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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Musical Rumination 

Along with the WaPo's article, which almost-but-not-quite announces the demise of corporate radio, John says “good riddance.” Even kids are ditching the diversity-free radio lineups for iPods and CD mixes. Corporate radio sold us all on homogeneity, but after a while it got to be too much, and now the time is up.

"Good riddance" is my first instinct too. I fully believe that all the ‘mainstreaming’ of everything, from music to political discourse, is responsible for oh so many of our modern ills. A lack of innovation, or consideration is now the norm. Appallingly, a perfect example of this comes from an episode of MTV's The Jessica Simpson Show“Nick + Jessica:” her record company made her re-record a song that she loved, because her singing was ‘too good’ – too hard for people to sing along – and therefore unacceptable. Excellence has become a liability. On the other side of the universe, we have talk radio: yes versus no; red versus blue; right versus left; black versus white. Each show is dedicated to one side or the other screaming about the other, with only the tiniest bits of reflection or real consideration. No wonder the country is so polarized, they never hear all sides of anything at the same time, let alone from one person! The god-awful Crossfire was almost an attempt to show both sides, but all it did was show both sides to be loud pompous assholes. Anyone who talks about both sides is a “waffler.” Thoughtfulness is a liability. On ‘Reality TV,’ only the loudest, most obnoxious, most manipulative and self-serving contestants win. Politeness and kindness are losing tactics. This is a whole other topic, and I’m only really talking about music today.

The focus-grouped, uninnovative, no-variety play lists of mainstream radio (which seems to be all that’s left) are being rejected even by those “denizens who hang out at The Gap in the mall,” as the esteemed Harlan Ellison once called them.

Anything truly controversial, anything really different, never sees the light of radio or MTV day…it might offend someone, or it might be actively disliked or actively loved, as opposed to the fleeting ‘love’ that pop stars now achieve. 15 years after her last successful album, Britney’s courtroom dramas will not be front-page news, the way MJ’s are.

I’m not saying I think this isn’t appropriate - I loathe little more than the joke our justice system often seems to have become - but I am saying that people still get worked up about Jackson, not simply because he’s famous, but because he’s properly so. He worked for his fame, he did something truly revolutionary, he wrote some amazing songs and danced like few others. Britney has had some nice, simple, predictably likeable songs mostly written for her, and she has shaken her personally-trained ass and dubiously-organic tits on stage.

I don’t actually begrudge Britney her success…I doubt she has as much to do with it as her handlers, and wish she’d be less of a chav(ette?), but she does have better T+A than I. The point is that her popularity is so scripted, so crafted, and unlike MJ (or Janet, or Madonna, or Eartha Kitt), she is designed to fade ungracefully. I almost feel sorry for her, but maybe she knows and accepts this already.

The thing is, I can't bring myself to get up that much "care" energy - it's not like I've listened to the radio or watched more than a 10-second stretch of MTV since the early 90's - I will only academically remark on Britney’s passing, and will hardly notice corporate radio's. I would, potentially, notice its replacement: if it was worth my attention, if we got radio like the BBC6 I stream at work, or better yet something different and new and innovative (I know I'm dreaming here), then I would listen.

The lack of good radio bothers me philosophically, but not so much realistically. This has been the case since I got my first dual-cassette recorder and discovered mix tapes; iPods and MP3s and CD-burners just make it faster and easier to be my own DJ.

The big change for me, the past few years, has been how I discover new music. In the past, I would hear something at a show (which is why I almost always show up for the opening bands, even though they most often suck), or hear something at a friend’s house or at a party, ask what it is, and borrow or buy a copy. All that still happens, but now the networking effect happens with bands as well: I read the Bertrand Burgalat web site, and he mentions a side-project, or what’s really inspiring him at the moment, and I probably check it out; NM blogs about a new band she’s digging, with a link to samples; I emailed Clarika (who has possibly the worst website EVER) to see if I could get her CDs stateside, and she responded that while I couldn’t, I should check out Candie Prune and Autour de Lucie.

And then there’s satellite radio. My mom has XM in her car, and I’ve tried it a few times, but still find it so limited. Yes, there are a million channels, but each one only plays one “market” – you don’t hear Neil Young followed by Brian Eno followed by LCD Soundsystem, which is what’s been on BBC6 today; this particular ‘future of radio’ is an awful lot like the past, and not likely to earn my $15 a month.

I have no illusions about the fact that if I were a DJ, very few people would want to listen: my list might include all the music I’ve mentioned so far (yes, even Britney) plus maybe some Count Basie and some Hildegarde of Bingen and perhaps some NY Dolls or Megadeath. This is why I make my mix CDs, reload my Nomad every couple of days, and ignore what may or may not be on the radio.

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