I’m starting to think that being familiar with the work of Ke$ha is not the cultural touchstone that I thought it was

47e29f9fe96a1771642fb05ac8a8fd00_XLI’m in Berkeley for the summer, and I have to say that it’s a bit like an alternate world out here. You know, everything is mostly the same as in Baltimore: people walk on two legs and wear pants and say ‘Hello’ and eat at vegan bakeries and go to Farmer’s Markets and drive bikes to work (on a sidenote: it’s unbelievable how many Bay Area people think that the standard markers of modern yuppie living–farmer markets, veganism, etc–are unique to their little part of the world).

But there are differences. And one of the weirder ones is that no one knows what’s on the radio. I listen to the radio all the time: if it’s on the radio, I’ve definitely heard it. But many 27 year olds around here do not. That’s for two reasons: a) lots of them don’t own cars; and b) they’re way too cool for the radio.

Which puts me in the weird position, because almost everyone that I meet around here is really, really into music. They all play in bands and go to shows and are just generally up on things. And whenever the talk turns to music, I can generally only contribute information about: a) Nashville-based pop-country music (which no one cares about); or b) whatever I heard on the radio.

So, wometimes I’ll say something like, “Oh yeah, I listened to that Ke$ha song ‘Die Young’ like fifty times while I was driving across country.”

And my conversation partner will respond: “Who?”

“Uhh, Ke$ha? The pop singer?”

And then there’ll just be incomprehension. It’s very weird to me; there’s a real cultural disconnect here. My view of engagement with art is very shaped by my experience with science fiction. You start with the most accessible, most poppy stuff (Ender’s Game, Dune, Starship Troopers, etc) and then, when that stops providing you with pleasure, you go out and you find more and more obscure artists. But you always stay current with the mainstream, because that’s, it’s just…it’s like what you have in common with the rest of the world. When I meet another SF fan, we don’t talk about Ted Chiang…we talk about Neal Stephenson and John Scalzi. Because that’s how shit works.

But in music, at least out here, it feels different. I don’t know. Maybe it is an age thing. It feels obvious, to me, that the radio is primarily geared towards sixteen year olds. Maybe the model is that when you’re sixteen, you listen intensively to the radio, and then you branch out and, as you age and become less and less the target demographic for the music industry, more and more of the bands you like aren’t on the radio anymore.

To me, it seems a bit uncool to not be familiar with what’s on the radio. I mean…that’s the radio. How can you know anything about music if you don’t know what people like? I mean, you don’t need to like what you hear on the radio, but you should at least hear it on occasion.

But since all my friends out here are super cool, I think that my supposition is incorrect. Here, in the East Bay, amongst a certain age group, the radio is irrelevant.

I know, right? It’s like I’m summering on Mars.

(It’s also possible that this is true everywhere, but I just notice it more here because I have more friends here. I’ve certainly encountered people in DC who were too cool for the radio).

2 thoughts on “I’m starting to think that being familiar with the work of Ke$ha is not the cultural touchstone that I thought it was

  1. dustinadams

    True story:
    1. I do not receive a radio signal in my house. (I’m just too damn far from civilization.)
    2. My car does not have a CD player.
    3. When I drive, I listen to the radio.
    4. If I bought a CD player, I would stop listening to the radio, and that would make me more disconnected than I already am. I hear new music, new artists, and the goofy morning shows – on my radio. I’d miss that, and so, all fun poked at me is taken in stride. No, my car doesn’t have a CD player – and I’m cool with that.
    5. I know who Ke$sha is. I like her music – and I am not cool with that.

  2. mattllavin

    I think writing and music are pretty different in terms of how much coolness matters, at least to certain people. Sure, there’s uncool writing, but there isn’t the same cache in only being familiar with obscure authors, etc. Is there? Listening to music and reading books is a completely different level of time commitment – or it could be, if all you were interested in was listening widely. It somewhat sets you apart if you read a lot of books, but even pretty casual music enthusiasts listen to a lot of music. Music listening can also be a fairly passive experience.
    Delivery systems are a little different too… You have books and e-books (I’ll leave out audio books). Books may be similar to listening to music on vinyl (which is cool, I think??), but there aren’t the book equivalents to tape and CD (so, it isn’t like certain paper books are more “authentic” than other types of paper books), nor is there much difference in reading on paper versus reading on an electronic device, at least in terms of the quality of the experience – it’s not like the words are less legible, or translated less artfully in different formats. One of the downsides to radio is the poor quality of the listening experience, plus the advertising, which nowadays seems completely avoidable, on both fronts. What if bestsellers all had huge ads in them at every chapter break?

    I think you’re right about the early-life experience with radio/current popular music becoming more focused as you get older. But, isn’t scarcity part of what drives that coolness quotient of specialization with music? And isn’t the increase in access to obscure music affecting how rare it is to find interesting music outside the mainstream? So I wonder how cool it is anymore to disregard popular music, especially with the diminished profile of the music industry in general in the last 10 (or more) years. Popular music isn’t even as popular as it once was, right?
    Even the most isolated teen in America can read reviews on Pitchfork, as long as they have an internet connection.
    Anyway, being cool is definitely not as cool as it used to be. 😉

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