I've been listening to Live Through This by Hole and Where You Been by Dinosaur Jr. A lot over the past week or two as a sort of soundtrack to my reading of this book. The Dinosaur Jr. I used to listen to with a friend in high school. I’m sure I heard Doll Parts at some point in college (if not I’d certainly heard it since), but the rest of the album was mostly new to me. The media perception of Courtney Love is of a trainwreck. Of course I knew she had been with Kurt Cobain, and had substance abuse problems. My strongest memory of her had been her appearance on a Comedy Central roast, which did not show her at her best. But reading this book and listening to the album, I’ve realized that she was a major artist and was incredibly meaningful to people. An icon. That she was important to Sarah Vowell at the time comes through in Radio On, a diary of her listening to and musing on radio content throughout 1995. Cobain’s death was very much on her mind as well, and in that sense it’s a firsthand account of the same emotions that pushed Nick Hornby to write About a Boy. I first read Vowell during my mammoth project to read a biography of every American President in order to get a better grasp of American history. That was a good tactic. I may not know as much as I should about history, and certainly not as much as Vowell, but I know much more than I did before. Because I was interested in presidents, I read Assassination Vacation and later because I liked Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates. I thought of her as a funny historian. Sort of what would happen if David Sedaris was obsessed with presidential assassinations. I either didn’t know, or had forgotten that she got her start as a rock critic.
In 1995, I was a conservative, largely apolitical Christian in my freshman and sophomore years in college. This was probably just before I made the ill-conceived choice to only listen to Christian music, which decision lasted a little over half a decade. Now, as a left leaning agnostic, I look back on those times with mixed feelings. I was not a phony about my faith at the time. I was fully on board. Even that sentence betrays something, though. I was very concerned with authenticity of faith, with strong emotion about it. I was critical of Christians who didn’t share my priorities. Even then I thought the whole “witness to everyone” stance was mostly phony, even as I was convinced of my worldview. That critical stance, which in some ways was as much about aesthetics as it was about morality and religion, seen from my current vantage point, was what made reading Radio On such a surreal experience. Vowell was also raised in a religious family, though she abandoned the faith much earlier in life than I did. As a rock critic, she was much more plugged into the conversation about music than I was in the mid-90’s. She had unflinching opinions. She was very snarky about Counting Crows (strongly disagree), The Grateful Dead (no opinion), Spin Doctors (couldn’t agree more) and even Bruce Springsteen (I’m mostly confused). She loved Nirvana and Hole. Much of that criticism came from what reads as an authenticity argument. I’m the heretic who likes Counting Crows much better than Nirvana.* So I suspect that Vowell would have hated me, or at least my musical taste back then. But her stance on those bands was similar to mine on others. I was probably insufferable if you got me talking about the relative merits of Rich Mullins**, Poor Old Lu or The Prayer Chain versus what I saw as the execrable music of say, Michael W. Smith or DC Talk. My arguments were largely from a similar combination of aesthetics and how authentic I thought the artists were. So, despite the completely different targets, I felt a kinship with the stance that Vowell took when discussing those bands.
The book works as a time capsule, and took me back to that time in my life in palpable, if conflicting, ways. I was obsessed with authenticity, but my worldview has, in the intervening decades, changed in ways that would confuse and trouble my younger self. And despite my switch to only Christian music, a lot of this music was just around and I heard it. Cobain’s death hovers in the background of the whole book. So does the beginnings of Courtney Love’s meltdown/her becoming the target of ridicule. In the latter’s case, there certainly seems to be some self inflicted damage, but you can clearly see that a lot of what was thrown at her was bullshit. Vowell also expresses love for the music of Elvis (I’m ambivalent), They Might Be Giants (one of my favorites) and Jonathan Richman (who, like Hole, I discovered through this book) from whose song Roadrunner Vowell takes her title. This book is very much a product of the pre-Poptimism era. There are a lot of artists that are products of what I definitely, and I suspect Vowell probably, would have in the 90’s considered completely phony, cookie cutter, corporate garbage that have been fully embraced by the critical community in the past decade or so. I have mixed feelings about this. I’ve largely come around to the idea that someone like Justin Timberlake can make a masterpiece album, but they usually still aren’t for me. But I think that’s a Gen-X obsession with authenticity to which I have a more complicated relationship now.
At the time, I was largely apolitical. I thought in firmly religious terms. So I don’t know what I would have made of this book then. Vowell is a master of well placed snark. One of the main targets of that is Rush Limbaugh. She saw, even in ‘95, the potential danger of his rise to prominence, a prediction which seems, in the age of Trump, completely justified. I didn’t realize that G. Gordan Liddy, one of the Watergate conspirators, also had a popular radio show in the 90s, and she exhibits a deep unease about him as well. In talking about these things, Vowell’s writing seems prescient, but also angry and anxious in a way that is startlingly similar to online discourse now, though Vowell is much funnier and a much better writer. This triggers two thoughts for me. One, Trump is the end point, or at least the culmination of a movement that’s been going for nearly fifty years. Two, the country has always been divided; social media amplifies this, but didn’t create it. That I find myself on the other side of that division 25 years on is a mystery. I didn’t think in political terms then, but my 1995 self would not recognize me at all.
Vowell is also critical of NPR while grudgingly admitting it was the best alternative at the time. It felt like another musical argument familiar to any Gen-Xer: I liked them before they sold out and lost their edge. She felt that NPR had once been vital and important and become completely bland. She did see some hope in the form of Ira Glass and David Sedaris. She really loved their pieces. She was especially critical of All Things Considered. She admitted the irony that some of her subsequent This American Life pieces appeared on that show in her forward to the second edition. A Prairie Home Companion was American Public Media, not NPR, but Garrison Keilor really bothered her. She just couldn’t take the folksiness. And she returns to him often in the book. I’m mostly ambivalent towards him, but I do remember a random sentence he said once that has really stuck with me and actually contributed to my shifting worldview. As an almost throwaway line in a story I caught during the brief time I tried to listen to Prairie Home companion he said something to the effect that he had “long given up being the arbiter of other people’s morals.”
In the age of the podcast, a book about radio might seem quaint. But Radio On is funny, prescient, trenchant, and authentic. It’s very much a Gen-X book. There’s so much more to it than I covered here. I really loved it.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 19/75
*I had a conversation about this a year or two ago with a friend who didn’t agree about this at all. He talked about how dangerous Nirvana seemed and how safe Counting Crows did. But I came from a family in which Mr. Nanny starring Hulk Hogan was too edgy, so I think it’s safe to say that Counting Crows felt plenty dangerous to me.
**While I would have had a hard time admitting it at the time, Mullins wrote some truly crap songs (Higher Education and the Book of Love). But at his best he was a poet and certainly came across as more authentic and less flashy than the crowd of artists he was mostly associated with. I still listen to A Liturgy A Legacy and a Ragamuffin band occasionally. And songs from other albums like The Howling, The Love of God or We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are still resonate with me despite the fact I no longer share the worldview.