Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blogging FM Radio

Yesterday afternoon, a late-season snowstorm hit New England (I shoveled out about a foot this morning). I left work a little early--when it started to look like it was sticking--but it still took me about an hour to make the trip. Unfortunately, this coincided witn NPR's spring fund drive. (Those drives are oxymoronic: if I paid for the service, I'd expect not to have to listen to their hectoring.) Anyway, that led me to an extra-long session of my twice-yearly excursion through the higher FM bands. Since there's nothing wiser than scribbling minor life observations as dense highway traffic fishtails around you, here's what I got

  • Giving a radio station a first name is to curse it with terminal suckiness. I pictured Frank Effem to be some stoopbacked alcoholic slob waiting out his mother's demise in their dingy Worcester apartment. Every night, Frank dons his mid-eighties vintage clothing and sneaks out of his room and hits unsuccessfully on the fortysomething barflies. His brother, Mike Effem, is a fat, uncoordinated, shaggy-haired doofus who can be found in the underpopulated rock bars, dancing enthusiastically to the same ten tired songs humming along on the house PA, jamming wildly on his air guitar and making devil-horns signs, while the regulars quietly sip beers and ignore him.

  • The River, The Wave, The Rock: these are just as ridiculous, but instead of anthropomorphosis, they go with tactile feeeelings. On the plus side, by moving away from the period and style motifs (hip-hop, classic rock, metal, easy listening) that I'm used to, they've also added half a dozen new songs to the mix tape, and flicking randomly through the airwaves is more likely than it used to be to yield something I may actually want to listen to. At least if I don't make a habit of it.

  • Rock bands used to have simple names. Really just barely enough to encapsulate an object or thought: Pink Floyd, Poison, Queen, Zeppelin, Rush, Metallica (though not all were created equal in talent!). On the way home, I listened to a piece of crap by a band called Killswitch Engaged. What the fuck is that? Way too much to think about, just to name them. In my day, it would have just been Killswitch.

  • Speaking of Queen, I remember how big androgyny was in the day, but I was completely oblivious to the queer part of it. Were they all gay, and if they weren't, why'd they agree to a name like Queen? Was it weird for Freddie to have to sing "I've loved a million women" or "Fat Bottom Girls" (presumably for marketability)? Why didn't this clue me in?

  • Speaking of Pink Floyd, listening to the opening riff of "Money," it occurred to me that the sounds they sampled are all either obsolete or nearly obsolete. Paper reciepts, the chugga-chugga of the paper feed, a register actually going ka-ching. Why not just get the hand-cranked adding machines going, grandpa? (Dark Side of the Moon is as old as I am.)

  • Numbers in a band's name are a pretty good suckometer. U-2: pretty good. Three doors down: tolerable. Matchbox twenty: ugh. Blink 182: head for the hills.

  • Choir effects can be cheap drama, when a song is already thin. I like U-2's "Red Hill Mining Town" pretty well, but the oooh-oohs haven't aged well. On the other hand, using actual choirs is as silly as it is cool. A string section should never be found within a mile of an electric guitar. (After all, what sound does that whining guitar replace?)

  • I have an inexplicable fondness for the sleazy guitar virtuosity of the 80s hair bands. The popular metal that replaced it seems to have lost the musical showiness, but kept its laser focus on the 14-year-old boy demographic. Possibly, I'm just getting old. On the other hand, the pop radio music today--if the crap they play in the gym and on American Idol is any indication--sounds totally indistinguishable from anything I might have heard in 1982 or so.
Here's hoping the pledge drive ends by Monday. Anything but the morning DJ's!


august said...

Late at night you may encounter somebody called "Delilah" whose task is emphathy. She plays something called "soft jazz." She is a siren.

You've got me thinking about my favorite guitar riff. Unfortunately, I'm listening to Lucinda Williams at the moment, so I may have to get back to you.

Claude Scales said...

Back in the '70s, I would end my day listening to WNEW's Alison Steele, "The Nightbird" ("Come, fly with me ..."), who was fond of opening her show with cuts from groups like Hawkwind. I choked up when I saw her obit a couple of years ago.

A while back, WCBS-FM, which had a "classic rock" format for years (and had already pissed me off thouroughly by terminating my favorite show, "Don K. Reed's Doo-Wop Shop", though I suspect this may have been caused by ol' Don's desire to retire to Florida as much as by the station owners' desire to get rid of an over-the-hill demographic), changed itself to "Jack FM". The result bears out the observation about stations that use first names. "Jack" is a pre-recorded DJ whose voice sounds like what you might imagine Doug Piranha's* would. Actually, since I read a news item that said the voice of "Jack" belonged to someone living in Toronto, I've suspected that it's Schad.
*Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I've seen grown men
pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of
Doug. He used... sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor,
bathos, puns, parody, litotes and... satire. He was vicious."

- Monty Python's Flying Circus

Keifus said...

I know this Delilah of which you speak. I manage to stuff my ears with wax when she sings, but my wife steers straight for the rocks. If I were a better man, or a more tolerant one, I'd harness that energy for good (or at least for my own benefit).

I don't know Jack, however (badump-bump). Nice to seem my theory holding up.

I don't think radio will die so long as people are stuck in cars (though the thought of an iPod was sounding really good Friday), but it seems the demographics are getting reimagined these days.

Schad the dj is a funny thought.

Archaeopteryx said...

Here's another observation about commercial radio: if the station calls itself "Mix97" or claims to have a great "mix," then you can be sure that what they mean is that they mix in one good song for about every five shitty ones.

August, I'm sure you meant "fortunately."

august said...

I also noticed the other day that Casey Casum's top 40 is down to 10. War of attrition, I suppose.

Archaeopteryx said...

August, that has more to do with the fact that it's damn near impossible to find 10 decent pop songs at any one time.

Thomas Paine said...

"Unfortunately" and "listening to Lucinda Williams" can never be used in the same sentence, without also having a negative -- eg "Unfortunately, I am not listening...."

Top 10 would be a real stretch if you mean songs currently on the charts -- most of the time, it would be hard to come up with two!