Kevin Roose ’09: The sound of snobbery

Letting a group of scholars define what constitutes 'good music' is a dangerous proposition

By
Friday, October 13, 2006

I’ve got a confession to make. At Brown, this confession is akin to admitting at a PETA convention that you harbor a secret hankering for kielbasa, but I’ll make it anyway: I’m not a huge fan of National Public Radio.

Very little of the programming hits home with me. It’s not that I disagree with the hosts, or that I don’t like listener-supported radio. It’s just that I find NPR a little stodgy, and my fingers instinctively guide the dial to my local Top 40 station, where I can hear “London Bridge” four times an hour without having to sit through a pledge drive.

NPR’s latest snooze-fest is its list of the top 300 songs of the 20th century, as rated by the NPR cultural programming staff and a team of experts. I read the list eagerly, excited to wander down memory lane with songs like “Iris” and the Titanic theme, the quintessential songs of my lifetime. Instead, I started the list and came across:

“Adagio for Strings” (Samuel Barber, 1938)

Ever heard of this one? Surprisingly, I hadn’t. So I kept going and saw:

“After Hours” (Avery Parrish, 1940)

“Airmail Special” (Jimmy Mundy/Goodman/Charlie Christian, 1941)

“All or Nothing at All” (Jack Lawrence/Arthur Altman, 1940)

I jumped at the last one, thinking it might be the O-Town song that played during some of my more awkward eighth-grade slow-dances. Nope, just another obscure wartime tune.

Though NPR’s list focuses overwhelmingly on music from the early and mid-20th century, the experts did make a few pathetic attempts to include contemporary songs. They appear to have picked N.W.A.’s “F*ck Tha Police” out of the archive with sterilized gloves, and they sandwiched Lauryn Hill between “Django” (Modern Jazz Quartet, 1955) and “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (Kate Smith, 1931), a placement I’m sure Hill appreciates.

But don’t worry that the NPR cultural experts are eclipsing BET in street cred. They followed up “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” with “Drumming” (Steve Reich, 1971), “Ebony Concerto” (Igor Stravinsky, 1945) and “Einstein on the Beach” (Philip Glass, 1976), possibly the three whitest pieces of music ever written.

So I understand that NPR’s target audience is more into the Charleston than the Crip Walk, and therefore it’s fair that the list is skewed towards older music. But NPR’s list doesn’t even do a good job of reflecting what previous generations actually listened to. If you look at the Billboard charts from the late 1960s, two groups were at the top: The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Both are mind-bogglingly absent from the NPR list.

That’s what bothers me most about the NPR Top 300, and about NPR in general – it’s prescriptive, telling us what it thinks people should like to listen to, rather than being descriptive, by taking the songs people actually like and playing them on the air.

For example, “4:33,” an avant-garde song made up entirely of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, makes the NPR list. Let me rephrase: NPR’s music critics decided that “Stairway to Heaven,” “Satisfaction,” “Hotel California” and other iconic American songs were less deserving of a spot on a list of great twentieth century music than four minutes of silence. Mick Jagger is rolling in his dialysis bed somewhere.

It saddens me that, as an educated person, I will be expected to enjoy NPR someday. When I go into the real world, I’ll have to keep up with the programming in order to quibble with friends about the prescience of Diane Rehm’s show on women’s rights in East Timor. A friend once told me about a Brown professor who mused out loud to his class: “do I as a professor listen to NPR because I like it, or because I want to be the kind of person who listens to NPR?”

Professor, I feel your pain. I, too, want to be the kind of person who listens to serious radio. But I don’t want to have to apologize for the fact that my iPod contains not one, but three “SexyBack” remixes, and not a single copy of “Symphony No. 3” (Wallingford Riegger, 1948).

NPR’s thinly veiled attempt to define an educated elitism that hums along to Tibetan flute music won’t fool me. I’m not going to let a bunch of ethnomusicologists tell me what music I should listen to, regardless of whether my personal choices put me at odds with my educational stratum. Music is meant to be enjoyed as a visceral experience, not as a means of proving your intelligence.

So, my final words of advice to NPR listeners are: don’t be afraid to turn down the Stravinsky and turn up the Shakira. Your ears may thank you.

Kevin Roose ’09 is looking for a hype man to rev up his readers.