The other day, I told you what I like about my new satellite radio. Today, let’s talk about the things I don’t enjoy. And I’ve got some serious gripes here. Satellite radio is responsible for a crisis I’m having these days. It’s hard to put my finger on it. Maybe I need to get better acquainted with modern pop before my kids leave me in the dust in a few years. But if I do, I’ve got to find a way to do it that doesn’t make my ears bleed. I would have no idea who Taylor Swift was if Kanye West (who I also wouldn’t know about) hadn’t dissed her at an awards ceremony awhile back. I still haven’t heard a word she’s sung. Or him. (And, yeah, something says I’m not missing anything.) (Update: One Taylor Swift song later, and I was happier having never heard her.)
At first, I thought I’d just started turning into a straightforward old fogey, one of those people who thinks music stopped being good just past age 16 or so. But a quick call to friends on Facebook (the increasingly annoying social network) produced a list of things I enjoy, most of them released in the last five years or so. SO I realized that the real question is whether or not I do now or have ever listened to enough pop.
My parents were not straightforward radio listeners, and they influenced me heavily. Nor were my friends, who influenced me even more. I had a ‘pop’ phase in the middle there that has dwindled to a “Beyonce and Lady Gaga phase” here lately. So the pop I listen to on satellite is from the era when I liked the genre. That is to say, the 80’s, with dips into the 70’s and 60’s. And I fear I’m going to have to surrender and start listening to a couple of hours of the modern pop station to get a sense for what’s big out there before Caroline starts dragging it in from school.
But maybe not. She informed me out of nowhere in the car, “I hate Justin Bieber.”
I asked, “Why?”
She said, “Because Katie said he made this video where a girl gets killed.”
How to respond. I think Katie was misinformed. Or possibly, You misunderstood her. Purely aside from the fact that neither of the Katies in Caroline’s life seem like the types who would even say the word “killed”, let alone associate it with a teen icon, Bieber would have been splashed all over the news for that. I said, “Justin Bieber is known for being too nice in his videos.”
“Well, I hate him.”
Okay then. I just defended Justin Bieber.
Not that I want Bieber fever in my house, but I Youtubed me up some of the young Canadaian to figure this one out. I Think I got it. There’s a nasty little homophobic parody video called “What What” that starts with a scene from one of the CSI shows where Bieber made a guest appearance. In the scene, Bieber himself gets rather graphically shot. By the time the scene got from tube, to Youtube to Katie, to Caroline, Bieber was ‘some girl’, the video was created by him, and the whole thing made him loathe-worthy. Oh well. His songs sucked as much as I figured, and I’m not defending further the honor of someone whose music I cannot endure.
Nor am I going to explain the term ‘teenybopper’ to a kid who just turned eight.
In all reality, though I think that my lack of interaction with pop isn’t the problem here. Caroline loves music. She’ll drag songs to her friends, not the other way around, if I can just expose her to enough variety. She’s already prone to outbursts of Beatles and Stones. I just need to grab some of the good new music, mix it in with healthy doses of the excellent not-so-old, and make it available to her. (Update: The Black Keys and Mumford and Sons are excellent choices to help with this project.). She needs the best of the new stuff (and can I confess to loving Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite”?) along with the musicians that gave it wings.
And here’s the problem. Satellite radio is missing an entire era of music. Yeah, the Sex Pistols crop up here and there. But besides the absence of the new things I actually enjoy on my XM radio (Update: I found “Spectrum”. In a much better position on that score), there is not, say, a single daft punk channel in over a hundred possibilities (and no, an hour long program does not count, not when I can listen to big band whenever I want, which is actually rather often). And punk, of course, is where the roots of much of my favorite music lie.
In the 1990s, my friend Rachel introduced me to alt rock. And I don’t mean Pearl Jam here. They were positively mainstream compared to the stuff Rachel enjoyed. From her, I developed my affection for The Stone Roses, The Violent Femmes, Barenaked Ladies, and James. And those are just the ones anybody would have heard of. She’d been aware of these groups for longer than I had, so I had a whole back catalog to learn about, and I’m sure that I am yet a dabbler compared to her and compared to our mutual friend Jessica. Rachel taught me about ska (trumpet laden rock) and her knowledge went far deeper than the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
I don’t know how she knew this stuff. We were living in the rural Midwest, in the era before the internet, and they certainly didn’t play it on the radio in our area. It was circulated through ‘zines, word of mouth, and college in those days. Though I went off to college at sixteen, I chose a rural school which offered no real access to new music of any kind. And Rachel was always ahead of my musical curve (still is),even though she stuck around and finished high school before she contemplated anything like post-secondary ed. She didn’t just know groups and songs, either. She knew histories and genres, and which band was most like another. Rachel could tell me, for instance, that Love Spit Love used to be the Psychedelic Furs, who, she also knew, had so much more to offer the world than “Pretty in Pink”. And besides her deeply embedded knowledge of alternative rock history, she knew the Cincy rock scene from the Psychodots to the Ass Ponys . (We were about an hour out of Cincinnati.) And you just won’t find much of that shit on satellite people.
I was always surprised Rachel didn’t go on to some kind of musical career. The talent was there, no question. She may just enjoy knowing this stuff and being kind of magic. I can dig that. But it’s too bad she isn’t sitting in a Sirius XM chair, because I’d listen if she were putting out programs.
I have other gurus who could outdo XM’s current lineup, though I mean that as an insult to the station masters more than the DJs they own. When I moved to Lexington, I met Jennifer and her husband Steve. They added to my playlist rockers from the 60s and 70s who never stopped touring, many of whom I’d never heard of. Jennifer and Steve taught me about Richard Thompson and got me out to a couple of his shows. Jennifer also introduced me to more alt rock and the pop stuff I missed as a kid. Thanks to them, I know who Todd Rundgren is beyond “Bang On the Drum All Day”, a real feat considering that I grew up listening to Sam and Dave with my mother and AC/DC with my father.
Jennifer and Steve played me new stuff, too. One tune from the Finn Brothers’ second album Everyone Is Here, and I was hooked not just on them, but also on Crowded House and the long since defunct Split Enz, all of which were variants of the Finn scene. In fact, Jennifer and Steve opened up the entire field of Aussie/New Zealand rock to me, and at least satellite plays some of that. Like Rachel, and possibly
even more so, Jennifer and Steve are fountains of rock knowledge that most of the satellite radio DJs can really only dream of becoming.
And their daughter, Kerry, along with several of her friends, hosts an entire podcast full of awesome modern things, including music. (You can find it here: Beaucoup Pop). When my friends can pull rock history out of thin air, the constant stream of minor trivia and song repetition that satellite offers don’t seem so awesome by comparison.
Quite simply, satellite radio doesn’t carry a lot of the music I’ve been listening to for the last twenty years or so. The three alternative stations kind of miss the mark. (Update: Spectrum does a better job.) One is an indie pop station, more of an introduction to alt pop that primarily covers the genre’s early big hits. (Yes,I recognize that statement for the oxymoron it is.) Another is pretty much current college indie. The third is more like extended grunge. There are some of the more obscure groups on here, but not many. Not enough.
And all of the satellite stations,from the popular to the alternative down to the classical, focus on a limited number of artists, playing their extended catalogs, including a few pieces that never became hits, but going through those same groups of songs in a roughly four hour cycle. I’m as sick of Ozzie’s “Iron Man” as ever, thanks to the metal station, and I’m wishing that the indie pop station played a little KMFDM * to go with “Enjoy the Silence” from time to time.
I LIKE what satellite plays. I like it a lot more than the commercial-filled, censored, sped-up garbage that FM carries. And ten thousand times better than Pandora’s fucked up algorithm. (Which Facebook is trying to imitate with my news feed.) But I can see so much more that these music stations could do. I mean, all my bitching about the quality of their DJs aside, some of these people could rock if given half a chance. Sirius XM has some of the original MTV VJs hosting their programs. Surely those people could at least hold their own against my friends if given half a corporate chance. Instead of relegating Martha Quinn to the 80s on 8 and assuming her knowledge of music begins and ends with the stuff she presented thirty years ago, why not let her showcase and educate listeners about a much wider scope of music. Instead of having DJs repeat the same tidbits daily or just read liner notes, why not turn them loose to find things unexpected? Why not let them really play us some music?
I learn from my satellite radio, and I like that. And the DJs don’t interrupt my listening too often (though “at all” is “too often” when you have only banalities to exchange with me). But it’s mostly stuff I’m an idiot for not knowing in the first place, and I’d really rather learn about new groups who I’d never have thought about twice on my own.
We’ll be keeping satellite when our trial is up. I like a sufficient number of stations, and I can dance around between enough of them that the repetition isn’t a huge factor in my enjoyment level. Plus, that ‘nationwide’ feature is really nice for us right now with all the travel we’ve been doing. But I was envisioning something that would keep me awake and surprised as I rocked down the road, and I can already see that the reality is much less exciting than that. And I just want to know why it is that, with millions of songs to choose from, a radio company with over a hundred stations can’t seem to give me enough variety to make me feel fulfilled?
* Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode. Their commercial hit was Juke Joint Jezebel. Back up
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.