Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past


Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

This L.A. Times story provides the history of KCDX, an independent radio station in Arizona that plays an eclectic mix of music with no apparent rhyme or reason, effectively blowing the minds of certain people who tune in and respond to the spontaneity. When I say eclectic, I mean real eclecticism, not that market-building bullshit on “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, which is no more eclectic than a modern-country station. That show is basically where A&R guys get to test their hunches. KCDX is simply one guy’s music collection uploaded and streamed out at random. The L.A. Times article details the cultish enthusiasm people have for the station, how it inspires them to send the station gifts, thank-you cards, and unsolicited donations, how it drives them to want to find out who the programmer (who calls himself the Guru on the air) is. My initial conclusion: Listeners are likely so surprised and delighted to hear traces of a real individual in the mechanized, soulless death-space of the corporate media, which insists on treating listeners not as individuals but a synthesized, lowest-common-denominator mass and becomes an unmistakable reflection of that contempt, that they are energized, feeling as though they have had their own sense of unique individuality magically restored themselves. (Ads try to capitalize on this moment of epiphany all the time; they try to make listeners suddenly aware of their potential again after having been fed mind-dumbing palaver—perhaps advertisers prefer programming be stultifying and generic at some level, so that the ads can outshine them, so they can “pop” like bold type in a story sidebar.) ” ‘I remember listening to those songs when I was a teenager,’ said Maureen Kane, 52, a lawyer who became a devoted KCDX listener after she heard a 1960s Fabulous Poodles song. ‘It makes me feel so happy when I can remember that time when I’m driving to work.’ ” Free-form radio reminds people what they like about music in the first place, how it individualizes them, provides a conduit to personal memories while providing a building block for the identity we want to make for ourselves. It allows us to see how to use consumerism as a means of personality enrichment (rather than simply a way of stuffing our houses full of objects). And it seems downright subversive to take a mass media outlet and run it with no regard to profit or “scientific” principles of audience maximization (i.e. Pavlovian brainwashing.)

There are a few ironies here, however, that complicate this analysis. First, the humanizing spontaneity of KCDX is actually produced by letting a machine select the songs, leaving human intelligence out of it altogether. The lifelessness and repetitiveness and demeaning nature of formatted radio is something only humans could come up with and inflict on one another. True individuality is exactly like randomness; it is only achievable by ignoring all social mores and expectations and traditions, refusing every rule of conduct and mode of communication that makes one accessible to others. You have to be utterly unpredictable, even to yourself. But how this randomness plays out in shuffling a huge music collection is to show us (i.e. we music lovers with broad, inclusive, catholic interests) how incoherent our tastes really are, despite our pretensions to build a coherent identity, in part, out of them. (If you don’t care about music, the genre-hopping randomness probably wouldn’t even be all that detectable; you would just hear a series of songs like any other you’d hear on the radio. The more you know about pop music, the more you can recognize formats and how they are being tweaked or ignored.) Formatted radio, besides tapping into primal yearnings for repetition, caters to the constructed identity—who you want to be rather than who you actually are. You might want to be hip and current and in the know with the latest chart hits, or you might want to see yourself as a country-loving regular-Joe Republican, or you might want to think you have credibility with the urban underclass by listening to Power 99 FM. Perhaps that explains the other irony, that radio is formatted not because of some conspiracy against joy but because people stay tuned to rigidly formatted radio in a way they don’t to something more free-form. The predictability suits advertisers and listeners alike; listeners know pretty much exactly what they’ll here, and advertisers know pretty much who’ll be listening and what their pretensions are. Only a select minority have it in their basket of pretensions that ideal of being able to deal with whatever piece of pop culture is thrown their way, be it a 20-minute meandering Dead jam or a Pablo Cruise song or gangsta rap or something by Los Tigres del Norte. This disparate collection of the willfully perverse don’t have many opportunities to unite and rally together for something (it kind of goes against their whole nature). but that’s what KCDX offers. Even self-described loners need to feel like they are not alone sometimes. KCDX gives respite to those people who feel the need to resist community in order to stand out and preserve their sense of themselves, it gives them a chance to let their guard down for as long as they are tuned in, in a few moments of rare communion with the like-minded souls whose existence they will have to resume pretending doesn’t exist once the reprieve the station has afforded them is over.

Bookmark and Share
Monday, May 1, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Sean Na Na
“Double Date” [MP3]
“Grew Into My Body” [MP3]
“Princess and the Pony” [MP3]
“Tumor Party” [MP3]

“Venus in Furs” [MP3]

“Good Stuff” [windows | real]
“Hearts on Fire” [windows | real]
“Love & Pain” [windows | real]

Alias + Tarsier
“Dr. C” [MP3]

Debbie Harry & Iggy Pop
video: “Well Did You Evah?” [windows | quicktime]

The Eastern Stars
“The Diamonds in Your Eyes” [MP3]

Bookmark and Share
Monday, May 1, 2006

Ezra Klein lays out the numbers from a recent economic mobility study performed by the Center for American Progress.

The Center for American Progress just released a comprehensive study of economic mobility and income volatility. And, according to its data, Andy’s right about the American lack of fatalism, the belief in opportunity and mobility. When asked if people get rewarded for their effort, 61 percent of Americans agreed, versus 49 percent of Canadians, 33 percent of the British, and 23 percent of the French (weirdly, the Philippines win this one, with 63 percent agreeing). But of all these societies (save the Philippines), America is one of the least mobile, which is to say the least dependent on hard work rather than social station. In Denmark, the relationship between your parent’s income and yours is 15% percent or so. In Canada, it’s 19% percent. In France, it’s 41 percent. And in America, it’s 47 percent. The only country more hidebound and hierarchal is Andy’s native England (50 percent), also the country most closely approximating the American economic model.

The depressing upshot, as Klein points out, is that hard work doesn’t guarantee you’ll get ahead in America; even if you “work hard and play by the rules,” (in Clinton’s memorable formulation) there’s a good chance your children will have a hard time making what you make if you are not already wealthy. None but the most naive believe America is a meritocracy, but I still tend to be outraged personally when I’m confronted with this, usually in the form of some Ivy Leaguer getting a job through connections or plagiarizing a book and almost getting away with it. As Bourdieu goes to great lengths to explain in Distinction the upper classes develop elaborate defense mechanisms to prevent social mobility from threatening their elite status—unfair college admission practices is one strategy; high culture is another; evolving fashion is yet another. Cultural capital exists for those circumstances when the class barriers of financial capital are breaking down. Cultural capital exists so that others can be made to feel deprived, insecure, unintelligent or otherwise unworthy and undeserving. This may be the primary pleasure that high culture provides, the pleasure of watching the reactions of non-comprehending others, who you know you’ve just become superior to. Cultural capital makes hard work itself something of a joke; if you take a Veblenesque view of things, the signs of hard work are generally what become the signs of low breeding, so that the harder you work, the less likely it is that you’ll move yourself up in class. As each generation works to reproduce the society with which they are familiar, they begin with the entrenched privileges of class, passing along these barriers not consciously but as a kind of instinctual revulsion expressed at an almost sub-rational level. If you ever felt a creeping horror at being in Wal-Mart (or, the inverse, at Neiman Marcus), you know what I mean. We pass along those feelings as a way of making the social world cohere, to make it feel legible, like home. Class markers may be the primary way we orient ourselves once we are beyond the society of just our family; without those feelings of horror, unfortunately, we would probably feel even more anxious than we do when we feel outclassed or excluded.

But at the same time the preponderance of cultural/social capital at play in the class structure in America is probably what makes people think they have opportunity for social mobility when they don’t—if the markers, the surfaces, the pretenses and poses seem as important as the hard currency in one’s bank account, then one can come up with all sorts of clever, economical purchases to craft the illusion of upward mobility. One can procure credit and build the upwardly mobile existence without actually having the means to support it long-term. (By the same token, one can earn more and feel like one is slipping, due to the problems of invidious comparison and the hedonist treadmill (we compare ourselves to others to gauge how well off we are, and we adapt to every new level and become discontented with it.) Considering how much consumption is bound up with class, mobility will seem to increase as consumption increases and dominates a greater portion of our lives—consumption has already replaced work as the primary mode of self-definition; in America what we own is more important than what we do, and who we are when we are shopping is perhaps more our real self than who we are when we are working. The freedom and latitude we seem to enjoy when we are shopping makes social mobility feel real, as does the simulacrum of society created in entertainment and advertisements, where surface-deep characters model an egalitarian world, where everyone’s attention is equally valued (Nielsen doesn’t care whether the TV being watched is in a trailer park or a McMansion) and everyone can fix their lives with the same kinds of magic purchase. Perhaps the highest pleasure mainstream entertainment can provide is the fantasy that such a classfree world can exist; that culture unites rather than stratifies.

Bookmark and Share
Friday, Apr 28, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Neil Young
Living With War [full album stream]

On May 2, Neil Young will release Living With War—a 10-song collection that the artist describes as a “metal folk protest”—as a digital download album.  But you don’t have to wait for May 2… PopMatters is presenting a full album stream for your listening pleasure.
“This album is about exchanging ideas,” Young told CNN in a live interview last week on the steps of Warner Bros./Reprise Records in Burbank. “It’s about getting a message out. It’s about empowering people by giving them a voice. I know not everyone believes what I say is what they think, but red and blue is not black and white. We’re all together. It’s a record about unification.”
Living With War has already set fans and the media abuzz over the Internet due to its reflections on the Iraqi war and the turmoil in this country. It was written and recorded in two weeks with Young on electric guitar, vocals and harmonica, Chad Cromwell on drums, Rick Rosas on bass, and Tommy Bray on trumpet, along with a 100-member choir. One choir member, speaking to a British newspaper, said the recording session was “like being at a 12-hour peace rally.” [full album stream]

Hot Chip
“Baby Said” [MP3]
“Playboy” [MP3]

“A Line You Can Cross” [MP3]

Rose Melberg
“Golden Gate Bridge” [MP3]
“The Time Has Come” [MP3]

Bookmark and Share
Friday, Apr 28, 2006

I promise to keep my reality-TV bogging to a minimum, but last night’s episode of Survivor was extremely satisfying, underscoring what for me is the greatest pleasure of the show: watching people who have no awareness of how others see them fail. In this case, one of the most appealing Survivor contestants, Cirie, executed an intricate two-stage plot to see to it that Courtney, an irritating self-satisfied faux hippie of the most egregious sort (her shining moment came when she offered to sing sensei Bruce a song, he replies desperately, “Please don’t” and she starts singing anyway) was voted off. To accomplish this Cirie had to understand perfectly everyone’s state of mind, how everyone viewed the situation in the camp and the upcoming vote, and what all of their long-term strategies appeared to be, then know exactly how to manage the reactions of every single other person, telling two distinct lies to two different groups and securing the crucial vote by making the stupidest person still left understand the rationale behind her plan in all its complexity (it wasn’t quantum physics, but it was much more complicated than the usual Survivor schemes). It was a tour de force for Cirie and the show’s editors.

In real life, people who are totally self-involved and utterly ignorant of how they are perceived often seem to do quite well; their ignorance is hardly a hinderance and may in fact imbue them with an air of confidence that persuades others to look past their obvious shortsightedness. These people are usually the loudest and most demanding, and many simply find it easier to manage them by giving them what they want rather than inciting the confrontation necessary to make them see how ridiculously selfish they are being. Their cluelessness about their own boorishness becomes a bargaining advantage, because no one wants to take on the embarrassing task of disenchanting them with themselves. So it’s great escapist, vicarious fun to see that disenchantment happen on TV, accompanied with a sullen exit speech about how they are stunned and never saw it coming. Of course you didn’t, Courtney, you wouldn’t notice a thing happening outside the circumference of your incredibly lame fire dancing.

Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2014 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.