[April 20th marks the 50th anniversary of NPR’s first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of radio histories and contexts, leading up to a Guest Post from a colleague whose upcoming book on college radio should be a must-read!]
On quick takeaways from a handful of the many popular songs about the radio:
1) “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979): The Buggles’ pop track isn’t just the first video ever played on MTV; it’s also a really interesting reflection on a quarter-century of music and media, from its opening 1952 setting through its depiction of contemporary trends and challenges. I don’t think they were entirely right about what video meant for music in the 1980s and since, but they sure weren’t entirely wrong either.
2) “Save My Love” (1978) and “Radio Nowhere” (2007): Leave it to my boy Bruce to highlight the yin and yang of radio so potently: the first a paean to the medium’s ability to link us to distant lovers and a wider world; the second an impassioned critique of pop radio’s reflection of an era’s vacancy and soullessness. I don’t think either of those elements has ever been absent, meaning we need to keep listening to both Bruce songs, natch.
3) “Pump Up the Volume” (1987): M/A/R/R/S’ (be honest, did anyone know they spelled their name that way?!) electro-dance hit isn’t really specifically about radio, so much as the power of music overall, so I’m including it in large part because of the 1990 Christian Slater film about an underground DJ. But what both the song and the film have in common is the idea that music can serve as a counter-cultural force, especially when it’s played loud enough.
4) “Radio, Radio” (1978): Elvis Costello’s song is as biting and ironic as he tends to be, contrasting a nostalgic glimpse of what radio had been (or at least could be) at its best with a critique of the present situation, in which he argues that “radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Trying to anaesthetize the way that you feel.” Ultimately it’s both an impassioned argument for what radio can do and a lament for what it too often is.
5) “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” (1983): But what radio can do remains, and one of the best musical depictions of its power is Indeep’s anthem to the way in which a DJ can “save [your] life with a song.” I don’t know that there’s much more to say about it than that, and that’s about as important as it gets.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other radio histories or stories you’d share?