Lip-Reading in a Mirror

Gene Doucette

Gene Doucette
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
May 18
Gene is a novelist, screenwriter and humorist. His novel IMMORTAL was published October 2010, and is available NOW. Find out more at


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SEPTEMBER 21, 2010 12:37PM

Radio Radio

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This might mean I'm getting old

The other night I was tasked to obtain milk immediately.  This was after I arrived home on my bike-- I bike commute, as you know-- to find my wife barely able to form complete sentences, as she'd gone the entire day without coffee.  (She can't drink coffee without milk.  I can.  I can also drink it without sugar.  The only thing you can take away from coffee that will make me unable to drink it is caffeine, because decaffeinated coffee is against my religious beliefs.)  So I hopped into the car.  And as this was a medical emergency, in my rush to get the milk I neglected to bring my iPod with me.

However, our car does have a radio, and I was only going about a mile to the nearby Trader Joe's.  I could listen to the radio for a mile.

The channel, as it happens, was tuned to WXKS, known more familiarly as KISS-108.  It is a "top 40" station.  I generally only tune into this station if I need to get something else out of my head, like an old nursery rhyme, or intelligent thoughts.

Thanks to traffic I got to hear a good ten minutes.  What I heard was nine minutes of commercials and then a station promo, which went something like this:

"Hi, I'm ___ from Watertown and my favorite songs are..."

SAMPLE 1 of song I have never heard

SAMPLE 2 of song I have never heard

SAMPLE 3 of song I have never heard

"...I like variety, and that's why I listen to KISS 108!"

Here's the thing.  All three songs sounded exactly the same to me.  If it weren't for the helpful announcer naming the artists (none of whom I had ever heard of) I would have thought they were from the same song.  If there was any variety going on here, then the word means something different than I thought it did.

Keeping up to date

I like to think my musical tastes are fairly interesting and eclectic.  Of course, everyone thinks this about themselves, just like everyone thinks they're funny.  But still, I keep up well enough that my college-age kids routinely steal music from me.

Which is good, right?  I work with people who are roughly my age (or younger) whose musical tastes never got past 1989.  I'm serious.  One such coworker had never heard of The White Stripes.  Not never heard, never heard of.  Another coworker can't stand anything that came after Black Sabbath and Metallica.  I mean, at all.  I've tried to introduce him to other music, but it actually makes him physically angry.  And I'm pretty sure a couple of these people would go into seizures if they heard Queens of the Stone Age.

This Is Your Brain On Music

I read a book a while back called This Is Your Brain On Music.  It was a very good (if fairly dry) discussion of how we respond to music.  I took away a lot from it, such as:

  • You develop appreciation for particular types of music early, and unless you introduce new music to your brain regularly, that's it.  This is why the taxi driver's weird-ass cassette tape of Hindustani rock makes you ill but your copy of Huey Lewis and the News makes his ears bleed.  It's also why for some, there has been no music since Metallica's last album.
  • We all have a different tolerance for music that's "off the beat".  That is, music (including singing) that is deliberately ahead of or behind the time of the song.  I find music "on the beat" uninteresting after a few listens, but my wife prefers it.  Which is why I'd rather not listen to the country music she enjoys, while someday she is probably going to murder me in my sleep because of Radiohead.

  • The entire Pink Floyd album Animals is recorded in minor keys.  This is not germaine to the discussion at-hand, but it's one of my favorite albums, and I thought that was awesome.

So when I'm introduced to new music, I try to find its appeal.  In this case, I failed completely.

Then again, Top 40 radio might just suck

Although there's a reason I think the iPod is one of the greatest inventions ever: I don't have to listen to commercial radio any more.  Instead, I listen to my revolving playlist of 5.6 days (at the moment) worth of good music.  The drawback is that it's harder for me to find new good music because it's a closed system, but there are other ways to find music now, and as near as I can tell commercial radio is only interested in playing approximately twenty songs over and over.  A different twenty, depending on the channel, but twenty nonetheless.  Throw in the eternally lengthy commercial breaks, and no thank you.

So in retrospect, I have decided that the fact that none of those songs sounded any different to me is not a reflection of my inability to keep up and tune my brain to a new sound.  It's because the songs really didn't sound any different, and the only people they appeal to are people that want all of their songs to sound the same.  Possibly these people don't know the dictionary definition of the word "variety", I don't know.

But it's not because I am old.

...Shut up.


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Top 40 radio does bite. Since the late 90s radio has been on a downward slide. It wasn't the rise of the Ipod or satellite radio that killed it either.

In 1996 President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act into law. That act deregulated radio. It removed teh laws which limited conglomerates to how many signals they could own in a particular market and how many overall. This permitted the corporate giants like Clearchannel, Cox and Beasely to gain control of most radio stations and drive the bulk of the independent stations out of business or let them be absorbed by the giants.

Today the giants see Top 40 (and a few somewhat smaller niche channels (Country, Adult Contemporary, Classic rock)) as the only way to make money. Clearchannel's primary way of making profit is not the traditional approach of offering stuff people want. They achieve their profit through market share. Life is easier in a top 40 world. If all they have to worry about is Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, John Mayer, Lady Gaga and their ilk, it's easier than if you have those guys plus 20 independent artists and might have to think a little bit.

While I more or less gave up on the mainstream about 6 years ago (around the time Nickelback got accepted as a legitimate musical act) I'm open to new good music when I can find it. Mainstream pop just offers a sickly stream of weak Madonna and Michael Jackson clones. You get the occasional Amy Winehouse or Janelle Monae. But you have to know how to look.