The music was the easy part last week in Philadelphia at Non-Comm, a four-day convention for non-commercial radio. Acts I am familiar with were playing on The World Café stage, a music show syndicated by National Public Radio: The Wood Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Angélique Kidjo. Some I sorta knew, like Courtney Barnett, a charmingly dark Australian whose new album I can easily imagine making my Top 10 list this year. And there was a lot of music that was… well…
Well, Starcrawler. An LA glam band fronted by a skin-and-bones blonde wearing a hospital gown and silver-sequined jock strap, spitting blood and rolling her eyes back into her head, looking like Courtney Love possessed by Ozzy Osbourne. At the end of Starcrawler’s final song, she bolted off the stage, jumped on the bar, flipped open a beer tap, sucked in a mouthful of beer, leaped to the floor while spitting beer, ran past me and out the door. I was impressed. This was what I came for.
Otherwise, as a longtime print-media guy, I wasn’t sure I was fitting in. The final panel of the convention was a Non-Comm tradition, “The Music Meeting.” Maybe a minute and a half of a new song is played, an eternity in radio, then everyone holds up a card, rating the music from 1 to 10. Ten being great. And a microphone is passed around, with a half-dozen radio programmers and DJs and label reps commenting on what they’d just heard.
I gave a 9 to the first song, by a Japanese-born woman now living in the U.S., Mitski. I liked the idea she presented in the first few seconds, about opening your window and listening to humanity. A lot of the radio people gave Mitski’s song a high rating as well.
As the session went on, I handed out a lot of 1s and a few 9s. I liked some of the new soul music; The Black Pumas got a 9. The War and Treaty got a 9, even though I thought the mix was lacking in energy, but the song felt like it would be great live.
Yet the room was speaking a different language than I do. I heard someone mention “web metrics,” or how a song is registering with internet listeners, which to me is a measurement that takes no account of artistry. Some people talked about how they often couldn’t make out the lyrics, but most of the chatter seemed to not be about the meaning of the words, but was approval for beats and rhythm.
I heard the guy next to me quietly groan. It was Mike Black, radio program director at WXXI and WRUR in Rochester. I assumed he was reacting to something someone had just said. But no, he had his laptop open and was scrolling through the news. “Another school shooting,” he said. “In Houston.”
A few minutes later, we were listening to a new song. Virtually the entire room seemed to immediately recognize it. People started holding up their cards, 10, before we were 20 seconds into it. I waited until the music faded away, and held up my 10.
It was Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” The song so many people are talking about now, along with its beautiful and startlingly shocking video. Words and images, in which its creator – his real name is the rapper, actor, director, dancer and comedian Donald Glover – seem to be suggesting that this country is too casual, too unresponsive, too desensitized, to the violence and shallowness of our society. Danger that we can’t outrun, as we see Glover running in the darkness, eyes wide in terror, in the final moments of the video.
Yes, now virtually everyone in the room agreed, this was music that absolutely must be heard. At that moment, although I doubt many people in the room were aware of the news yet, 10 students and teachers were newly dead, 12 more wounded, in Santa Fe, Texas, not far from Houston.
“Challenge your audience,” a woman in the audience told the room. “We’re bored sometimes.”
The microphone was handed to another woman. “It was two years ago I gave a shit about offending our conservative listeners,” she said. “That time is over. Fuck those guys.”
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