erasing clouds

One hit? I wonder

music critique by Matthew Webber

One of the few activities more mind-numbing than sitting in a cubicle from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and entering data five days a week is listening to the radio while you're doing it. This is what I did for approximately five weeks of my summer, and my body is appropriately wan. Even though I graduated from college this May and I still don't know what kind of a career I want to have, I now know one job I don't want to have. I also know I'd be content to never listen to the radio again.

For 40 hours per week, I listened to St. Louis' top forty station, adult contemporary station, rock station, classic rock station, modern rock station, hip-hop and R&B stations, and a station that supposedly plays everything. For variety, I tuned into the easy listening and oldies stations every once in awhile.

Why, then, did I only hear the same three songs?

1) Lifehouse's "Hanging by a Moment" hung on to way too many charts (pop, adult contemporary, modern rock) for way too long. I didn't get sick of it; I didn't like it to begin with. The first time I heard it, I thought the lead singer sounded too much like the lead singer of Creed, who sounds like the lead singer of Seven Mary Three, who sounds like the lead singer of that one band that sounds like Pearl Jam. By the end of my temp job, I knew the song so well I was able to change the station before I heard that voice - and when I heard it at the exact same time on one of the other stations that was playing it, I was able to change it mid-syllable.

2) Train's "Drops of Jupiter" was truly unstoppable. (See the second sentence of the previous paragraph.) Just like Lifehouse's hit, the kids and the moms could all rock out to it - which they did and continue to do on multiple stations up and down the dial. This leads me to believe that Attack of the Clones refers to neither George Lucas' title for the next installment in the Star Wars franchise nor an apocalyptic revolt among petri-dish-bred sheep; it's matchbox twenty, Three Doors Down, and Vertical Horizon versus the world!

3) I'm convinced that Jessica Simpson's "Irresistible" and whatever Pink's recent single was called are really the same song. Their voices are interchangeable and as soon as the songs are over I can't remember the melodies or any lyrics. I've heard these songs dozens of times and I honestly can't remember how any parts of them go. Even though only one station in St. Louis was playing these songs, it played them enough for three.

Of course, I'm exaggerating, and I heard many more average, pathetic, or brilliant songs this summer. I'm thankful that the radio played the Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood," Weezer's "Hash Pipe," and D12's "Purple Hills" at all. Unfortunately, I heard these songs too often as well. As much as I liked them, I didn't need to hear them more than once a day. I didn't need to hear them twice in an hour; or every ninth song or so; or once during a station's morning show, once as the first song the station played during a 30-minute stretch of continuos music, once during the station's lunchtime request show, and once again during the drive home. I can't even listen to Destiny Child's "Bootylicious" that often!

Several stations proclaim to be St. Louis' at-work station (or something to that affect) and are surely aware that some people will listen to their station for eight or nine hours in a row. So why aren't they aware that nobody wants to hear a song they hate, or even a song they love, more than once a day, every day, for half a year? I doubt the radio programmers and DJs would wish their playlists on themselves or their loved ones; so why do they push them on us?

Why? For promotional freebies and cash from the major record labels. (Sorry. I was being rhetorical.)

My biggest problem with this current, major label-dominated radio culture isn't that the stations don't play songs by independent artists or unpopular major ones. Although I would love to hear Elliot Smith or MC Paul Barman on the radio (or anybody other than Jennifer Lopez), I know that few people have heard of them (although many more people might have heard of them if the radio actually played their songs!) and I guess that most people wouldn't like them (but maybe they would if the radio would play them!).

Really, a greater problem is that the radio chooses to run one popular single by an artist into the ground instead of exposing possible fans to a broader range of material. I was surprised that N'Sync's Celebrity only lasted one week at Number One on the Soundscan albums chart; I wasn't surprised that it was Now Vol. 7 that defeated it. Right now, a 13-year-old record buyer has no way of knowing if any of the songs on the City High album other than "What Would You Do?" are any good. But for a person with limited income (maybe not even a weekly allowance), a $17 or $18 purchase of an album that includes every song you've heard and liked in the past three months makes sense.

Megagroups like N'Sync can sell 1.8 million copies in one week because they transcend the radio (TRL exposure certainly helps). But for artists such as Coldplay, Dido, and David Gray (no Rolling Stone covers, few TRL votes), the radio encourages fans to wait for the eventual Now compilation that will include their hits rather than rush out and purchase their albums.

When I was thirteen years old, I used to follow my own Rule of Three for record buying: I wouldn't buy an album until I had heard, and liked, three songs. Because I still somewhat follow this rule I am seldom able to justify buying a new album.

I don't know how long Coldplay's "Yellow" has been receiving radio play, but I suspect it's been at least six months. However, this is one of those huge radio hits that I actually like. Actually, I love this song. I love how adolescent the lead singer sounds, how wistful, how yearning, how confident but bashful. The angelic vocals prove the lyrics: I know he loves whoever he's singing to so much. The lyrics are simple, but really, what more can he say? He'll bleed himself dry for his girl. Look how the stars shine for her! It's a beautiful sentiment untempered by old age, heartbreak, or cynicism. I'm not sick of this song yet, and I don't think I ever will be. Sometimes I change the station when it comes on just to ensure that I don't get sick of it. To me, this is a sign that I've fallen in love with a song.

But now I want to hear another Coldplay song… and I haven't. It's been six months or more! Why the hell haven't I? As much as a preteen's purchase of Now makes sense, the releasing of another Coldplay single makes sense. The album has received good reviews from critics; the band has positive name recognition, a growing fanbase, and moderately successful record sales; and "Yellow" is so great that… it's so great that maybe it's a fluke? Maybe Coldplay really is a one-hit wonder? Maybe. But I'd really like to find that out for myself. I could spend my money to listen to their other songs… or the radio could play another single, just one single, and allow me to decide if I like them or not.

A song this great deserves so much more than obscurity for its writers and performers. "Hanging by a Moment" might deserve that (Or maybe it doesn't. How can I know?), but not "Yellow." Not Dido's "Thank You." (I know this because I own her album, and I think I've listened to it more times since I've gotten it than I've listened to any other album, and I think every song on the album is catchy, poetic, and well-produced enough to be a single.) Dido has even released other singles (I know, because I've seen the videos on VH1), but I didn't hear them on the radio this summer. Instead, I heard "Thank You" on multiple stations multiple times a day. No Angel is multiplatinum - not that you'd recognize more than one song.

"I'm Like a Bird" may very well be Nelly Furtado's "Come on Eileen." Lifehouse might be a better band than Nada Surf. Eve 6's new album might be as underappreciated as Spacehog's debut. Maybe, maybe not, but I'd really like to know. If the radio is going to play the same four artists, I wish they'd at least play more of their songs. I'd even welcome a new Train single… because I should probably change the station once in awhile.

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