I eased the car onto our street just as the song on the radio changed. Light noodling on the frets, towering mega-drums like a clock with giant arms ticking away the seconds. Ballad-beat, mopey guitar riff. Lena said: “Oh my God, yes,” and turned it up.
I didn’t even have time to ask, “What is this?” before the dual vocals—both the faceless lead singer’s and my radio-loving girlfriend’s—slipped into the lyrics: I’m not a perfect perrr-son.
Me: still no clue. Lena: fucking into it. Like, clenched fists and closed eyes. Like, three-beer bucket-seat karaoke. Soon enough she took a breath to tell me it was “Hoobastank, HELLO,” but it didn’t really matter. I was already sold. She didn’t know the second verse nearly as well as the first, but by the third chorus I had learned the words enough to belt along. By now we had parked and were just sitting in the car in front of our apartment in the middle of the night, reveling in what I was certain was my new favorite bad song. Making faces, using our hands, really glamming it up. The kicker: this was just a few days ago, right at the tail-end of 2014, meaning this song was very officially old. Where had I been ten years ago? Why hadn’t I ever heard this song? As an old friend of mine likes to say: who hurt me?
In 2004, when “The Reason” was (apparently) enjoying its time chewing through just about all contenders on Top 40 radio, I was spending the little time I spent in cars getting rides to and from school soundtracked by Led Zeppelin and The Killers. My older sister had the license and the wheels, the classic rock and Hot Fuss, and besides, I wouldn’t have given two hoots about the radio dial even if I were an owl. I was already a year into my teenaged record-store job, which meant a year into my music education, which meant the only education that ever really mattered to me. When we pulled away from home listening to “Mr. Brightside” or “Kashmir” for the umpteenth time, I wasn’t itching to catch the new Hooba—I was humming “I Wanna Be Your Dog” under my breath. And not Iggy: the live Sonic Youth version. Yeah, I was that cool.
So I completely missed “The Reason” when everyone sane was quickly tiring of “The Reason.” But the beautiful thing about the radio is that it works just like a clogged bathtub drain, and anything you thought you were finally done with will eventually just come back up again. It’s why the best stations are the ones with tags like The best of the nineties, 2k, and today! Mostly, what they mean is the “today” part, but when those nineties and 2k jams come seeping through the pipes, you remember why, even though you’d never admit it, not really, you still can’t live without your radio.
LL Cool J knew this right from the start. At 17, he was already sure he couldn’t survive without his radio. He believed it so much that he called his first album Radio, put a ghetto blaster on the cover, and professed his love for the ‘waves right there on side one, track one. He went on Soul Train and performed his first smash hit—Kangoled, tracksuited—with a man on stage whose job it was to simply stand there and hold a big radio. Clearly, this shit went deep with young Todd James.
And why shouldn’t it have? By age 16, LL was already making demo tapes in his grandparents’ basement, which meant he was into music in a major way, and in 1984, what was music? Unless you could afford to go to clubs every night, it was the radio. And DJs, remember, were disc jockeys before they were He’s-the-DJ-I’m-the-Rapper DJs: spinning singles, digging for new hits, dictating every young person’s every afternoon. They were already rock stars before they found out how to be musicians, too.
So what else would LL possibly think to rap about besides his radio? It was his own personal daily soundtrack, his aphrodisiac, his connection to superstardom. And yeah, maybe it doesn’t seem like the most hardcore subject, but the guy’s still a teenager, and radio’s still good. Like deep-cuts, taste-making, kinda-dangerous good. “Don’t mean to offend other citizens,” LL rap-apologizes, “but I kick my volume way past ten.” Does he really mean not to offend, I’ve sat and wondered? I doubt it. Otherwise, what’s the point of taking it past ten at all?
I don’t often think of myself as a very talented person outside of very specific, very unsexy tasks (washing dishes, serving a ping-pong ball, etc.), but I have always thought I would make a great radio DJ. I know, deep down, that the reality of the job is different, but in my mind, if you’re doing it right, DJing is basically just putting together glorified mixtapes. You pick a song, feel out the next one, then the next, taking listeners up hills, around corners, then down again at just the right moment. You can hold a CD, a hard drive, grooved wax in your hands, but music itself is not a tangible romance. It’s a feeling dependent on who’s playing it, when you’re hearing it, what it leads to when it’s over. Excuse the sentiment, but it’s kind of...everything, in a way.
I’ve only had my chance at the controls once, when I was a senior in high school. I was visiting my older friend and bandmate at college, and he had been given the reigns over the university station’s graveyard shift, midnight to six, all pitch-black hours with a listenership of approximately nil. We took the opportunity that I think anyone in our situation—young, geeking out, in a noise-rap band—would have, and played lots of our own stuff, taking turns nodding out briefly on the studio’s busted loveseat. In between the narcissism, though, we studied the racks (all CDs, by this point), giddy with control, settling on our favorite songs by college-rock gods and demigods: They Might Be Giants (“She’s an Angel”) and the Pixies (“U-Mass”) and “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You.” I had played live music for crowds plenty of times by this point in my life, but this was different. We were cracking bad jokes and pushing the sound effects buttons more than was probably kosher, being dumb and passing along the music we loved to the uninitiated masses. Everything I had heard and assumed turned out to be true: I felt like a rock star. Or a superhero. The radio was power, even without a soul waiting on the other side.
So why have music nerds turned their backs on the radio? It’s kind of a rhetorical question, I guess. Homogenization, monopolies, the Internet, suits in the studios. Duh.
And yet, the magic’s still there, isn’t it? Even on Top 40 stations, even between the syndicated Seacrest banter. There’s still stuff you’ve never heard before, songs you forgot you loved, ones you could have sworn you hated. And certain aspects of it, yes, are still supremely weird. LL Cool J’s teenaged love letter to the radio might have helped launch hip hop’s biggest label 30 years ago, but that they would later sign a band seriously called Hoobastank and use that same medium to shove mediocre rock down your throat isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Don’t blame it on Radio, and don’t blame it on the radio. It’s just music, after all, and music is nothing if not democratic.
It’s important to recognize that on that same side one, track one, LL never once signifies what kind of tunes his specific radio was cranking out. He says “I’m a hip-hop gangster, and my name is Todd,” but that could mean anything. Just because he’s a hip-hop gangster doesn’t mean he listened exclusively to hip-hop stations. I like to think his love for the radio went deeper than that. I like to think he knew just where to turn the dial to find all the good stuff. The honky tonk, the cock rock, the gospel that got him that much closer to his grandmother. If he really couldn’t live without his radio, then he knew it front and back, and I totally get that. It’s a machine that feeds on all the best parts of humanity: nostalgia, discovery, total geekdom. What’s not to love? Why would you ever want to live without it?