“By 1995, Clear Channel owned 43 radio stations and 16 television stations. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law, the act deregulated media ownership, allowing a company to own more stations than previously allowed. Clear Channel went on a subsequent buying spree, purchasing more than 70 other media companies and individual stations.”
Man, this Ben Howard guy. When I first heard his voice through phone speakers I immediately wanted to dislike him. Him and his 9 million views. I know, that’s not fair. But hear me out.
I grew up in the age of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that quietly bought up an enormous market share, fired all the independent DJs, and replaced them with pre-recorded patter and standardized set-lists. These set-lists consisted of whatever media executives paid them the most to play. Subtly, carefully, without alerting the public that the game had changed, this single corporation neutered and homogenized radio music across vast swaths of the United States, for profit.
Fuck them so much. Seriously.
Clear Channel and their ilk are the reason an entire generation was subjected to bands like Creed and Nickleback. Bands nobody asked for and nobody liked, but who had clever and wealthy management, and were bland enough not to rile any focus groups. Instead of the steady diet of Lou Reed and David Bowie we should have been getting, what we got instead were pre-paid formula songs, selected by empty suits, that then played constantly in the dentist’s office while we read Highlights magazine and waited to get our teeth cleaned.
The local Clear Channel puppet in my time was Lite 97 FM — Cursed be their name. By the time I hit puberty I had already heard a lifetime’s worth of samey musical mush, all of it polished to a shiny nub of inoffensive nothing and poured down the ears of an undiscriminating audience. Hell, I was part of that audience. The radio was where you heard music, that’s just how it was. That’s how it had been since humans first harnessed the airwaves. How was I supposed to know the DJs were dead?
My childhood was a dark time for music. The period between the demise of the DJs, and the rise of the internet was rough, and music didn’t mean much to me as a kid, not really. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of polished plastic trash. That top 40 shite, for both the suits and the musicians, is all about making money — about “making it“ — it’s not about making art. The ongoing commercial success of these people and their barren dreams and hollow ambitions really upsets me. Can you tell?
It doesn’t upset me so much that they are rewarded — I mean fuck them, I really don’t care if they live in a cardboard box or an island mansion, as long as I never have to interact with them — it upsets me because in pursuit of personal profit they’re stripping something gorgeous from the world. They’re stripping honest art from the casual lives of people; leaving them to suffer without its solace. Life is hard enough. Stop fucking doing that.
So I heard this Ben Howard guy, all polished and professional and what not, and I figured, hell, more studio-executive-approved-focus-group-pandering turd music. And I shook my fist and got on with my life. But for some reason I came back to this one. Despite that initial reaction, I found myself coming back for that melody, that guitar, and I brought headphones this time and, oh.
Then I found myself sitting at my desk, trying to learn it, discovering it’s in this weird tuning — some sort of open D, tuned down a step, then brought back up with a capo. I couldn’t get it to sound right, so I stopped. Bah. But then
I was in the kitchen late at night, cooking a bachelor’s midnight dinner, and found myself listening to it again. Aw, man, it’s pretty, I thought, but it’s really sad. And I was standing there all lonely, late at night with headphones on, listening to this guy sing and cooking these really somber scrambled eggs, when the guitar started to pick up. And then suddenly I was dancing around the kitchen, smiling like an idiot, while my eggs sizzled in silence. He really got me good, that guy.
So fuck Clear Channel, still, always and forever, but this isn’t about them, not really. And it isn’t about Ben Howard, or making money, or “making it,” either. It’s about expectations, and art, and lonely scrambled eggs. It’s about being sad, and listening to a song.
“Tell me, who am I
darling, to you?”