Roma Alla Radio
y way of introduction: I've never been one to associate firmly with the concept of home. Some people would be pleased to never have to leave the house—not me. Though I've lived several places (some in comfort, some in dismay) and traveled as much as I've been able, my self-awareness has no solid geographical component. Perhaps this is why I've always been fascinated with airports, train stations, and the like—the in between spaces, if you will. An easy parallel can be drawn to my relationship with music. While most people seem to locate a set of musical coordinates (a band, a scene, a genre, what have you) and rest in them, the next exciting discovery is forever kicking me in the ass, even as I'm enjoying immensely whatever I'm hearing at the moment.
My earliest societal experiences were based around music—sharing it when I found a kindred spirit, retreating into it when those connections failed. Not that my sense of self-worth was, or is based on, music (that would be patently absurd), but I've often found it the uncompromising partner to my adventures, be they artistic or social. I consider myself an avowed lover of life, happy in each moment I'm given, even when I seem outwardly miserable. Without a concrete footing in time or space, I float through this world like a pilgrim of the soul, always seeking the next moment of ecstasy, never bound by the paltry demands of reality.
All of this changed for me two years ago. My life and all the wonders I'd been witness to became stale ashes in my mouth the moment my feet touched the cobbled streets of Roma. Amazement turned to love. Love turned to home. Here, at long last, was a place in which I could rest. A place that creates and destroys itself with each sunrise—yet improbably remains the same. As the famous line from Lampedusa's The Leopard would have it, "if you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." I find in Rome the thing that others find in whatever place it is they long for when they are away. It exists for me there precisely because it never allows one the arrogance of knowing. In Rome, one can only feel.
You can imagine, then, my sense of excitement and trepidation as I returned this February to a place I immediately and so fiercely connected with, as I have no other before or since. For most, a trip to the city of the Caesars means traipsing through ancient ruins, platefuls of bucatini all'Amatriciana, endless cups of caffe, and some of the greatest architecture, sculpture, and painting of the last 2000 years. For me, it's all of the above and a million things more, but above all else the chance to absorb and hopefully grow closer to my favorite living culture—not just the people themselves but their limitless love of life, communication, style and, most of all, music.
It's a well-worn cliche that Italian life (and especially Roman life, where the quirks of North and South meet) is a barely functional clash of extremes, self-contradictory in almost everything. Cars hurtle by at mad speeds, but rarely get irritated at others trying to cram into the same narrow spaces. People aggressively push through a store's entrance rather than queue, but are simultaneously polite about it. Life passes at a blinding pace, yet everyone seems to be taking it easy. Image and style are regarded as things of great importance, but matters of friendship and the heart are always placed above mere appearances. This same balance of opposites holds true in the Italian approach to music. It's a place deeply in love with American and British artists, yet unswerving in its dedication to homegrown singers and bands; a world where dance and hip-hop are huge, but the largest record stores have jazz and classical sections as large and well-browsed as ones of those genres.
This trip, much more so than the last, I was an acute observer of the musical landscape: record stores, flyers, club nights, live bands, street musicians, the tiny car with its nodding driver hurtling down Via Vittorio blasting Eurohouse bangers. But above all, the radio rules supreme. Not only in the ubiquitous Bars (what we would call cafes), clothing shops, pizza joints, and taxis, but even in Metropoli Rock (my favorite Roman record store), the steady pulse of the dozens of local radio stations is your constant companion. Dance, pop, Latin, hip-hop and Italian singers provide the mainstays, but it's the constant juxtaposition of styles and the disregard for timeliness that make listening to the radio here such an event, incomparable to its mundane American equivalent.
My first taste of the madness of Italian radio programming came the very first night I stayed in Rome, two years ago. Wandering from our hotel in the east side of the city, we came upon a small trattoria, where we ordered a huge Pizza Margherita for our party of six and drank frizzante mineral water and a modicum of indifferent white wine. Exhausted from the plane ride and exuberant from the natural wonder of my first time in Rome, I couldn't help but observe the seemingly haphazard selection of tunes playing above our heads. As we entered, a lesser-known Dean Martin tune brought a bit of a smirk to my face, but this was quickly followed by some fluffy Euro-pop, with a 60's bossa nova on its heels. After this, as our oversized pie made its way to the table, I made quite a show of talking very loudly in order to obscure the completely uncensored Ludacris track that followed the bossa (bear in mind I was with my parents, my grandmother, and my grandmother's sister).
This was when I began to realize how amazingly unhinged Italian radio is. My second experience came in a Bar in Sicily, where during the brief time we sat to eat arancine and sip caffe, we were treated to the Backstreet Boys, Frank Sinatra, Groove Armada, and Mary J. Blige. In the years in between our first trip and our second one, I thought often about this approach and how much more exciting it was than the genre-bound excursions of US radio. This time out, although we never left the Eternal City, my ears were alert to all the crazy transitions—Sean Paul into a cover of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" into "Stand By Me" sung in Italian; Franz Ferdinand's "Walk Away" into "Crying at the Discotheque" by Eurohouse mooks Alcazar into the Rolling Stones; a live version of Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again" into Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" into Ricky Martin and Daddy Yankee's "Drop It On Me" into Toto, and so on.
I must assume that the unknown programmers of Italian radio stations are free of the tedious restrictions that encumber our stateside broadcasts. Sure, there's a definite slant towards pop and dance music, with a hefty component of emotive vocal performances in English, Spanish, or Italian, but the overall codification into station-specific guidelines about genre and era are missing. It's as likely that the next song will be older or newer, from some completely different nationality, or in a very different style as it is that the pattern will continue.
Peter Cetera, Earth Wind and Fire, Giorgio Moroder, Sugababes, Ciara, Depeche Mode, Coldplay, INXS, Royksopp, that damn "Gasolina" song, and Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body." Jay-Z, 10cc, Juelz Santana, All-4-One, Alda's "Girls Night Out," and friggin' Coldplay again. Whether I enjoyed each selection or hated it is hardly the point—I found it impossible not to listen attentively as one ended and the other began, simply because I could never predict what it would be. Not only in its disregard for genre, but also in its lack of concern for timeliness—a hit from two or five or ten or thirty years ago is as fair game as anything currently burning up the charts. It's the use of the radio as it must have originally been intended—a sort of magic box that plays an endless random variety of material with very little rhyme or reason.
Channel surfing where I live (Virginia) is an utter bore in contrast : new country, crap R&B, some preacher chattering, Korn, more new country. Even the local "freeform" college station (which I DJ for) is predictable in its division of programming into classical, folk, jazz, and (indie) rock. This is just my little theory, mind, but part of what might be so exciting about radio in Italy (and thus why it's heard so much more in public places than it is in America) is not only that it still promises surprises, but also that the broader scope allows for a greater variety of reactions in a much larger body of listeners. Tuning in to Italian radio, both while I was there and now via the miracle of the internet, enabled me to discover a number of songs that I hadn't realized I enjoyed. I can't remember the last time that happened to such a degree with domestic broadcasts.
Despite the protestations of Billboard and the recent poll in Rolling Stone, most people I know barely bother with radio anymore. I might be jumping the gun, but part of this problem could very well be that people, despite what they might say, don't actually want to hear specific genres of music. They just want to listen to some music. Canada has recently had a great deal of success with a format called "Bob" (or some other typical dude name), which juxtaposes hit songs from any and all genres and eras of music, clearly owing a great deal to the European model. This concept has begun to encroach on the US markets, and its lesson is an apt one in the age of Now compilations and the iPod shuffle, one which seems to have already been learned overseas.
Music is music. Don't try to sell it to us. Just play it for us.