In 1972, Don McLean topped the charts for four weeks with his iconic hit “American Pie.” The song’s lyrics focused on “the day the music died,” a reference to the February 1959 plane crash that killed pop singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
While perhaps not quite that dramatic, Sunday felt to me a little bit like another day the music died.
I awoke to find a text from a friend of mine saying that DJ Casey Kasem, best known for his decades-long stint as the host of American Top 40, had passed away at the age of 82.
In that moment, I thought, Oh, that’s really sad. But I soon went on with the morning’s business (namely, getting the family ready for church), and I didn’t give it another thought.
A bit later that day, however, I was perusing the news online and came across a lengthy article chronicling Kasem’s legacy as the host of American Top 40 from 1970 (the year I was born ) to 2004 (the year I got married). Though the former DJ has mostly been in the tabloids as of late due to a battle between his children and his second wife over his medical care, Kasem was anything but the kind of guy whose life up to that point had inspired such tawdry coverage.
No, for many of us who came of age during those decades, Casey Kasem was the voice of the music culture. Each week, his warm and gentle radio presence counted down the biggest hits in the land, sprinkled with interesting anecdotes about musicians and touching “Long Distance Dedications” woven into the four-hour radio program. Even as cultural change began to accelerate in the mid-to-late ’80s when I was listening, Kasem seemed like a fixed point of sorts—a constant you could always count on to show up the following Sunday morning. (I have to confess I often listened as a teen when I managed somehow to get out of going to church.)
Perhaps that explains why about halfway through the article I felt a bit of a shiver, then a tear forming. It wasn’t that I was mourning Casey Kasem’s passing, per se, though it is a sad thing. Rather, Kasem’s death felt like something bigger, something more symbolic. It felt like a part of my childhood had died, too.
I haven’t listened to American Top 40 regularly for many a year. Not since I graduated from high school in 1988, actually. But Kasem’s passing nevertheless reminded me of how deeply pop culture influences and shapes us. In a significant way, even more than we understand in the moment, it marks time for us. And it marks our times.
So when we lose someone whom we associate with the prime of our youth—for older folks, it might be someone like John Wayne or Elvis or John Lennon, for younger people maybe Kurt Cobain or Heath Ledger or Cory Monteith—it reminds us of our own mortality. And it reminds us, painfully, that the times we may fondly reminisce about are so much proverbial water under the bridge.
I can still find plenty of ’80s music on the radio, of course. And I can still tune in to hear old reruns of Casey and American Top 40 in syndication on the radio and online if I want. But Casey Kasem’s passing poignantly reminds me that those seasons—in my life, in our culture’s shared experience—have passed into history. And somehow listening in syndication, nostalgic though it may be, just isn’t quite the same.
Rest in peace, Casey.