The Net Is The New Radio
When I was small and taking the first baby steps into the world of popular music, it was a few vinyls that one of my uncles played on which I cut my teeth. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley… he even had a Nana Mouskouri album. I actually remember the Nat King Cole album that he had—a 10-inch LP named Nat King Cole Sings For Two in Love (the slightly tattered cover—it was released in the early1950—didn’t show King Cole but a white couple who seemed to be out on a date). The eight or ten songs on that album, as on most of my uncle’s vinyls, were about love. I was seven or eight when I heard those records and quite possibly didn’t know what the heck they were about but they were an introduction to pop songs, jazz, blues and all of what shaped my later taste in music.
A few years on, I got to hear The Beatles and the Stones and Simon and Garfunkel. My father had a few tracks on his spool tapes of George Harrison songs—if I remember right, only the ones that had him playing the sitar. But strangely, music in physical form was not the way I began listening to and getting introduced to rock and roll and all the exciting stuff. It wasn’t records or tapes that you could actually keep in physical form but the radio. As soon as I was allowed to touch the knobs of the old Bush valve radio that we had, with its strange net-like antenna strung across the ceiling, I discovered two afternoon programmes—the weekday Lunchtime Variety and Sunday’s Musical Bandbox. I don’t remember whether just one or the both of them were request programmes but those one-hour programmes were the primary source of ‘new’ music for my ears as I was growing up in Calcutta. They were great programmes, both of them, produced by Bulbul Sarkar, a legendary producer at the city’s branch of All India Radio. We would wait for those every day during the summer holidays and on Sundays and get treated to rock and roll and pop songs that became a kind of a primer for me.
It is strange how things come full circle. Today, four decades later, I am introduced to new sounds, not through physical formats such as CDs or vinyls (yes, they’ve made a come-back but how many records, if any at all, are you buying a month?) but via something quite like the radio, the internet. Just as we used to wait for programmes like Lunchtime Variety and Musical Bandbox, I wait for podcasts to drop into my iTunes app. Or, just as we would dial the knob of the radio in the 1970s to find a BBC music programme on short-wave or an obscure European radio station, I surf the net to check out different music blogs and what they’re streaming or offering for download.
That’s how last week I got to hear an NPR programme titled Cry Baby, Cry, Songs That Make You Weep. It was a 50-minute programme which played narratives from listeners who shared their experience about personal tragedies and sadness and the song that they felt empathised most with their feelings. So, you had a New Orleanian who talked about the difficult days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged that lovely city and played Louis Armstrong’s moving Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?; a parent of a girl who died when a drunk driver rammed into her car talked about her tragedy and played singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ To Be Alone With You, a song that had helped her cope; a woman who rued her lost yet not forgotten love and played The Avett Brothers’ If It’s The Beaches…. and so on.
It got me thinking about sad songs. There is something about sad songs that we love. I mean you can argue that when you’re feeling blue and low and very depressed wouldn’t it make things worse if you heard songs that were blue and low and very depressed? It doesn’t always. In fact, I find that it is usually the opposite. A sad song can, in some manner, help share your sadness. I actually like sad songs and (this may be weird) they seem to work for me regardless of where my spirits are—soaring high in the sky or languishing in the depths of some dark well. I even have some favourite sad songs. Lots, really. Such as Radiohead’s (who, as we all know, specialise in sad songs) How To Disappear Completely. Simple lyrics and a refrain ( I’m not here/This isn’t happening/I’m not here, I’m not here…) that never fails to work for me, whether I’m sad or not, but specially when I’m sad. It’s not the only Radiohead ‘sad’ song that I like; there are many more on their usually melancholic albums. Not as many as there are in The National’s catalogue of songs. Few bands have as many sad songs as The National does and few singers do sad as nicely as frontman Matt Berninger does.
But yes, before I digressed into blabbering about sad songs, I was talking about how alike discovering new music today is to what it was 30 or 40 years ago. If the radio was a good way to listen to bands that you hadn’t heard before, today it is the internet. The only difference is that you’re spoilt for choice. If I want to keep track of hip-hop’s latest (the new Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration), I have the Fader podcast that will alert me about a leaked track from their new album; if I want to discover new blues musicians, I have the Roadhouse podcast to go to; if I want to listen to yet-to-be-released albums by rock and pop’s best, then there’s NPR; if I want someone’s quirky take on garage rock or doom metal or even alternative electronica, there’s someone somewhere dishing it out for me…. That’s the thing about the internet, the long tail, which ensures that even an audience of one can get a song that he or she likes, regardless of whether it is a sad one or not!