Sunday, August 19, 2007

In The Belly Of The Beastly

We have a joke about the local commercial alternative station here.

Every time we turn it on, there always seems to be some sensitive female singer going on about something with just the merest hint of a drawl or a twang, not enough to qualify as theatrical but just enough to project authenticity.

Because of this, we always call it the Cowgirl Music Station.

Nothing wrong with it, of course, if you enjoy Cowgirl Music. Some of it is even very enjoyable. But there’s just something smug about the attitude of the thing – you can tell that the disc jockeys feel like they’re really pushing the envelope when they’re actually pushing 60.

In other words, for all of their bluster about presenting the music “you can’t hear anywhere else” and giving airtime to those artists who are somewhat off the beaten track, it’s all incredibly safe and well behaved. You know in your bones that you’ll never have to worry about being bothered by anything approximating a sense of danger so long as you keep your radio dial tuned to them.

This is what happens when you give out tote bags to your listeners.

Now the other weekend, it so happened that this station was having its annual festival here, two days of live music performed by artists that appeal to their weary and middle-aged demographic. You know, the sort of folks who shop at the organic supermarket and tell you how they don’t own a television.

The Smithereens were on the bill and those that know the wife know she loves The Smithereens.

They may only ring a bell with you as a vaguely familiar name from the 1980’s with a handful of hits, but they’ve never actually gone away, playing to a loyal and hardcore base of fans that have continued to support them.

Frontman and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio writes songs that sound like a cross between The Left Banke and The Who, which is to say appealing streamlined pop songs with a rough-hewn edge that really have no place on the radio anymore. The songs themselves invariably deal with lost or unrequited love, but unlike the vengeful lyrics of, say, an Elvis Costello, DiNizio’s lovelorn losers are trapped in an endless cycle of sadness with no hope of reprieve. That these sad and poisonous little bon bons are couched in such vivacious music makes for a sort of “spoonful of sugar” effect, the sentiments tasting of both sweet and sour simultaneously.

As we got closer to the event and started to look for parking, we noticed that more and more of the people we saw walking around were wearing cowboy hats.

“My god,” I said to the wife. “You see? It’s the Cowgirl Music crowd coming out for this. They actually wear cowboy hats!”

We were ushered into the parking lot of a nearby stadium where it seemed that another show was going to happen that evening. Tailgate parties and impromptu games of football were already going on. We could see kegs of beer and small grills here and there.

“There must be a show in the stadium tonight,” the wife said. “I wonder who it is?”

We parked and walked the rest of the distance to the festival, passing more and more cowboy hats as we did so, though we now realized that these seem to be concentrated in the parking lot.

There was already a sensitive barefoot fellow on stage asking the audience to recycle when we arrived. The wife staked out her place in front of the stage, carefully placing herself at arm’s length from the obviously drunk.

The Smithereens’ set was a crowd-pleasing mix of hits and covers and they thanked the crowd for being there for them for so many years. After the meet-and-greet had concluded, the autographs gotten and guitar picks confiscated, we made our way back to the car.

About halfway there, the wife’s curiosity got the better of her and she decided to ask someone in the crowd who they were there to see.

Her face went ashen.

“Who is it?” I asked. “Who’s playing?”

“Toby Keith,” she said.

It all made sense now, all the tattoos, all the cowboy hats, the tailgating, everything but someone screaming “Yee haw!” at the top of their lungs.

Toby Frickin’ Keith!

Toby Bush-Lovin’, Dixie Chick-Hatin’, Eye-Rak-Eee Ass-Kickin’ Keith.

How had we wandered into the middle of this?

And how would we get out alive?

Next: Don't Fence Me In


Blogger Lefty Lucy & Ry T. Tidy (Powered by Radio Zero) said...

Our version of what you call the 'cowgirl' station is Fordham's WFUV. I stopped listening for just the same reasons, I was so tired of hearing Jimmy Dale Gilmore literally every time I turned on the station. (Never mind the fact that they started canonizing Johnny Cash only after Rick Rubin said it was OK to, and even moreso after the man was dead.)

I have a number of different names for stations like WFUV and WXPN, such as "All Mom Rock, All The Time" the "Indie Darling" station, or the "willfully eclectic" station...

All programmed by and for people who actually feel a bit smug about the illusory idea that they are somewhere outside the mainstream. If only they knew that, just by virtue of the fact that they are over 40, they can no longer be cool... Simply listening to a station that calls itself 'too hip for the room' doesn't change that.

Look, we're so different! See?!? We listen to album tracks by David Byrne and Mark Knopfler! Patti Smith? Oh, we picked up her greatest hits album, and we liked a few songs... I can't remember the names, though...

Of course, there's a certain way you have to be different. Because if you actually ARE different... TOO different... Well, that would attract the wrong kind of attention.

In fact, the only reason most of the music on these stations has not been Clear Channeled to the masses is merely an accident of history.

Most, if not all of it, would be just as comfortable on the playlists of any 'Hot Hits' or 'Z100' or 'Lite-FM' around the country.

In fact, 'XPN has tried a number of times to put their format in a bottle and sell it to commercial staions, first with a syndicated radio show called "The Difference," and then with "World Cafe."

Perhaps they could be excused... these are, after all, non-profit organizations that survive on listener donations. The more listeners they get, the more money.

Curious, though, how stations like XPN can engage in such commercial enterprises as syndicated radio and actual 'world cafes,' but still retain the status of a 'non profit.' It's a dubious practice to say the least.

But fine, do what you can to make money. Just don't tell me that I can't get your crap anywhere else. I can get it in any Starbucks, and as we all know, they are taking over the world.

There is a commercial version of WFUV in our market, called "The Peak." They play what they call "World Class Rock." The playlist is very much the same as WFUV's, but liberally dosed with more overtly commercial acts. You are just as likely to hear U2 or Tom Petty as you are The Smithereens.

Most importantly, though, "The Peak" is utterly sans smugness. It is genuinely refreshing to hear the Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows" on this staion (which you can regularly) -- almost because it is a commercial staion -- but certainly, because they are not so self-impressed by putting it on their playlist.

The FUV's and XPN's and other Mom Rock stations of the world can learn a lot from "The Peak." Just call a spade a spade and start airing ads for their audiences. Then they'll truly get their wish of being seen (that's the important part) as having higher standards in an area where lower standards are expected.

Rant over.

Friday, August 24, 2007 1:26:00 PM  

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