Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Radio On by Sarah Vowell

Recent I picked up Radio On by Sarah Vowell, NPR impresario and hipster historian. In 1995 Vowell decided to keep a journal on her radio listening habits and record her observations, offering reflections on one of the least written about mediums.  Radio On offers a nervy trip back to 1995, replete with foreshadowing of what was to come.

Vowell listened to a wide range of what is now called terrestrial radio: FM Rock, AM Talk Radio, and tons of NPR. Many figures from 1995 appear; some are gone, and some are still around.  The death of Kurt Cobain was still raw in that year and his ghost looms heavily over the book.  Vowell wrote of Cobain as the conscious of the early 1990s:

It was a relief to know someone like him that was on the radio, part of American public life. . . To some of the people who grieve him, Kurt Cobain was a great artist, to others he was the medicine man of the rock and roll tribe, but, finally, he was simply a friend (5-6).

Vowell relates much on what she admires and detests about America. For 1995 saw a resurgence of the right (many more to come), in 1994 the GOP won both houses of congress back after 50 years out of power.  Once in power they gleefully acted as the wrecking crew to Bill Clinton's liberal agenda. Newt Gingrich gets much of Vowell's vitriol, along with crony Rush Limbaugh who dominated the air waves. Rhetoric from the right in 1995 has many echoes for today, fanaticism over gun rights topping the list.  The Oklahoma City bombing revealed how much some on the right despised their society, the Unabomber (extreme left) also entered the cultural parlance.

It's always fun to hear the young go after a sacred cow and few do it better that Vowell. Deadheads are almost as annoying as Rush's legion of dittoheads, chastising her peers for being trapped in the amber of counterculture nostalgia. She prefers P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morisette, ambivalent towards Courtney Love. She writes of her exhaustion with male voices dominating the discourse on music, most of pop  culture for that matter:

I seem to have spent my whole life listening to boys talk about music. And sometimes, no matter how smart or untrivial or meaningful the boy might be, the sheer aesthetic presence of a masculine voice engaged in record talk can get on my nerves (168).

The rise of the internet looms as well, still more of a novelty in 1995.  At one point Vowell ponders the possibilities, in the future everyone can be their own radio station, predicting the rise of podcasts.  The absence of social media makes itself known: in order to communicate people still had to call each other or write notes.  Seems much longer than 20 years.

Perhaps its the mid 90s milieu and all the talk of REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana it got me thinking of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest would be published the next year (probably because the film The End of the Tour takes place at roughly the same time.)  I imagine Wallace and Vowell running into each other and she being annoyed with his writing style and obsessions with tennis and the pursuit of happiness. But Wallace did listen to Nirvana while writing so maybe they would talk about Cobain. Past is prologue, and the 90s were a prologue decade.

But back to radio, Vowell is fairly critical of NPR for being too middle of the road, in other words out of touch. Well someone listened at NPR, Vowell herself became a fixture of This American Life. Since the 90s radio hasn't changed much, mostly zombie radio these days. Satellite radio does excellent work, but with a price. And consumers can access music in myriads of different ways - that's a good thing.

Vowell's at her best when writing about patriotism in a time when conservatives act like they own it, she relates her patriotism more in the spirit of Neil Young (nothing like a Canadian to be the exemplar of good citizenry). Not without surprise, religion and national identity would preoccupy her future writing. 

Vowell channels the spirit of a perceptive road novel - from a specific time and place.

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