Paul Simon's "Kodachrome" comes on the
car radio, and suddenly I'm sitting by the pool at Lisa Scandelli's
6th-grade end-of-year party. The next song I hear is Human
You Want Me" and it's nearly a decade later. I'm dancing
on the sunken dance floor in my college's bar. Now the radio
is playing some sappy country song. I hit scan.
Random radio, also called Jack, Bob, or Fickle, features a wide
variety of styles from the last four decades of popular music.
It's a Canadian import which took hold in the US a little over
a year ago and has spread to at least a dozen stations nationwide.
For people who grew up in the '70s and '80s, random radio offers
a collage of memories, each song a data chip eliciting information
specific to when the song first appeared: the boyfriends, crushes,
teachers, clothes, and friends. But I hear more than aural scrapbooking
in this trend.
Random radio is partly a reaction to the payola-fueled, narrowcasting
of the '90s, and partly an attempt to emulate and compete with
the iPod shuffle concept. Critics say this inch-high, mile-wide
programming will grow tiresome. But for now it's catching on
and we're geared for it.
The experience of listening to songs of diverse styles and from
several eras with trainwreck segues would have once been jarring,
but now even the most low-tech among us, armed only with a television
remote, is as nimble as a mountain goat when it comes to leaping
from one image or sound file to the next. The key difference
between our own ADHD use of remotes, scan and shuffle modes,
and multiple Internet windows is that we're the ones in control.
Musical chaos, as found on random radio, is not custom-contrived.
It's out of our hands and we like it. It's wacky! It's wild! "We
don't know what's going to happen," one local station ad
boasts of its random radio segment. They say this as if it's
a good thing. Since when do we welcome chaos or random events
in our lives?
Since now. In a time when random events have never seemed so
threatening --- suicide bombers walk among us looking like grad
students, their backpacks filled with deadly agendas --- maybe
the randomness of varied songs is a kind antidote to the fear.
A safe, small-scale way to experience the unpredictable. Even
as a station cycles through a lifetime's worth of music, wary
commuters silently update the bumper sticker "practice random
acts of kindness" to: "avoid random acts of terror."
The laissez-faire attitude of random
radio dovetails nicely with the "whatever" phenomenon. Inasmuch as a popular
phrase can capture the zeitgeist, "whatever" reflects
the electorate's feigned lack of investment in the world around
us. The twin concepts are even married in a local radio station's
copycat random radio "Whatever Weekends."
Compare "whatever" to an outdated phrase from a different
time. "Where's the beef?" is cringingly nostalgic not
because it's decades old, but because of its earnest appeal for
information, for substance. In an era of war built on lies, fake
journalists welcomed into the White House, and real journalists
jailed for having integrity, putting forth a bald request for
content --- or taking a stand on an issue --- is just not done.
Protesters --- that is, people historically heralded for giving
a damn about this country such as Minutemen, abolitionists, Civil
War fighters, civil rights activists, et al --- are the new pariahs,
routinely hassled and separated from the crowd at political events
like quarantined mad cows. Conservative talk show hosts call
environmentalists --- the people who want to save the world's
great natural resources, not exploit and destroy them --- anti-American
The pervasive "whatever" ethos isn't just for teenagers
anymore. "Whatever" is the keyword of the whole Iraq
conflict. We're in Iraq to find WMD or we're there to install
democracy. Whatever. American service men and women are told
their tours of duty will last three months or they'll last six
months or, no, actually, they'll last a year. Whatever.
The random, out-of-control nature of Bush's handling of our
foreign affairs is mirrored in the day-to-day experiences of
the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Americans find enemies
mixed in with friendly faces and insurgents masquerading as allies
as they make their way warily through the countries they are
trying to protect, ever open to random attacks. Madrid and London
taught us that we, too, may soon know this horror.
Although our approach-avoidancedance with the concept of randomness
leads us to "whatever" territory, that doesn't mean
we don't care about anything. Au contraire. Never before have
we spent so much time thinking about so little, specifically
custom lifestyle objects and activities.
Americans customize everything, from
when we watch shows and what we listen to (TiVo, iPod, podcasting); to what we wear (sneakers
we design at the Nikelab, bathing suits laser-cut to our proportions);
to what we drive (Saabs and Smart Cars we "build" online).
Even the M&Ms that jolt us out of our late afternoon stupor
can be decorated with colors and words of our own choosing.
If you pause long enough on one station during your evening's
random review of the hundreds of television channels, you might
hear a snippet about Pakistan's use of rape to shame its citizens
or get a quick sense of the explosive situation in North Korea.
Just as likely, though, you'll catch some chef screaming at a
worker or 50 Cent sneering out a few gruff notes. At least random
radio, for all its unpredictability, plays whole songs. What
we think about when we hear them, however, is up to us.