Tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel.”
Right now on 97.9 the Loop, Chicago’s classic rock station, it’s Manfred Mann covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light.” Now it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tightrope.” Now it’s “Sweet Emotion,” by a band that I refuse to name.
Take any classic rock band, from major to minor, from The Who to Foghat, and it’s safe to say that their hits have played on FM stations throughout America every single day for 40 years straight. Take any commercial FM station in the country, and odds are the playlist does not deviate—ever—from a narrow selection of hits. Most of my co-workers (the majority is around 60% to 75%, depending on the day/station) are A-OK with this. It’s probably just white noise to them, a barely-noticed, pleasant hum; but for me and a few others, we feel like Manuel Noriega hiding in his Panamanian compound while US Army Psyops blasts G ‘n’ R at us.
I bet I have heard all of the songs on this station— all of them—hundreds of times. Some songs (“Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze”) have to be up in the thousands. This is the format for all commercial radio stations: play songs over and over and over * ∞+1. Play them until the psychologically weak among us want to stab ourselves in the ears with the nearest letter opener.
There’s no escape from lousy music in my office, even though it’s not 97.9 The Loop each day. It’s not entirely our fault. Clear Channel must share some of the blame. With the exception of WFMT (classical) and WBEZ (public radio), neither of which we play at work, every single station in Chicago is complete shit. I assume that right now, some Hispanic guy named Deñis El Toole is penning a screed against 105.1 FM, La Que Buena.
Still, it’s roughly 2013. We could run an audio cord from a computer to the office stereo, no problem. We could get a satellite account. We could hook up someone’s iPod and get deep into an unfamiliar catalog. There’s all sorts inoffensive, fun, easily accessible pop music that we have not all heard before, and that we could find within seconds. But we don’t play it for the same reason Hair Cuttery doesn’t play Neko Case and Pizza Hut doesn’t play the Replacements. We listen to stale, lifeless rock because it has proven the test of mass popularity. Afraid of offending anyone, we’re content to please no one.
For most people, there is no distinction between loneliness and solitude. Both are to be avoided at whatever cost. Noise tells us that there are other people in the camp, village, mead hall, or office. When noise has a predictable, familiar pattern, it’s like the voice of a friend reminding us: you are not alone.
A few years ago I was at a big Italian restaurant in Chicago called Quartino. It’s a reasonably priced Italian restaurant with a very affordable wine list. They specialize in small plates, so it’s perfect for sampling something new. Smack in the middle of the dining room was a table of sullen tourists drinking light beer and eating cheese pizza. They looked like they’d be more comfortable stalking deer and stood out like they were actually wearing fluorescent camo. From their non-ironic mustaches and NASCAR hats, I’d guess they owned some. Yet here they sat, weary and wary and barely speaking to each other, ordering the blandest food on the menu for fear of disliking something. I wanted to give them each a big hug and whisper, “It’s gonna be OK.”
Cheese pizza in an exotic Italian place: a mother holding her child’s hand on the threshold of his first grade classroom. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the millionth time: a familiar face from high school on the big college campus.
Now it’s Skynyrd. Now it’s Ozzy. Now it’s Zeppelin. Now it’s the Stones. Now it’s Speedwagon. Now it’s Rush. Now the march of time has stopped. It’s 1991, and it always will be. Just don’t touch that dial.