“…there must be some semblance of order to stay alive. That’s why FM underground freeform radio died. Because you can’t turn seven crazy freaky guys loose on the air to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, play the same cut seventeen times or play some obtuse album, ’cause who cares?”
– Lester Bangs, “Screwing the System with Dick Clark”
I am going to begin an apprentice disc-jockeyship with KMUZ in a few weeks. It’s a small volunteer-driven community radio station based in Salem, OR and it services the Greater Willamette Valley with all manner of programming — as I look at their weekly schedule I see “Antiquity Radio”, music from the first half of the twentieth century, on Sunday afternoons; “Russian Rock Radio” at 6am Saturdays and 6pm Sundays, probably circling the scheduled Masses at some local Greek Orthodox church; and Arlene’s “Mundo Mojo”, worldbeat to wait for work to end to. It hosts a range of shows, that’s for sure, and I bit when they showed up at the Willamette University club fair a few weeks ago. I filled out the application online and a few days later director Melanie Zermer emailed me back. “Since 15 [students] expressed interest, and we do not have many open slots to offer, I would like you to consider how you can work together to have a show,” she generously offered. I felt glad about that — I mean, I’m not Elvis. I can share a bill. It would make things interesting, really, to work with other people on this radio stuff. I would have a presence (or two or three) to bounce off of on the hot mic, instead of just mumbling the title of the song and the station name and what was going to play next.
The more I’ve thought about it, though, the less jazzed I am about the whole radio thing and the more apprehensions arise. I feel as though I’m about to cut into the napalmed turkey from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I really would like to bring my favorite music to a wider audience, and maybe I could work with these other DJ’s and learn more about the stuff they listen to. But ultimately I worry that I’m going to hit the same brick wall I hit in all the record shops and in all the discussions I ever end up having about the music I love to listen to. I speak, of course, of the sheer insularity of the music-appreciation community.
It’s hazardous anyways to try and build relationships based on something as subjective as music. Like they say, there’s no accounting for taste (though occasionally I can tell things about people from the kinds of music they concentrate on), and when you get as deep into the stuff as I have you will find, like Richard Rodriguez did when he reached the top academic levels of the study of British literature, that you have reached an ivory tower indeed. Past a certain point the collection and appreciation of certain musics reach a sort of cultism, where otherwise reasonable people exhibit the kind of devotion Gollum reserves for the One Ring. Words like “loner” and “dark (insert vague genre header)” and “chillout” and “private press” and “proto-punk”, wherever they arise, become incantations, words of power that endow certain records with obscene money value. The pursuit of records has never been a rational quest — if these songs could be had for decent prices and at high fidelity as digital files, and if all music listeners were rational, then easily scratched, unstoreable, usually warped, weak-bassed long-playing records would have been abandoned years ago as the impractical relics that they ought to be. Yet I carry these same records on my shelf and I constantly lust after more. (I have a CD collection too, which fills a seven-inch-thick disc sleeve. I think it must top two hundred and fifty albums at this point.) I do this in the age of digital music and Spotify because what physical music media have is talismanic value, which counts for more than the supposedly superior vinyl sound quality or the “aesthetic” experience of listening to it could ever could hope to in the competition between records and modern technology. George Orwell once said that to “Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, [is] a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness”; that, it seems, is exactly what record collectors are after. I confess that I often go through my own discography, smiling beatifically and feeling utterly at peace as I flick through records and think of the times I’ve listened to them and (more often than not) of their monetary worth and the veritable steals I’ve gotten on the things. I really hate the Hampton Grease Band, but I keep Music to Eat in my stacks because it has a certain cachet — an I-found-it value. The only conceivable reason for this behavior, which I confess I have identified as hoarding in people with other obsessions, is because these albums are spiritual objects — there is something more to them, in my mind, than just the music in the grooves. They feel special.
And I fear that the peculiar homogeneity of music collectors’ tastes will afflict all these other prospective DJ’s, as they seem to afflict me. My nightmares currently consist of me walking up to the orientation in October, pulling open the door and entering the room to discover as my eyes adjust from the bright light out of doors that the other prospective DJ’s are all just me. Most have shorter hair, and a few are bespectacled or have freckles or wear the Soundgarden T-shirt I wear to concerts; but they are totally generic in appearance, in attitude, in music preference, in timbre of speaking voice for chrissakes. And then I come to a horrible, probably flawed conclusion that my record collecting is nothing but a symptom, a distractive hobby that grew out of the pubescent horror show I lived in for between the ages of eight and thirteen, and the worst thing of all is that nobody will get it. It will forever remain a niche thingy like every other feature of my refined taste in comedy and movies and art and religion and music, something only poor little rich kids have ever been able to indulge in — and somebody, sooner or later, will use it against me, and call me out as a poseur and force me to swallow my pride and listen to nothing but Aerosmith and Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift and if I ever poke my sorry presumptuous head above that bourgeois tedium again I will be called out as a snob and wilt like a pressed adolescent flower. I want to believe that I am wrong, that there is more to the music I love than my background and what has been done to me, but either way the college-age DJ’s whose work I have sampled exhibit a crippling ingrowth. That is what I hate about the insularity of the music community: because of its relentless push for the Velvet Underground and Slint and Mudhoney, etc. I can’t bear to listen to most independent radio anymore. (KPIG, which broadcasts from San Luis Obispo, CA, is an astounding exception.) Most of the programmers I have heard are as self-absorbed as the worst sort of record hobbits, crafting playlists based on whatever they feel like listening to that day and sometimes they toss in a little death metal cuz they think it might throw the chillbient techno into sharper relief (only it doesn’t, it just makes them look like fucking assholes). Independent radio is diseased, and that sickness is solipsism — most of the time we seem unable to make people understand why they should broaden their tastes.
Of course, regular radio is even worse (fight the Clear Channel monopoly!), but every time I try to connect with my people, these supposed purveyors of weird and wonderful music beyond the mainstream, I feel like I’m reading my fellow atheists’ polemics against “the Christians” again. They seem to have lost the whole meaning of music exploration, which is that there is always a superior alternative to the garbage that some horrific music conglomerate is pushing on the population. One size doesn’t fit all. You have to seek out the good stuff yourself, which takes time and cultivation and a lot of luck; but you will, somehow, find music that speaks to you. There are dangerous rabbit holes, as I noted above; the farther you retreat into some corners (French/British progressive rock, ginuwine Brazilian bossa nova, old blues 78’s, 1960’s California folk, etc.) the fewer sensible people you end up meeting. But if you do it right your music journey will lead you to a state of astonishing grace, in which you finally realize that, objectively, there is no right or wrong music to listen to. Everyone will have their own favorite songs and listen to what they find viscerally pleasing, whether they were introduced to it by a friend or by the Internet or by the radio; there is not a damn thing you can do to change it, and they can’t do anything to make you enjoy their stuff. Hopefully you will overlap at some point, but this music thing is irresoluble and should just be left alone if you guys are diametrically opposed. Maybe play some Super Smash Bros. or something.
Of course, my special brand of beatific existentialist libertarianism lasts only as long as I can avoid the evangelical mob screaming at me outside that one Nine Inch Nails show (true story). When a dude in my class today played Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” for a “road song” assignment I listened with studied patience and my fists balled up a little underneath the desk when he said he thought it was very deep and had “a lot of meaning for [him] personally.” This is what I mean when I say that there can sometimes be accounting for taste. I am no fool. I may be only eighteen, but I have thought a great deal about things that matter to me like my music and literature, and if there’s one thing in this world that deserves no sympathy whatsoever it’s the cliché — the trite repetition of whatever’s convenient, what I called the “blunt chisel of aphorism” in a poem a few weeks ago for Creative Writing. I am frustrated by the lack of imagination, the quality of feeling one’s way through life that is implied by the appropriation of somebody else’s words into which you slot a mangled bastardization of your beautiful and unique and new experience. You brutalize your life by describing it only with clichés. (“Why do you intellectualize everything?” somebody once asked Henry Flynt. He replied, “Because hedonism will get you nowhere.”) I know that words have profound and impassable limits, that they can be cheap in the face of the most dramatic events in our lives. But you people don’t have to prove me right.* I can respect the tastes of a person who’s gone out and sampled the world’s music, at least a little. I once knew an impressive guy at my high school, who had an iPod full of songs I had never heard of, all by reggae or hip-hop artists from around the globe — Iran, Jamaica, Indonesia. I’m not big on either one but I gave him kudos. He had done some digging and discovered real connections with some interesting music in spite of itself; I let him be. He was not bound by commercial radio, even if I didn’t like his music. He seemed to think outside the box, and I could learn something from his library if I ever wanted to. I think that’s what I enjoy most of all: trading music suggestions with people and growing through others’ collections. Rarely do I get those chances in record stores or with friends.
And even in my righteous fury I can concede that clichés have vitality in the right hands — Dock Boggs sings murder ballads and drinking songs, and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and hell, maybe even the Rolling Stones cover the old blues tropes like they’re going out of style (which they kind of are). But they work in grand and noble traditions, and all these guys are great formalists. And these words have the weight of lived lifetimes behind them (though I must point out that the Stones really don’t, and sometimes the clichés overtake them — the “car don’t start” line from “Loving Cup” is particularly irritating.) But the profusion of garbage music that has emanated from hit factories and literally evil record companies since about the mid-Seventies is just too much. Somewhere in the backs of their minds the people who listen to this stuff must feel dimly that a crucial element is missing. And I retreat from its corruptions because of this lack of profundity, which is the big hallmark of popular music and really always has been. By “profound” I don’t mean a group has a grand social statement to make; plenty of foolish musicians did that in the late Sixties and their records were bought by millions of people, but they still weren’t really profound. What I mean is that I like music to “speak” to me, if I’ll permit myself one cliché; I want it to click somehow, with an identifiable lyric or a kickass groove or a killer improvisation or any combination of those things. Flipper was good at combining those, now that I think about it. The problem is that what makes that vital electric connection with one person means jack shit to another a lot of the time; of course, that’s much of what makes music interesting. So often we end up with an unlistenable popular Muzak in the restaurants and clubs of the world and overcompensate by creating homogeneous acolytic communities of the One True Church of the Sonic Youth. If Whitesnake is a perfect symbol of the concentrated deactivation of the cortex necessary to enjoy most popular music, the affected cool and “postmodern” smegma of the Sonic Youth stand in my mind for the deliberate adoption of the opposite stance, which we all know is the most insidious way that any enemy can control you. It goes without saying that I am not a Whitesnake guy. What I constantly have to explain to myself and to everyone who raises an eyebrow at my apparent snobbery is that I also do not like the Sonic Youth. (Not anymore, at least. When I was a junior cloistered “music for music’s sake” has its moments. 🙂
And with context established we circle back to the original question: how do we avoid total self-absorption in that very personal quest to break the good and great music out of its isolation chamber? Are we even meant to? I believe that yes, it is possible; after all, the reggae dude did it. He didn’t apply himself to seeking out super weird stuff like I did in high school; he just followed his nose. It’s a way of finding music that could leave a lot of people open to the influence of helpful radio, and perhaps I will reach this audience from my lair at KMUZ. And so, with this in mind, I write us DJ’s a credo to follow in all programming decisions.
- Repeat after me.
- We, the independent disc jockeys, do solemnly pledge:
- To guide our listeners gently, so as not to scare them;
- To avoid solipsism at any cost;
- And to remember, above all, to build a community,
- In both the listening sense, and the concrete sense.
- May my fellow DJ’s catch me should I stumble in this righteous path.
Hopefully I can bring this philosophy to bear when I go to work at KMUZ. I want to bring more people into the community of music lovers, and I suspect that we at the station are not going to do that with the traditional free-form shows; we have to change things up a little, make our music choices a little less oblique and non-sequitur than typical independent radio stations, and introduce some conceptual continuity and a little familiarity into our programs to make our listeners feel somewhat at home in listening to new musics. We must also have on-air personality, instead of simply describing the songs in between; we have to be interesting DJ’s. I hope that the “community” nature of the radio station will help to provide some color from other areas of town, so that the admitted monotony of “college” rock taste doesn’t oppress the ear of the listener.
Of course it’s possible that we’ve reached the saturation point, and so such ideas may not work. Perhaps enough people have been turned off by the navel-gazing of non-corporate radio and the exhausting compressed uniformity of the “mainstream” that they have retreated entirely into their digital music libraries. I find it difficult to blame them (after all, I’ve done basically the same thing). All we can do is try our best to raise their awareness of the good stuff, and hope they listen in; another old existentialist idea, but it’s the best shot we’ve got. This is a lot of shit to think about before I’ve even started the job, but I think this will help me to do my best at KMUZ. Maybe I will write more on the topic once I have started. “Humanists…serve as best they can the highest abstraction of which they have some understanding, which is their community”, said Kurt Vonnegut. DJ’s and music lovers, I call upon you: let’s serve our people.
Epilogue: As some of you might have guessed, I was reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung today and I finally got through the relentless nihilism phase to Lester Bangs’ essays on the death of Peter Laughner and “The White Noise Supremacists”, and I am elated and impressed. The exuberance of my article would not have been conceivable without Lester’s help today, and today I thank his memory for that little bit of inspiration.
*I’m probably gonna laugh when I read this in my old age, but all philosophy has to start somewhere. Why not be combative?
**We have to end it somehow, and better a nondenominational “indeed” than “amen.”