road

My truck doesn’t have satellite radio or any fancy external hookups. And I’d have nothing to hook it up to anyway. If I want music while driving, it’s FM radio or nothing. And I love it. I love the lack of unnecessary choice, the delight of a random surprise. I love that the radio forces me to expand my horizons.

Last night, as I was driving north on Route 77, just outside of Tucson, I accidentally tuned into the very beginning of a live broadcast of the 53rd Annual Country Music Awards on FM 99.5. The signal was crystal clear and I nearly lost my shit with excitement.

I used to hate country music. It was a hate based on ignorance, which is the worst kind of hate. As a general life rule, if you find yourself hating something (or someone) you haven’t spent time with - check yourself. It’s not a good look. And it’s usually your loss.

I started to love country music because I had no choice. Across rural America, it’s often the only music that comes through, and over the course of the last year, I’ve listened to hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of it. I know all of the big names, the legends, and the up-and-comers. Thomas Rhet, Luke Combs, and Kenny Chesney, for example, all have their own twang. I can tell ‘em apart in an instant. I know all the words to all the top hits. And I’ve been hearing the buzz about the CMAs for weeks.

So when I heard Carrie Underwood bantering with co-hosts Dollie Parton and Reba McEntire, I pulled over, immediately, into the desert, climbed into my camper, and tuned in with a radio that cost me a few quarters at a thrift store. I knew it would come in handy one day. I usually prefer absolute silence at night so I can hear the sounds of nature. But if I’m going to party, I’m going to party right, so I poured myself a finger of Johnny Walker Red and settled in.

For two and a half hours - yes, two and a half hours - I sat there, rapt, listening to the entire broadcast, advertisements and all. It was wonderful. I knew from a million miles away that Blake Shelton was going to win best single for “God’s Country” and that Marin Morris’s “Girl” was a shoe-in for best album. I said my predictions out loud, cheers’d myself when I was right, and shucks‘d when I was wrong. And, of course, I bobbed along with the live performances. “Crazy Beautiful,” was, in fact, crazy beautiful. So too was Sheryl Crow’s Janis Joplin, Halsey with Lady Antebellum, Kasey Musgraves with Willie Nelson. I really didn’t want Garth Brooks to win the big award, but fuck it, Dive Bar’s pretty fun, a head-bopper, and country music is all about legacy, paying respect to the elders. So be it.

Years ago, when I had a smartphone, I had Spotify. Looking back, I know exactly how and why it sucked. (Proud technologists, please hold your horses. I don’t need to be told why Spotify is good and helpful. I get that part. We all do. I’m trying to dig a little deeper. Or sideways, actually.) Basically, I always listened to the same shit, or I told the Spotify robot what “mood” to give me and it gave me exactly what I thought I wanted. But that’s precisely the problem. We don’t always know what we want. Nobody on the planet needs as much Arcade Fire as I used to think I wanted, and “Arcade Fire radio” was only a hair better. These days, when I hear “Losing my Religion” or “Silver Springs” on the radio, I go buckwild, because I hear these songs monthly instead of daily, which is significantly more appropriate. It’s a blessing.

This morning, I read an excellent article that Robert Silverman wrote for The Outline: “Cable Television Was Perfect And We Ruined It.” In it, Silverman hammers on the choice paradox as it relates to streaming TV. The piece covers a lot of interesting terrain, and yet it still feels like it’s barely scratching the surface. It got me really fired up. After all, this is a topic that has consumed me for years. (This blog post actually started as a comment. At a certain point I realized I was ten paragraphs into a rant about country music and so - oops - a blog post was born.)

I’m simultaneously excited and concerned that us media folks (journalists, writers, tech people) are only starting to develop the proper vocabulary to discuss this problem. I practically laughed out loud when Silverman ended with a nod to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s the Hail Mary, a way of rounding out an idea without actually going there yourself. I literally did the exact same thing in The Importance of Being Earnest About Screentime

What Silverman and I are effectively saying: We’re not taking this on. Wallace already did. He went there. And it’s profoundly dark. So just go read Infinite Jest if you want to know what we’re talking about.

And it’s true - the problem is as complex as Infinite Jest is dense. Beyond the paradox of choice, there is the issue of the medium itself. There is the issue of addiction. Discipline. There’s some benefit, sometimes, to sticking with audio even when you can have audio and video, but there’s no universal rule about when and why that happens. Dolly Parton minus the image of boobs isn’t better or worse, it’s just entirely different. Last night, she felt more to me like an artist and less like a commodity. When she sang the Jesus-y medley starting with “God Only Knows,” it was, like, sanctified. Downright holy.

Radio makes a wonderful sound. And I actually enjoyed the little fuckups in the broadcast. At one point, something borked, and I enjoyed ten seconds of pure silence. It was perhaps louder than anything else that I heard the entire night, like needles coming in from all sides. Naturally, I thought of Simon and Garfunkle. I also thought, Oh no - what if it doesn’t come back on?! And then, just when I felt the loss, it returned and I rejoiced - truly, deeply. Meanwhile, there was the light from a single candle dancing on the table and the ceiling - what a drishti.

All media is sacred, so long as you treat it that way. (That’s why I sometimes want to tell people not to read my writing unless they’re really paying attention, but I usually manage to catch myself before saying such an embarrassing thing.) I often forget that. That’s why so many of my conversations devolve into a really unhealthy place where I’m bitching about how YouTube melts your brain and Rachel Maddow makes you stupid. Those statements are definitely partially true. But they’re probably more false than they are true. And regardless, this is why I’m trying (I promise you I’m trying!!) to shift to a new tone of voice. Because, ultimately, I’m optimistic about the future of media. I think the tide is turning.

It helps me to remember that in my early 20s I dedicated entire Sundays to getting fantastically stoned with my housemates, blinds pulled down, to eat White Castle and watch absolute garbage reality TV in the dark. And here’s the crazy rub: It was healthy in a fucked up way. I swear to God it made me feel good. It was what I needed.

With that weird outburst out of the way, let’s return to a less disturbing scene. A few months ago, I wrote about how good showers feel when you don’t take so many showers. One of my friends left this absolutely beautiful comment:

It doesn’t matter what the road to appreciation is - or what the thing being appreciated is - it’s somehow getting to that place where the wonder almost anything can engender seeps around the edges of our perpetual distraction.

Wow, friend! That comment is itself a wonder! It’s so true that it doesn’t matter what the thing even is. I can be obsessed with country music and still know that it kind of sucks. The lyrics are painfully heteronormative and borderline infantile. Blind faith in Jesus abounds. And everyone’s obsessed with booze and tractors. When listening to country, I often think: These people seriously need some distance from their parents.

At it’s worst, country music even sometimes seems rapey. But for every blacked out Luke Bryan, literally running around ripping dresses off women, there’s a bashful bro who can’t make a move, and when the male sensitivity comes through, it actually seems to matter. Chris Lane’s “I Don’t Know About You,” opens with the admission that the singer never walks up to beautiful women. “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” by Thompson Square offers a scene that’s so sensitive it’s borderline lame. The singer is “so shy” that he ends up sitting with this chick who has to say to him outright: “I think you know I like you a lot / But you’re ‘bout to miss your shot / Are you gonna kiss me or not?”

Ultimately, I think I loved the CMAs so much because there was literally nothing else for me to do. Nowhere to go and nothing to plug into, except my own thoughts. That’s been really key for me. I don’t mind flirting with boredom when the upside is that I can see and feel and hear that strange and elusive state of wonder that my friend was commenting about.

During their performance last night, it was either Brooks or Dunn who said something so juicy, so perfect, that it felt like a miracle that I happened to have a pen in my hand and a journal by my side. I wrote it down immediately. And, this morning, with my coffee, I got to experience the rush all over again. The rush of recognition, of shared experience. Someone else knows how I feel:

“I can’t get ahead no matter how hard I try. But I’m getting really good at barely getting by.”