Why is classic rock the go-to cottage music?

Rows of music cds on the shelf Photo by Telekhovskyi/Shutterstock

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We were all having a perfectly pleasant evening at our friend’s cottage on Kennisis Lake, Ont., when Jeff decided to bust out his old CD collection. Twelve of us were there on a night late in the summer, two generations—us in our twenties and our parents in their fifties—who had been friends for almost two decades. Jeff started cycling through the music, playing one or two tracks from each disc before the next song request rolled in: the Eagles, the Clash, Tears for Fears, the Police. 

Then, as is known to happen when strong opinions and strong drink commingle, things got a little tense. Jeff, who has long held the title for the most laid-back grown-up I know, was trying to accommodate the enthusiastic requests from Norm, a big Led Zeppelin fan, as well as those from my mother (Norm’s partner), who earnestly refers to most bands of Norm’s choosing as “drug music.” Catherine, Jeff’s wife, someone who carries the quiet authority of a high school principal, was the diplomat, which worked pretty well until you threw into the mix my cocksure younger brother, who had some thoughts of his own about what we should be listening to. 

Some were not happy about the length of time it was taking for that song they requested four songs ago to make it to the front of the queue. Some were upset that after the delay, their song was switched prematurely. Some simply could not believe that anyone would request that song right now—are you kidding me? 

But then something wonderful happened. Even with all the opinions in the room, Jeff managed to find a song that was, in a word, perfect: “Sister Golden Hair” by America. For the next three-and-a-half minutes, no one asked him to change it. He turned up the volume, and the atmosphere in the room completely changed: all that tension dissipated, and we danced.

All of my cottage memories have a classic rock soundtrack. You know the songs (cue radio announcer voice): the greatest hits of the ’70s and ’80s. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Kiss, the Doors, Queen, and dozens of others shaped the feel-good rock ’n’ roll ethos, and their songs remain timeless little packages of those same feelings. These songs also tend to appear early on in our musical education, which is to say they’re bigger than our tastes and they bridge generations.

Many of the bands we listened to that night on Kennisis, and on other cottage visits over the years, belong to a subgenre I’ll call “cottage rock.” 

What is cottage rock? For most Canadians the first musician who probably comes to mind when you mention that term is Kim Mitchell, who is as good an answer as any to the question “What if Ontario were a person?” They’d say that the Platonic ideal for a cottage rock song is “Patio Lanterns.” Which, fine. There is a time and a place for that song, and that place is definitely the cottage, but to me, Mitchell’s bit always felt a little on the nose, a brand of Canadiana as caricature. (To the uninitiated, Mitchell was known to wear an OPP hat over his legendary mullet in his music videos.) I still love that song, but I think cottage rock is broader than that, and that’s because my ideas about cottage music have been shaped almost exclusively by one Ontario radio station: 104.1 The Dock. 

One of the moments I most closely associate with the cottage happens almost every weekend of the summer before I even get there. It’s when we pass Hwy. 9 on our way up Hwy. 400—the place where The Dock begins to come through clearly on the dial. The Dock is how I discovered bands such as Chilliwack, April Wine, and Blue Rodeo, and it is the reason why, to me, they will always have an unshakeable connection with the cottage.

But I think there’s another reason “cottage rock” has to be classic rock. The cottage feels to me like a place stuck in time; nostalgia is braided through the spirit of the place. Think of the radio, itself a technology as rustic and dated as some of the weathered parts of cottage life. It is particularly well suited to the long drives, the yard- and dock-work outside, and the very important activity of having a few beers lakeside. It exists in the background, a charming companion that, unlike your favourite Spotify playlist, doesn’t require constant futzing to find an agreeable song.

Classic rock seems to fit in a similar way. It could have something to do with what has been called “the soundtrack effect,” based on the aesthetic theory of Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. As Schopenhauer wrote, “when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it.” In other words, it’s not just that the right music sets the mood; it also reveals something special about a place that would otherwise be invisible, like how the right amount of salt in a dish brings out all the other flavours. That’s what cottage rock does at the cottage.

But maybe you think that’s a pretentious load of crap, as Rob Bowman, a music scholar and associate professor at York University, does. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as cottage music,” he wrote to me in an email. “When I was a kid at my uncle’s cottage they played jazz as that was the popular music of his generation. In another 20 years, Beyoncé, Bieber, and Drake could be cottage music.”

That’s not untrue. Most cottages are owned by baby boomers, which is to say, people who grew up when classic rock was just rock. And not just baby boomers but white, affluent baby boomers. Their musical tastes have certainly shaped my ideas about what cottage rock is. Amid generational and demographic shifts, as cottage country begins to include more people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, the music we listen to will change. I think that’s definitely a good thing, something we can all celebrate and enjoy. 

Still it’s difficult for me—someone who grew up after the proverbial heydays of classic rock and who otherwise has little personal connection to these songs—to believe that in another 20 years, I’ll feel that cottage rock has been replaced by other songs that forge similarly meaningful links to cottage country; as if Justin Bieber could punch out and plaster over a Tragically Hip–sized hole in this particular part of my musical imagination because his songs have greater emotional salience with a new generation of cottagers than “Little Bones.” There has to be more to it than that.

The people at The Dock sit somewhere in the middle, between the business of crafting playlists for the current generation of cottage owners and the more romanticized ideals pushed by yours truly. To them, cottage music is “the music people in our demographic grew up with and were influenced by,” says Mora Austin, an executive at Bell Media, the station’s parent company. “It’s what they are singing around a campfire, playing on their dock or on their boat. We like to think of The Dock as an escape—it’s the ‘Margaritaville’ of radio. Like comfort food or your favourite pair of slippers. You know every song, and it makes you feel good.”

If you were selling the cottage life, that might be your pitch. But, to me, even that doesn’t quite evoke life at the cottage the way those songs—and only those songs—can.

Maybe you’ve experienced moments like that impromptu dance party. It’s entirely possible that yours came with a different song. Maybe you don’t see what classic rock has to do with the cottage, in which case, I apologize sincerely for trying to convince you otherwise.

Still, the soundtrack on the lake feels like a pretty clear indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this. While The Dock’s listenership surveys don’t include cottagers, its regular weekly audience usually clocks in at around 110,000. But the area to which it broadcasts—from Parry Sound and Huntsville in the north to Wasaga Beach and Collingwood in the west to Alliston in the southeast—brings in many more thousands of visitors on summer weekends. And many of them are tuning in to The Dock’s blend of hits from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

That night when “Sister Golden Hair” came on, I knew I’d heard it before. It might have been when we were driving through the boreal forests and past the towering Shield rocks off the Trans-Canada Highway. It might have been on some other day on a different wide, glassy lake, with the lingering smell of damp firewood in the air. Or maybe it was during a previous visit to Kennisis. But maybe not. I doubt anyone else who was there that night felt the exact same thing. But I am sure we all felt something we couldn’t have felt anywhere else.

Tristan Bronca listened to a lot of April Wine while writing this story.

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