I was washing the dishes last week when my daughter danced by. She’s growing, quickly, and every night her bones begin to stretch around suppertime. Her answer to this pain is to defiantly strut through our apartment like it’s a fashion runway, listening to music in her headphones, dancing out the lyrics to the songs, applying the healing miracle of being entirely fabulous. It’s kind of like watching Mick Jagger.
I usually watch a tv show while I’m doing the dishes, but the iPad was out of power, so every time she passed the kitchen I could hear the sound leaking out from the speakers strapped to the kid’s head.
They’re really nice headphones.
I used to wear them myself. She’s just borrowing them.
It’s been about two years now.
I’m not getting them back.
We actually call them “her headphones” now. But they’re part of a plan; I wanted her to have music as a universal coping mechanism, since we live in this age of miracles where we can hear any song at any time now.
And it’s working, her relationship with music is great. But computers aren’t DJs. They can offer us playlists calculated by analysis of song tempo, music key, keyword categorization, personal listening pattern – it’s the ultimate jukebox, right in your pocket, but it is only that, a jukebox.
It isn’t a DJ.
On a dance floor, a DJ can blend disparate musical sources to create amazing moments where they seem to know exactly what a crowd is feeling. In my mind’s eye, do I see this kid in those same headphones flying to Ibiza for work once a week in her private plane? Yes, yes I do. My mind’s eye is quite imaginative, particularly in regards to my eventual retirement plans.
But that’s not the kind of DJ I’m talking about.
I’m lost sometimes in these infinite music programs: I open them up and am suddenly transported to this giant warehouse where I can’t think of anything I want to listen to. I used to buy music I liked, and very often discovered that music by hearing it for the first time on a radio show.
A great radio DJ – and I’m not talking about on-air personalities talking in between pre-programmed lists of top hits, I mean those noble few who serve as curators of audio greatness – they dig through crates of old vinyl or check out the newest bands at the smallest venues in town.
You need a curator in this world. There’s just too much everything. First Thanksgiving at the in-laws, you need the honest person who tells you not to look great-grandma in the eye or she’ll think you want to fight, and not to go into the bathroom after Uncle Louis, and never to try the white gravy. You need somebody whose job it is to go where you can’t and find what you never imagined existed. THAT’S a DJ, a trusted sonic sommelier.
You can still find this kind of thing on college radio. Even the call letters KCRW or WFMU relax me. A great DJ can play math rock next to easy listening and follow it up with a bluegrass song, and it all just works. They’re becoming increasingly rare, but to listen to a DJ is not listening to a list of music that you’re supposed to like, you’re listening to the music that THEY like. You’re listening to a person, not an algorithm.
I was stuck on the subway underground yesterday for what seemed like forever; I looked on my phone to see what I had downloaded and found shows from BBC Radio 1 I had recorded over fifteen years ago. I chose one from Rob De Bank - the first song was “Anarchy in the UKulele” which was exactly what it says on the tin, punk rock ukulele music. He had found the song on MySpace. It is not available on iTunes.
I have tons of shows from Annie Mac, a woman who provided the soundtrack of our lives for over a decade, and a few from the legendary John Peel, who brought more musical artists from obscurity to national fame than any other single person. Growing up it was Dr. Demento every week, or Casey Kasem, whose “American Top 40” was probably the ultimate in corporate radio, but his stories, shout-outs, and long distance dedications made it all feel personal.
Siri is a lot of things, but she isn’t Wolfman Jack. At least not yet. Though that’s an amazing idea, can you imagine that voice? “The temperature outside is 41 degrees, baby! Wooooo!”
As a parent they say you have one job, and it can’t just be to protect (you can’t be everywhere) so it has to be to prepare. I’m not gonna tell my daughter what to listen to, but I have ever-so not-subtly added in things to the mix.
I picked her up one day from fourth grade and she seemed pensive, which looks weird on a nine year old’s face. I didn’t ask her any of the usual “what did you learn in school today?” questions. Instead I just took the slightly longer way home, and I played her “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin.
She didn’t say a word. She looked out the window and her head ever so incredibly slightly bobbed to the beat, her spirit visibly transforming from exhaustion to absolutely defiance. Then we parked the car and didn’t mention it. But now she has that, and can refer to it whenever she wants.
Anyway, I was doing dishes, and my daughter was marching around listening to music, and I could hear it as she passed by, and it was a song from the My Little Pony movie – not the last one with the new ponies (though that one’s just fine) but the big one with the original ponies and Kristin Chenoweth for some reason. I finished up and went to find her – she was in the bathroom cleaning the tub, singing along with the next song…
“Fight the Power. You’ve got to fight the powers that be.”
And I was very proud that I’d done my one job well. I am the DJ.