I was listening to Bruce Springsteen belt out ‘Radio Nowhere’, the opening track to his 2007 album, Magic, the other day, and as I did I was struck by how archaic it felt. Not in terms of its energy – as anyone who heard him perform ‘The Rising’ at the concert to celebrate Obama’s inauguration a few weeks ago knows, Bruce can still crank out the tunes like nobody’s business – but in terms of its invocation of the radio as a vehicle of connection.
When I was a teenager growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s, the radio – and music more generally – was a lifeline, a connection to a larger, more vivid world. Listening to it was a way of believing, however briefly, that there were other people, out there in the dark, just like you. And whether rightly or not, we invested the music we listened to, the music we loved, with all that longing and desire and need to escape.
No doubt that’s why the radio is such a powerful trope in the music of the period. I can think of a half a dozen songs without even trying – Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’, Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’, The Sports’ ‘Who Listens to the Radio’, to take three examples, which bounce off the idea of the radio as a vehicle for connection (albeit a corrupted one, in the case of Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’). All of them depend upon an idea of music as something almost talismanic, something which defines and liberates, and the radio as a medium for communion with that power.
But listening to Bruce Springsteen the other day, I found myself wondering whether that’s still the case. There’s no doubt the importance of radio to teenagers must have diminished. They can access music from anywhere, any time they want, and they’re constantly connected to friends, both real and virtual, by social networking. But more deeply, I found myself wondering, isn’t it possible the sheer ubiquity of contemporary media, the immediate accessibility of any song, anywhere, pretty much at the flick of a switch, is eroding the intensity of people’s connection to the music they love?
I know I’m articulating a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, but that doesn’t mean my question is an entirely frivolous one. Certainly at least part of the reason music mattered to us in the 1980s was because it was scarce. Albums were expensive, tapes were unreliable, the radio played things as and when it felt like it. But that’s no longer the case. And there’s little doubt that the endless feed of information from the net has changed the way people read, driving modes of interaction wth text which are about skimming, and sampling, and only very occasionally about reading carefully, or deeply. So mightn’t the contemporary world’s immediate access to music be doing something similar to our relationship with music, and more particularly the relationship of teenagers to music?
For what it’s worth, in 2001 Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill compiled this list of songs about the radio.
Update: I’ve just discovered this piece by Mark Mordue, which speaks much more eloquently than I have about the power of music for those growing up away from the bright lights of the big city.