Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Radio On

Once upon a time, radio was a sound salvation. It played all the time, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on the pool deck, in the car. The tinny pop chug-a-lug wired the air around it with bright-minded echoes of retro romance and fakey fun, filling up the empty blue space that envelops all suburbia with the simplest of all possible remedies for boredom: a beat. - Gina Arnold, Route 666

Sarah Vowell's first book, Radio On is a diary of sorts that documents her experiment: listening to the radio every day for a full year. To some, this may sound simple, but she doesn't simply listen, she engulfs it, understands it, and somehow becomes the radio. Listening to everything from the top ten hits to obscure Native American chants on AM stations, she documents every song and every commercial listened to. An interesting anthropological study of her, if nothing else.

The book was written in 1995, a year after Kurt Cobain passed away and that's what sets the the book on the first page. Being a long time fan of the band Nivana, Vowell discusses how the band didn't just play music, they influenced it, along with a generation of followers. Throughout the book she touches on other musicians she likes (Courtney Love, Smashing Pumpkins) and abhors (Alanis Morissette, Hootie and the Blowfish). She addresses the idea of selling out and how most bands are completely overplayed, leaving the radio full of repetition and nothing new.

As stated, she doesn't just listen to music. Being a great hater of Rush Limbaugh, she frequently tunes into his program to see what he's ranting about. It's an interesting social commentary, listening to her opinions of him, juxtaposed by her vision of Clinton and the time, a president who she didn't always agree with, but ultimately supported. Along the way, she tuned into NPR frequently, namechecking greats such as David Sedaris and Ira Glass (individuals who she later in her life became friends with and works with currently on the program This American LIfe).

What was most interesting to me wasn't just her analysis of the radio (which she, ultimately, gets sick of half way through, yet trudges through like any good writer would), but how the book is very dated. Taking place in 1995, she addresses radio and CDs as the only medium of music. In one scene, during an early recording of This American Life, she notes a new, unfamiliar piece of equipment, a minidisc. Ultimately, I'd love to know what Vowell thinks of the radio today. Although, mostly, it hasn't changed, we still have Rush, we still have repetative top ten hits, but it's not nearly as influential as it was back then. In days of sirius radio where you can listen to whatever you want whenever you want, ordinary channels seem out of date. And regarding politics, I wonder what she thinks of the situation nowadays, or what she thinks of Mrs. Clinton running (and losing) for the democratic candidate. 

As a long time Vowell fan, I will admit this was my least favorite of her few, however I did enjoy it. It was an interesting journey through the world of this medium, something that, admittedly, I rarely listen to. If nothing else, it inspired me. Inspired me to put down the itunes and ipod and turn on the radio for at least right now. Who knows what I'll find on it.


silverneurotic said...

Hm, another book I'll have to look around for.

Airam said...

This sounds pretty good ... thanks for the review!

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