of my life. And so, my insatiable adolescent lust for live music began.
It’s fitting that Q101’s run ended right before the start of another popular Chicago musical institution: the Pitchfork Music Festival. I say this not to make a point about how the Internet is killing traditional media or to suggest that alt-rock is deader than most of its heroes. I bring it up because I’d bet that quite a few of the culturally-literate Chicago twenty-somethings attending P4K this year listened to Q101 while driving their weathered ‘87 Ford Tauruses or finding discreet places to smoke weed as teens.
For me, and for many of my peers who write about popular music or who are at least pop music enthusiasts, I think alternative rock radio served as something of a gateway drug, helping us to discover how vast and varied and amazing the world of popular music actually is. And it’s hardly a local or regional phenomenon either — while listening to some early-aughties nostalgia hour on Kerrang! Radio, my British friends and I calculated the evolution of our musical tastes: from A&R-hawked emo and various Dave Grohl-affiliated acts to the garage revival that followed Is This It? to all the fragments that followed. We evolved into omnivores with insatiable musical appetites, devouring everything from dubstep and free jazz to bluegrass and trap-rap, but put on ‘Everlong’ or ‘Sweetness’ at the bar and you’ll see a glimpse of our old selves, almost disgustingly enthusiastic, without the slightest hint of irony.
At the height of my relationship with Q101, my friends were all writers, or at least, we all wrote. We had blogs. Terrible blogs. We all wrote bad poetry and screenplays and short fiction. We valued earnestness over irony, as I think you do when you’re an adolescent. In his book Nothing Feels Good, Andy Greenwald attributes the success of emo to the media being ‘so desperate for its self-obsessed, post-9/11 predictions of a return to austerity and the death of irony to come true.’ I’d go further to say that most of Q101’s repertoire at the time — nü-metal, the resurgence of grunge, even some of the garage-revival stuff (The Strokes’ ‘Someday’ comes to mind) — reached mainstream success because even the stuff that was overproduced, A&R-driven dreck elicited a genuine emotional response. For a while, it felt like irony did die, buried under spirited ‘U-S-A!’ chants and Dashboard Confessional EPs.
My friends all read The Perks of Being A Wallflower, a book inspired by Catcher In The Rye – but instead of snarky know-it-all Holden Caulfield, our narrator was a passive-aggressive, delicate flower who loved Kurt Cobain and Morrissey. We held it in the highest literary regard, and I remember that span of a few months where everyone started listening to “this totally awesome band from the ‘80s called The Smiths” all the time. We sought out music because it allowed us to feel certain things and process them in a way that makes sense when you’re an adolescent. We listened to Q101 and would relish the ritual of calling into the Top 9 at 9 and giddily belting out ‘Hands Down.’ We became music enthusiasts – we wrote about these experiences with alternative rock radio not because the music itself was of any particular merit, but because we learned to love music itself and seek out more of it and experience it, respond to it.
Q101 used to have a show every Sunday night called the Local 101, hosted by a Chicago music fanatic named Chris Payne. He lived what I imagine is the fantasy life of most suburban dads: lawyer by day, beloved radio DJ by night. Sure, there was a lot of artist repetition — I’m pretty sure there was a rule that every installment had to include a song by Rise Against — but it was Chris Payne who showed me that Chicago music went well beyond the Smashing Pumpkins, that it had this incredible past and future that spread in all directions. It introduced me to Chicago’s mythical punk history (the mid-’80s seemed mythical at the time, anyway), bands like Screeching Weasel and Naked Raygun and Big Black (Steve Albini’s college band). As soon as I got a taste of that history, I began searching for the rest. The city’s contributions to hip-hop, the fantastic independent labels (Thrill Jockey, Bloodshot, Drag City), and the blues – above all things, the blues. It may sound strange, but Q101 and Billy Corgan’s whine coming through my radio every night eventually led me to Koko Taylor. And thank God for that.
The final edition of Local 101 ended, in true radio station promo fashion, at 1:01 AM, with the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight.’ I listened to the song again, the strings that climb to City of Big Shoulders heights and the chorus erupting with light like the skyline over Lake Michigan. (‘And the embers never fade / in the city by the lake.’) I was 13 again and listening to this song on a mix CD given to me by a friend who was struggling with depression at the time, understanding for the first time the importance of empathy and I remembered what it was like to feel needed, to feel like yeah, everything was terrible because everything seems unusually terrible when you’re 13, but it’s going to get better and we’re going to get better if we just take Billy Corgan’s advice and believe. My peers who continue to ride the train to Hogwarts over and over again in their minds and wept for their final voyage did so because Jo Rowling made them believe and showed them what endless possibility looked like when they were young, and I guess in a weird way, Q101 did the same thing for me. And for that, I say thank you.