What is a golden oldie?

Published March 31, 2011

It was some time during the first few months of 1985. I was listening casually to the radio when the DJ played Foreigner’s late 1984 hit ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, after which she proudly announced that no matter what other people thought, she would go on playing “golden oldies” like this. Needless to say, my jaw dropped. I think you will agree, dear reader, that a song that only recently slipped off the charts by definition cannot be a “golden oldie”. It was the first time that I had heard anyone use the expression “golden oldie” in a context that was so obviously inaccurate.

But is ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ a golden oldie today? Twenty-six years have passed since it was released, so it is certainly “old”. But for the life of me I still can’t think of that or any other hit from the Eighties as a golden oldie. In actual fact, anything recorded after, say, the mid-Seventies could never be labelled thus, as far as I’m concerned. This, of course, partly has to do with my own age. I am now in my mid-Forties and I first heard songs from the Eighties in “the present”, at which time golden oldies were songs from the Sixties and earlier.

I suppose for someone born in the Eighties or later, synth-pop, Phil Collins, Madonna’s first hits and whatever else was around while they were mere toddlers would qualify as “oldies”. But do they even use that terminology? I suspect most of them don’t, especially now that the world has become just one giant archive of music from all decades, where you can mix and match whatever songs that happen to tickle your fancy, regardless of when they were recorded. The need to define “old” and “new” music as clearly separate entities is probably not as prevalent today. Perhaps it has also become impossible.

I think it also has to do with recording techniques. Ever since the mid-Seventies, when 24-track recording came into wide-spread use, popular music has more or less sounded the same. Certainly, there have been technological advancements such as digital recording, and production aesthetics have varied over the years, but the sounds themselves have all been clearly defined with none of the limitations of the more “primitive” recording techniques utilised prior to the Seventies. It’s a long time since anything was produced to sound good on a transistor radio.

 A golden oldie, then, is not only defined by its age in relation to the moment when you’re listening to it, but it’s also about a sound that defines it as “old” in terms of the sound, where “old” really refers to “old recording techniques” – and perhaps “golden” would refer to a more innocent time, before mainstream popular music discovered politics, overt sex and drugs. According to Wikipedia, songs from the Eighties are more often referred to as “classic hits”, and that certainly sounds like a better term for describing ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’. But golden oldie? I don’t think so.