May 27, 2009
Echoes in the Sound of Static
Over Memorial Day weekend I helped staff a retreat for the high school students at my church. I've gotten to know several of them over the years, helping at junior high retreats or serving as a confirmation sponsor, that sort of thing. This retreat was somewhat accidental--for the youth director, a last-minute need for an extra adult male (and I am nothing if not extra adult), and for me, a weekend with no fixed plans. So Friday evening I found myself driving four teenagers from the western suburbs of Chicago to southwestern Illinois, with a front-seat view of cultural shifts happening right under our ears.
There was a time--I remember it--when part of the adventure of a road trip was finding something to listen to. You'd rock out to your favorite radio station till you got too far from home, then you'd scan frequencies, listening for something good. Along the way you'd learn bits and pieces about the region you were driving through: radio stations along the Canadian border report weather conditions in degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit; the deep South has lots and lots of radio preachers; Iowa likes classic rock; and so on and so forth. Of course, you might have thought ahead and brought along your favorite CDs or cassettes or 8-tracks, but those were often last resorts. You were on a trek, both literally and sonically.
That time has come and gone. Having embraced the insights of Andy Crouch's <a href="Culture'>http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3394">Culture Making,</a> I often look at an iPod and see a cultural artifact. Among the many things that the shift in music culture from physical product to data file management makes impossible, or at least more difficult, is the end of the aural pilgrimage--that parallel auditory tourism described above that accompanied road trips of yesteryear. There was a time (I remember it) when a carload of travelers would scan the airwaves, looking for a coherent frequency broadcasting something intelligible to sing along to or be edified by. That time has come and gone. Now we hit the road searching for static.
We search for static because with supplemental technology the iPod can broadcast onto unused airwaves. Even this technology is slightly outdated, actually; my carload of kids was devastated to learn that I didn't have a USB port to plug their All American Rejects/Nickelback/Anberlin/Black Eyed Peas playlists directly into my car's sound system. Fortunately for them, one kid was used to such archaisms as a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT; he had brought a port with him, which we plugged into the cigarette lighter. A quick scan for sufficient static, and all of a sudden: "Boom Boom Pow."
I am--how can I put this?--not a Black Eyed Peas fan, and one of the kids in my car failed his weekend challenge to convince me that Nickelback has talent. I, incidentally, had a carful of my own CDs, and it was my car, after all; but after playing one song from my archives I was unceremoniously evicted from the DJ's seat.
I suspect there's something developmental about musical taste; some day far into the future one or more of these kids will probably be muttering under their breath about the cookie-cutter noise that the adolescents in their lives are making them suffer through, about how these audio androids could stand a little exposure to the artistry of songs like "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." I think about that and laugh a little. But I hope I'm wrong; not about their musical comeuppance but about the death of the road trip listening tour. You don't necessarily find great rewards as you search unfamiliar airwaves, but there's reward in the searching, I think. And in any case, there's something sort of pathetically postmodern about searching for static. I'll bet a radio preacher somewhere in the South is yelling about it right now.