Thursday, August 18, 2011

Newsflash: Radio Playlists Are Small

One of the most insightful sentences in all of rockwrite comes early in Simon Frith’s Sound Effects: “The pop song banalities people pick up on are, in general, not illuminating but encouraging” (38). This is a crucial idea for pop music inquisitors because the inclination to remain at a distance from our shiny, happy objects of inquiry can only go so far. Frith’s quote reminds us that mastery over a pop text largely concerns a receptivity to how it masters you. No matter how coldly, confidently intellectual we get, we all need some encouragement now and then.

Like, for instance, on a 16-hour, two-day drive in a ten-foot truck moving to the next chapter of my life. Ten feet might seem small potatoes to all you 10-4 good buddies out there. But for someone like me who hasn’t driven in a year and doesn’t have much experience with anything bigger than an SUV, the prospect gave me heart palpitations.

But as soon as I drove the little beast out of the rental shack, there were pop song banalities encouraging me from the radio: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Pat Benatar’s best shot “Shadows of the Night,” the like. Jon told me “we got each other.” Pat implored “we got nobody else.” They let me know that we’re in this together and with the clarion call production of Bruce’s “Glory Days” assuring me I wouldn’t wind up like one of his nostalgia-soaked characters, I knew pop radio would help me through this trip.

That didn’t happen. The 44 in Missouri is all twists, turns, and dissected plateaux feeding into my terror that this truck was going to tip over. Hitting it at night was moronic too. Add some hideous rain (it’s amazing how efficiently you can molest the steering wheel to find the windshield wipers in a panic) with a few 18-wheeled jerks tailgating (!) and you have the makings of a state of non-receptivity to pop song banalities. Screaming at the serpentine topography, I craved something more antisocial than the radio was ever going to offer, The Angelic Process perhaps. Or something that transformed me into a warrior to compete with the real truckers. I needed Motörhead: “Snaggletooth” as much as bottled water and primo gas station cappuccinos. For the first time in my life, I glimpsed what it must feel like to exist in such a misanthropic state 24/7. Is this how Bloody Panda have fans?

Even worse for a poptimist like me, heavy rotation turned those pop song banalities into boldfaced lies. It wasn’t long before “Livin’ on a Prayer” came on again and this time, Jon sounded like a loan shark. Then it came on again and now he was a guilty murderer who repeats his story over and over to avoid telling the truth. I knew playlists were restrictive even for oldies. But actually experiencing it was far more oppressive than encouraging.

And it kept happening. With “We Are Family.” With “Gypsy.” With “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” With freakin’ “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” All snake oil dripping from the FM. As I crept farther south, I expected country to offer a respite. But so much of it now gives off an anonymous hard rock blare that the choruses especially sounded like Incubus or whoever. And I quickly got sick of Dierks Bentley asking “Am I The Only One?” (Yeah, sorry Dierks, you’ll have to party all by your lonesome you. I need to get this rig in before sunset.) I admit that if Missouri had one (1) mile of straight and narrow highway, I wouldn’t have been so closed off. But how great of a mood does one have to be in to adore the same banalities repeated several times in one road trip?

Not that it was all bad. I never tired of the latest chart toppers because they haven’t worn out their welcomes yet; their promises still seem genuine. Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” Nicki Minaj’s sunbursting “Super Bass” (always knew it was no “bonus cut”), Adam “Maroon 5” Levine’s “Moves Like Jagger,” oh this must be the new Adele, etc. all sounded fresh on their sixth, seventh go arounds if only in the chutzpah of their airwave saturation. But the only peace I made with the dial came late in the trip when I happened upon a really oldies station playing Sinatra, The McGuire Sisters, and Jack Jones whose pre-rock smoothness calmed my frayed nerves.

Unsurprisingly, when I was on my feet and starting to get back on track (after dealing with apartment snafus, evil cable companies, a looooooong foray into car purchasing, an unfortunate sojourn to Walmart, etc.), I reached for music that mirrored my burgeoning confidence like Gang of Four’s “Ether.” Now that I was a tough guy again, I could navigate its every off-kilter rhythm. But in retrospect, my enslavement to radio was illuminating, a reminder that pop encouragement is always contextual, provisional, and subject to the demands of record promotion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to being my own DJ again as I unpack boxes and boxes of musical information.


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