Nineteen sixty-nine. I'm sitting on the floor of my dorm room, listening to some weird noises being piped in from a tiny FM facility across town. Weird to me, anyway; I'd been brought up on pop/rock and R&B, with just a dollop of country, and here were all these seemingly atonal nontunes with a vaguely threatening air to them. Of course, as a proper student of the time, I listened, and some of it eventually sank in.

Jump forward thirty-three years. Insomnia is plaguing me again, and in an effort to get my mind off whatever it is that's keeping me awake, I strap on the headphones and fire up the radio. Ducking the usual suspects, I eventually wind up at a tiny FM facility across town that is piping in weird noises, seemingly atonal nontunes with a vaguely threatening air to them. (To see if I'm paying attention, they throw in a ringer: "In God's Country", off U2's The Joshua Tree, which is at least fifteen years old.)

The standard rule — young people's music preferences are at least partly biased towards that which will utterly baffle parental types — applies here, I am sure. But however baffling it may be, some of it (and I don't mean that overfamiliar U2 track) is somehow compelling. Whatever twisted vibe that I may have perceived in 1969 is apparently still capable of resonating in 2002.

And maybe this explains something else. Commercial radio in these parts, with both dynamics and playlists comparably compressed, is generally pretty dire. Familiarity, as usual, breeds contempt. But when what's presented is mostly unfamiliar — well, I may be an atypical sort of listener here, but I can think of no more shameful promotional claim for a radio station than "You know every song we play." Can it be, then, that the salvation of commercial radio lies in throwing out the consultants and the computers and turning back to, of all unspeakable things, actual human judgment and a willingness to experiment?

Maybe not. And maybe for someone more familiar with the current alt-rock (or whatever) crowd than I, which I have to assume would be almost anyone this side of Cardinal Law, the stuff I am finding strangely compelling is the stuff they've heard too often already. But there's a lot to be said for being able to dial up even one station and not having to grumble, "Oh, that again."

The Vent

14 December 2002

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 Copyright © 2002 by Charles G. Hill