Shuffle This

City Newspaper | August 17, 2005
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 League’s “Don’t 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 and communists.

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-avoidance dance 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.

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City Newspaper, celebrating 45 years of publishing, is the largest-circulation newsweekly in the metro Rochester area. Its award-winning staff provides intelligent, provocative analysis of local, national, and international issues. Jazz, rock, blues, and film writers offer lively, respected, and hotly...
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