So listen, Mr. DJ
Keep those records playing
Cause I’m having such a good time
Dancing with my baby. ~ Sam Cooke
In the beginning was static. And then there was a distant sound through the static, under the static. And then there was music. This was me, listening to the radio, late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep. But I wasn’t asleep. I was listening to whatever Casey Kasem liked best—The Eurythmics, The Motels. Simple Minds, Billy Idol, Blondie, David Bowie, Van Halen, Prince, MJ. Also, let’s be honest, Corey Hart, Air Supply, Phil Collins, The Jefferson Starship, yes those, also. I kept my ear close to the source and didn’t dare to turn the volume past TWO: I could listen in the confines of my room, but my parents upstairs wouldn’t be the wiser. And though I owned only the most basic of headphones, I liked listening best—“unprotected,” unmuffled—out in the air. If it rained, the signal crackled with static, a fire in my ears.
The radio itself was small, cheap and the sound was terrible—as if the music emanated from the bottom of a long subterranean tube. It was some off-brand thing I won (proudly), for selling boxes of chocolate bars in my neighborhood, door-to-door. Back when they would let children do such things, unescorted. As soon as I reached the cut-off where I knew I could cash out with the radio, I cut the cord on the candy bar pyramid scheme and settled up.
“Radio is a sound salvation, radio is cleaning up the nation,” Elvis Costello rasped, sarcastically (and what musician didn’t have a radio song back in the day)? He may have satirized commercial radio but he glorified it simultaneously. Back then, if you were a new wave wannabe, you wanted to be on the radio. It hadn’t yet been transformed into mud. Now we all know the business end—the subsequent rise of the Internet, the virtual death of radio. Now we have Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, YouYube, and so forth. Yet, aside from Pandora and the “mix” options under the others, we primarily listen to the music we like and we avoid the music we don’t like. And we wonder why racism and insensitivity and crassness are on a seemingly constant uptick, even if it’s partially media bluster. We only listen to what we like and ignore the rest. Talk about a safety dance. We’d be better off in a world where we listen to Bach, Jay-Z, and the Grateful Dead back-to-back. And not the songs we already dig, but ones which are utterly alien, landing in our ears without the assurance that they won’t do us harm.
In 2010 I bought a new car and it came, thankfully, equipped with satellite radio. This was a revelation. Not to sound like a spot for Sirius-XM, but once again I could lean back and let the DJs take me somewhere new. Music sounds best and is most memorable perhaps when someone else is behind the wheel. Think mix tapes. Think classic DJs from yesteryear. Now we are, at most, all Vasco da Gamas of the musical realm, without necessarily the breadth of knowledge to make sense out of chaos. This is what in the Washington, D.C. area Bill Wax did on WPFW and Weasel and many others did on WHFS. They were pop culture philosophers and historians, interpreters of the musical soundscape. This is what so many fine DJs do on the various satellite radio stations (and the handful of community radio stations that still eek out an existence) today.
And yet, something is different? Satellite radio is privatized radio; it’s for some of the people, a gated community (albeit not a terribly elite one). “This is Radio Nowhere,” Bruce Springsteen rumbled a few years ago. “Is there anybody alive out there?” This song speaks to the disconnect an artist today must feel towards his potential audience. More to the point: Bruce sings about the vast musical desert on the commercial dial. Who is out there? We can tweet, we can text, but can we feel the songs in the same way? Today we pay to play.
We only listen to what we like and ignore the rest. Talk about a safety dance. We’d be better off in a world where we listen to Bach, Jay-Z, and the Grateful Dead back-to-back.
In the early 80s there was something subterranean and mossy about even the shiniest pop songs. The music seemed more illicit, even though it was far more innocent in comparison. Listening to Salt-n-Pepa chant “Push it—push it real good,” or The Stray Cats croon “[She’s] Sexy + 17.” The lurid, inexpensive early videos on MTV enhanced this vibe. Today Grandmothers Zumba to Salt-n-Pepa with nary a blush and everyone sports a Brian Setzer tat.
I’m grateful radio still exists in whatever shape and form it can. I like my music but don’t want my tastes Pandora-ing everything. Music hounds like me never forget where and when they heard a great song. Songs at first disliked are embraced by the insistence of airplay—that is good, also. We need those songs to make us change the station, to seek another stream. And music creates not only memories but new feelings, textures. All this based on what one valued DJ spins in an enclosed glass box somewhere. It’s nice to hear whatever you want whenever you want. It’s equally nice to have someone you trust with your ears say, “Try this one on for size.” And then the guitars, the drums, the bass. And the song becomes yours.
Photo: dj by velo_city