SOUNDTRACK FOR THIS POST: Queen, Radio GaGa
A little over a year ago, I had a strange hankering for something that I hadn’t wanted in years. Yet suddenly, there it was, this hankering that evolved into a burning desire gnawing away at me until I had no choice but to satisfy it.
I needed to listen to the radio.
For the past several years, I’ve noticed that the prevailing attitude among my peers has been this weird pride in not listening to the radio. I’m sure this conversation will be familiar to many of you:
Friend #1: What the hell song is this?
Friend #2: I don’t know. God, I haven’t listened to the radio in years!
Friend #1: I know! Neither have I. I haven’t watched MTV in years, either.
Friend #2: Seriously! I have no idea what “the kids are listening to” these days.
Friend #1: Whatever. They only play crap nowadays, anyway…
I’ve heard this conversation. I’ve had this conversation, steeped in a pride in musical ignorance. I’ve made those general statements about “music today” without really knowing anything about it save the stray notes I’d hear from a passing car, or on some channel or other while flipping with my TV remote. For several years after college, I relied on my friends for musical recommendations. Once I discovered Pandora Internet Radio, I thought I’d discovered the best of all worlds! Here was something like radio with the added bonus of being shaped by my musical tastes! It recommended new artists that have ended up becoming favorites of mine. It is something I can reliably leave on all day at work, knowing it will provide me with a steady stream of music. Great, right? Pandora was surely the thing that would successfully transition me into being a musically mature adult!
Except that after a while, my stations started becoming repetitive. With nothing but my limited taste to guide them (and I have a pretty eclectic musical taste!), the same songs and artists kept coming up. The same problem I ascribed to broadcast radio – “They play the same 5 songs over and over!” – was happening to me here, too. Suddenly, the advantage I thought internet radio had over broadcast radio wasn’t so clear an advantage.
Then I realized an even bigger problem, and it connects to that all-too-familiar conversation above. I realized that I’d been limiting myself to music I know I like. Friends who think like me were recommending music to me they already had an idea I’d enjoy. I was listening to my own music collection ad nauseum. Pandora was using its fancy-schmancy algorithm to spit out songs and artists it knew I would like. This is a great thing in theory.
Except that I got bored.
I missed something as simple as not knowing what’s coming on next. I missed being able to turn on music and say “I don’t like that.” I missed taking a chance on something new and forming a new opinion. I missed hearing radio personalities who are steeped in this music talk about it. And I realized that the attitude I had about “what the kids are listening to” was doing nothing but insulating me in a snug (and smug) self-satisfied little cocoon. This is a difficult realization for a Native New Yorker. We Native New Yorkers pride ourselves on being open-minded, and we love nothing more than to look down on other people and places that don’t think the way we do and make fun of them. But…wait…aren’t we then doing the exact…same…thing we criticize them…for doing?
So many people I know, myself included for a long while, stopped listening to the radio because we equated the songs found there with hormone-addled teenagers and our “less sophisticated” brethren in Middle America. God FORBID we be anything like THEM! And it is here where I will make a startling confession.
I LOVE POP MUSIC! Whew! That feels so good to say out loud. I think I’ll say it again. I. LOVE. POP. MUSIC. It’s something that, for a while, I felt uncomfortable being honest about. And so, even when I’d come out and say something as risky as “I like Britney Spears”, it would have to be said with a trace of irony in the voice. Because no one over the age of 16 actually likes Britney Spears, right? Or Kelly Clarkson? Or Lady Gaga? Or Justin Timberlake? Or, um, ANY hip-hop? And it wasn’t just me. Whenever many of my friends “confess” to enjoying a pop song, it’s always with some sort of qualifier like “It’s a fun, fluffy song!” or saying that some pop singer or other is a “great performer!” Both of those statements being code for: I can’t admit that I just like this song, but I can get around that by complimenting an element having nothing to do with the music or lyrics while simultaneously acknowledging that I “know” the song is “actually” bad.
Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we punish ourselves for what we like and make ourselves listen to music that bores us just because it’s more critically acclaimed or has more hipster cred? And why do we dismiss pop music out of hand, as if it doesn’t contribute anything valuable to our culture, as if its lyrics can say nothing to us, or as if its melodies and beats have no artistic value? Popular music is popular for a reason, and instead of ignoring it out of some false sense of musical superiority, perhaps it would behoove us to examine that reason, those reasons, and become a part of the conversation. Perhaps if we do participate, pop music will evolve in our image. Just as you can’t complain about the results of an election in which you haven’t voted, you can’t complain about the state of pop music and make snarky comments if you’ve purposely separated yourself from it. Let’s remember - Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang “pop music.” The Beatles were “pop music.” Motown churned out “pop music.”
Pop music can change the world, if you let it.
Since I started listening to the radio again, I’ve heard some now-favorite songs of mine (like Ke$ha’s Tik Tok and Pink’s Sober), I’ve heard an interview that solidified my love of Lady GaGa, I’ve been regularly listening to a morning show I used to listen to all the time when I was younger and didn’t realize I was missing until I heard it again (Elvis Duran and the Z-Morning Zoo!), and I’ve discovered a new radio station that I’ve fallen in love with (101.9 RXP, the only rock station in NY playing NEW rock as well as classic rock) which introduced me to a UK band that might become one of my favorites very soon – Florence and The Machine. I’ve rediscovered the joy that is being part of the musical mainstream. I know, right? But willfully distancing yourself from “what the kids are listening to” is just as misguided as a teenager sticking his/her nose up at “old people music” for no reason other than it being outside their experience. And they’re young, so they understandably don’t have the historical perspective to appreciate anything before their time.
What’s your excuse?
For my part, I’ve decided to start a new feature here at The Teresa Jusino Experience called Pop Goes Teresa, wherein I will attempt to analyze/speak intelligently about a pop song, a pop artist, or trends in pop music. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll participate and give me suggestions as to what you’d like to talk/hear about!
I’ve also decided long ago to stop being ashamed of what I like. That way of thinking is annoying and was giving me an ulcer.