What is the sound of flowers blooming? How does one match an oncoming storm with sonic accuracy?
On the day after Thanksgiving, I was looking in the paper during one of the inevitable "we've got to do something, but what should we do?" conversation-turned-fights that are something of a ritual during my visits home. There, in the "Living/Arts" section of the Boston Globe, right next to all the ads for the 4AM sales that had already come and gone while I was asleep, was a short gift guide, with a few highlighted items the not-yet-desperate shopper might consider for the culture lover in his or her life. One of these suggestions caught my eye immediately: The Weather Channel Presents: Best of Smooth Jazz.
Until recently, my perception was that, with the development of the internet, the only use of the Weather Channel was as a sleep-aid. Its predictable progressions and calm, unoffending music can work in much the same way that Sunday afternoon golf broadcasts used to lull me into naps during visits to my grandparents' house. But, after sifting through the reviews of the first ever Weather Channel CD on Amazon.com, I realized that the purchasers of this now quite popular collection (up to No. 2 on the Billboard jazz charts at the time I'm writing this) were not looking to it as a slightly less addictive alternative to Sominex – they actually anticipated enjoying the music.
Now, I haven't been a regular watcher of Local On the 8's, so I had no idea that there was an avid following of the music played on the program, broadcast 288 minutes each day. But it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise; if there's a market for "Two Girls, One Cup" on YouTube, why shouldn’t there be a subculture that obsesses about music from the Weather Channel? So I wasn’t entirely shocked by pages like TWC Classics, where one man calls out his favorite musical moments from the channel’s illustrious history.
What intrigued me most about this whole situation (which, over the past month or two, has to have broken some sort of record for weather-related jokes used by the media), was the existence of someone they call the “Music Man” -- the Weather Channel’s music programmer, Steve Hurst. Since 2000, he's been creating short mixes of background music to go along with every local weather broadcast.
I would love this job, I think, but I would undeniably be awful at it. It seems a whole lot more difficult than cobbling together a playlist for a party; instead of pleasing a few close friends (a feat I can’t even manage to pull off most of the time), Hurst has to think about playing to the tastes of millions of viewers each day. If he gets it wrong, he hears about it; apparently, fans of the channel aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure.
You might argue that the Music Man doesn’t have much to worry about; all he’s got to do is stick in a Kenny G CD and kick back, right? Maybe he could, but looking over the list of songs he's played since he began (http://www.weather.com/aboutus/television/music/?from=secondarynav), it appears Steve (who claims the Sex Pistols as his favorite band) likes to take risks from time to time. I like to think it’s to maintain his sanity.
In his early years at the helm, he sprinkled in a fair bit of what you might call "envelope-pushing artists": Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock. It wasn’t like he cued up the second disc of Live Evil or anything, but he was clearly attempting to expand beyond Vince Guaraldi’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown. By 2002, though, those selections appear to have left the rotation completely, presumably due to some unkind comments from regular viewers.
Steve "Music Man" Hurst hard at work
Despite a healthy amount of experimentation over the years -- the occasional "Shaft" snippet or selection from the Phish oeuvre (that had to boost the ratings in the lie-on-the-couch-with-bong demographic) -- Hurst has also remained relatively consistent. I can't explain his somewhat weird fascination with athlete-musicians (the tunes of both Wayman Tisdale and Bernie Williams appear often), but it makes sense that Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons and Pat Metheny have had ample airtime throughout Hurst's tenure.
Any good mix-maker knows that you've got to have a stable of artists to turn to when you absolutely need just the right song. But if some themes figure prominently in his work, the Music Man shows remarkable restraint in not over-exploiting the obvious one: weather. Sure, he's not averse to a little "Summer Romance" or "May Flowers" (in January 2004, strangely). And he does appear to favor a certain Weather Report track. But watching a recent broadcast, I was not immediately struck by how the mix of songs contributed to a wintry vibe. For me, the temptation would be a little too great.
I'm not suggesting I'd throw on Guns n' Roses' "November Rain" at the first opportunity, or even Live's "Lightning Crashes". I'd be bad, but not that bad. Besides, there are plenty of subtler songs to work with. The relationship between music and weather is undeniably a strong one; there's a reason "sunny" is a word seen just as often in music reviews as "angular" and "ethereal".
We all remember the episode of Boy Meets World, when Shawn finds a purse full of goodies, including a tape featuring Handel's "Spring”. "Listen to it, Cory,” he cried while overtaken by a bout of puppy love. “You can actually hear flowers blooming!" The relationship isn't always this blatant, but some music certainly seems made for specific seasons -- just ask Gnarls Barkley, who wouldn't have had nearly as much success with "Crazy" had it hit the airwaves in, say, February.
And then there are entire summer albums. Take People Under the Stairs' O.S.T.; I call this LA classic one of my favorite hip-hop albums, but I really only listen to it all the way through during warmer months. I’m in no mood for its light-hearted tracks while trudging through the bluster of a Chicago winter. Instead of warming me up, that song just seems to shove in my face that I live in a difficult climate. At such times, I want to hear from someone who sounds like they've been through something as harsh as the biting winds I'm enduring. This winter, that's meant a steady diet of Blu (yes, also a SoCal product) and Sean Price, as well as more chilled-out (get it?) music like Air and Portishead. I get goosebumps when I hear Beth Gibbons' voice anyway; I might as well be bundled up.
Whether these songs actually evoke different types of weather is up for debate; more than likely, the connection I feel is based on a moment I've had with them rather than any meteorologically based chord progression. It’s entirely possible that Portishead's “Roads” isn’t the perfect song for a lonely winter trek; it just feels that way because I first bonded with it on a November afternoon during a circuitous drive to the family dentist. But I’m still more likely to include the song on a Winter mix than a Spring one.
Because Hurst's two-minute mixes are made to accompany local weather forecasts in a variety of areas, he couldn't consciously strive to match every oncoming storm with a different Jimmy Smith tune. But I don't doubt that, somewhere along the way, he's gotten a phone call (he apparently gets contacted quite a bit, with commendations, threats, requests, and everything in between) in which someone applauded not only his choice of song, but how it fit the air quality level in Phoenix perfectly. And I'll bet he files it away, and the next time he hears it, it makes him think of dry heat. Either that, or it makes him fall soundly asleep.