Most People Are DJs, But Sometimes It's Nice If They're Not

Feb 21, 2014

Credit C.P. Storm / Creative Commons

Last Sunday morning, I read with interest this essay by writer Beth Boyle Machlan on the joys of driving with her kids and listening to commercial radio -- the antithesis of the modern i-music experience which involves carefully choosing and curating one's own "playlists," and never subjecting oneself to anything as vulgar and top-down as listening to a whole bunch of songs picked out by other people. 

The Hold Steady said it:

Baby take off your beret.
Everyone's a critic and most people are DJs.
And everything gets played.

But as Machlan argues, if you're riding around with your kids, there's something salubrious about listening with them, about figuring out who Pink and Fun are, and about having them figure out who J. Geils is.

Even if you wind up listening to a lot of crap and commercials, it still beats driving in silence, save for the tiny little bleed from their earbuds in the back seat. 

The essay was discussed today on The Nose, and for me it opened up a world of memory about the days when the music coming through your speakers was a harder thing to control.

Back in 1976, I fell in love with a Cat Stevens song I'd hear once every so often on what was then called "Album-Oriented Rock" radio. Not so much heavy rotation there. You might hear "Wind" by Circus Maximus three times during a year of steady listening. Gods help you if you missed the announcer giving you the artist and title. 

I kept missing the name of this Cat Stevens song, and I had trouble recreating it for others. "It goes, 'Now that I've blahhed  your blah...' "  Years of this! Nobody was any help.

One time, my girlfriend Katherine was driving me and my friend Fred somewhere in southern Connecticut, and the song came on the radio. I told Fred my quest was about to end. The announcer was going to tell us the name of the song.

Katherine wasn't paying attention, and she pulled her blue Volvo into a gas station and cut the engine. Seriously. Fred and I both screamed. It was "Two Fine People," by the way, but it took me a few more years to find that out, because music was in control, not me. And that was frustrating, but also kind of cool.

I mean, these days, I can listen to whatever I want, whenever I want to. I can find out a song exists, and ten second later, make it my ringtone.  And, therefore, none of it is as primally exciting as listening to a song come, unbidden, on the radio. The supply of everything casts a huge shadow over my demand for something. 

There are fewer, pardon my French, "Holy shit!" moments. In '94, I was driving my family up through Maine and some indie station played Seal's "Prayer for the Dying." Holy shit! What was that? I sang parts of it out loud and memorized them so I could ask people what that song was. It figures you'd have to go to Maine to discover a guy named Seal.  

There was also a now-mostly-forgotten pleasure of lying back and letting a (good) radio DJ just ravish you with his choices. That still happens to me now with Jonathan Schwartz, but in a whole different genre. Control! We want to be the ones in control, not some moody AOR jock named Stoned Man.

The last thing that happened Sunday -- after a trip to NYC, listening to Jonathan S. in the car, seeing the amazing "What's It All About?: Bacharach Re-imagined," catching some WPKN indie radio on the ride home and therefore hearing cool songs that flitted in and out and were lost to us for all time -- was watching "Girls" on HBO and hearing a catchy tune during the credits. Herself pointed the Shazam app at it, and we learned it was "How Are You Doing" by the Living Sisters. (It was also used on This American Life last weekend.) It was great to capture that, but will it ever feel like lightning in a bottle, the way songs do when we encounter them in the radio wilds, when their escape is a real possibility?