Suffering, Thy Name Is FM Radio
What do you do if you are on a long car trip, you have heard all your Renaissance polyphony CDs, it's too dangerous to answer email at 80 mph, and there is no GPS on the dashboard to keep you entertained? Well, what else but turn on FM radio? Yes, it can be painful, but there are also ways to make it fun.
Starting on the left side of the dial, we first encounter NPR. There was some very intense news lady going on about a Supreme Court matter, spouting off conventional wisdom about what this conservative will say and what that liberal will say and how the plaintiffs will respond, and what the Congress will do if some law needs to be amended in light of the decision.
These people all seem like they are from another planet to me. Can news be any more dull and irrelevant? Oh wait, here comes another item, and it involves something about Hezbollah and Jordon and peace talks and retaliatory strikes and tiny slices of land that people have been killing each other over since the beginning of recorded time — it's the great white noise of American news. It was putting me to sleep.
Moving up the dial, I'm surprised to find about five different Christian stations with preachers commenting on the need for salvation, on the Bible, on the culture, and the like. Some are bozos but others are pretty darn articulate. Some have a great speaking style and a way of bringing Bible characters to life in a wonderful way, and teaching some good lessons along the way!
It's hard to take too much of this. You certainly wouldn't want a steady diet, as my mom used to say. But what strikes me is not only its existence (didn't these people all used to be on the AM dial?) but its ubiquity. I mean, can anyone think of another cause or another slice of American life that could so fully monopolize the lower third of the FM dial as the evangelical Christians?
Who are all these people who constantly talk about the de-Christianization of America? Have they turned on their radios recently?
I ask you: if you turned on the radio and found five separate 24-hour stations that went on about a single subject — let's say horse gambling or video games or the need to support wicca — wouldn't you have some sense that this was a pretty strong and even powerful movement? I would. I would sound the alarm that horse and video gaming and witchcraft was taking over the country!
Next on the dial is oldies rock music. By oldies, I guess people mean 1980s and some 1970s music. Now, it's hard to be objective about this music. It is all rather tolerable, even spunky and fun. These are songs that I grew up with, so it recalls some sense of the past, which is why people like it. But of course from a musical point of view, it is all absurdly primitive and pretentious in the extreme. I just love the way these bands hit on a single idea and beat it to death, bam bam bam, and finally the song ends.
There are some aspects of this music, mostly dealing with technical incompetence, that make it unlistenable after a little while. I heard some song that had only two chords, the tonic and the dominant. Every time the guitar player would move from lower to upper, his index finger would rip along the strings and create the sound of tearing paper.
Once your ear begins to focus on this, you can hardly hear anything else. Does this guitar player think it sounds cool? Or is he not hearing it anymore? Does he not know how to stop strumming for an instant while he moves his hand? He must, because he seems to do just fine going in the downward direction. He just can't manage it in the other direction.
Enough of that; we move next to a college radio station that plays "experimental" and "edgier" rock. It's certainly more creative and less commercial sounding. If you like this stuff, you get to feel on the inside of something important and non-mainstream, and you get to look down on the bourgeoisie, which is always fun.
But here again the problem is a certain thinness of ideas. These bands get one or two chords and vocal effects going and they just do it again and again. There is also a strange aspect to the words of the music on this station. They all seem to allude to something ominous but you can't quite make out what it is. "I teach, we learn, you live…" — that kind of stuff. What does it all mean? And who can stand all that wheezing around that passes for singing?
Well, who cares. Let's move further. Here is a jazz station! Just like the last time I checked into this genre, there seem to be three basic types. There is bebop, which is just Charlie Parker redone a million ways. There is fusion, which is Grover Washington, Jr., redone a million ways. And there is the advanced Chick Corea type jazz, which is fun and interesting. One piece I heard did three bars in 7/8 followed by one bar in 8/8. It took awhile to solve that puzzle. Once I did, it was like finishing the rubics cube.
What's next? Now we come to rap or hip hop or whatever it is called now. Of course it is famously bad, with this incessant boom boom boom boom in which the bass overwhelms everything else.
Now the songs I listened to didn't have any of the language issues that usually afflict this music, so what I found instead was actually the most clever thing so far: interesting rhymes, impressive techno-mixing, and some tricky and slightly complex syncopation. I was left wondering if this music is better than its reputation. But there is the niche problem of course. It appeals to a narrow sensibility, and it's not mine.
Moving on, I landed on two country stations. The first played some old-time country, like Hank Williams or something. I'm sorry but I just can't stand the stuff, that wailing on and thin instrumentation and predictable chord changes. It's fine for the Great Depression but not now.
Ah but modern country rock! Here is the shining star winner on the radio dial, so far as I'm concerned. It has a great beat, neat chord structures, and a love-life sensibility. The best part is the message. It deals with real life, in a way that keeps you on edge. Some of this material had me rolling with laughter, the way you laugh at great words by Cole Porter.
So there was this hilarious song.
By the county line, the cops were nippin' on our heels,
Pulled off the road an' kicked it in four-wheel.
Shut off the lights an' tore through a cornfield.
What was I thinkin'?
At the other side, she was hollerin': "Faster."
Took a dirt road, had the radio blastin'.
Hit the honky-tonk for a little close dancin'.
What was I thinkin'?
Oh, I knew there'd be hell to pay.
But that crossed my mind a little too late.
'Cause I was thinkin' 'bout a little white tank top,
Sittin' right there in the middle by me.
An' I was thinkin' 'bout a long kiss,
Man, just gotta get goin', where the night might lead.
I know what I was feelin',
But what was I thinkin'?
Now, come on, that's just great stuff! True, it doesn't quite connect with my culture or background, and the whole country thing doesn't really penetrate very deeply. But still: this material is great. These are the madrigals of our time, songs that tell a real story about real people. This is music that should exist!
Well, we've just about reached the end of the dial, so I go back to see what the preachers are saying. But I'm out of luck. Instead of a solid sermon, they have music playing. Now here is where we hit rock bottom. I'll just say this as plainly as possible: Christian contemporary music is ghastly, insipid, uninspired, brain draining, and horrible in every way.
How can I describe this stuff? It's like bad rock, bad pop, bad country, bad everything all rolled into one. The voices are all bad. They have this cheesy little vibrato that seems designed to sooth but only annoys. The instrumentation is all canned. All songs begin softly with whispered nothings about some personal problem you don't care about. They grow and grow with choruses featuring long notes. Cymbals and trumpet flourishes arrive at the high points. They end with some victorious flourish. A dated rock beat backs it all. The words are completely vacuous. The sentiment is cheap. The melodies are childish. If religion were this thin, it's a wonder anyone goes along with it at all! This is truly bad music in every way.
Give me the cultural authenticity of rap. I'll take the phony philosophy of the college station blues. I'll tap my toe to the Village People. Put on a Sting re-tread. I'll take another 688 bars of saxophone improvisation. I'll even suffer through an old-time country crooner. But please please, can't somebody do something about Christian contemporary music? I know what I was thinking and feeling: This stuff is the bane of the entire radio dial.
And you know what? So far as I understand it, this is the stuff that is taking over our churches today. From Josquin and Bach to this! If the full re-Christianization of America ever really happens, as so many evangelicals hope, it had better exclude this pap or you can count me out.