Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Monday, October 02, 2006

I’ll fight like hell to hide that I’ve given up...

On his 2005 album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, two songs by Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst) mention waking up to songs playing on the clock radio: "Old Soul Song" and "Another Travelin’ Song."

"Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)":

Gray light new day leaks through the window.
Some old song comes on the alarm clock radio.
We walked the forty blocks to the middle
Of the place we heard that everything would be

...

We left before the dust had time to settle
And all the broken glass swept off the avenue
And on the way home, held your camera like a Bible
Just wishin’ so bad that it held some kind of truth

This ballad recounts the story of a skeptic tagging along with his friend to an anti-globalization protest. The friend is documenting the protest with a camera, trying to fix and record "some kind of truth." Such documentation is also the task of Oberst himself as lyricist of this story song, which documents and preserves the actions and emotional states of young protestors who wake up early in order to "walk the forty blocks to the middle." The skeptical narrator and his friend are equally isolated from the cohesive groups that have organized the protest--perhaps a typical experience?--and although the friend is a true believer, the narrator lacks confidence that the protest will achieve anything. But he woke up to an "Old Soul Song," and perhaps this allowed him to feel vaguely hopeful.

"Another Travelin’ Song":

...

Well I guess the best that I can do now is pretend that I’ve done nothing wrong
And dream about a train that’s gonna take me back where I belong

...

Well I dream of dark on the horizon, I dream the desert where the dead lay down
I dream of prostituted child touching an old man in a fast-food crowd
Oh yeah I dreamt the ship was sinking, there was people screaming all around
And I awoke to my alarm clock. It was a pop song, it was playin’ loud.

The music of this rollicking pop anthem, the musical equivalent of a road movie, contrasts strongly to the ethereal and pensive atmosphere of the previous song. (Meanwhile, the lyrics provide a precise counterpoint to the music.) But again, we find the device of waking up to a song on the radio. In this case, however, it’s a "pop song playin’ loud"--bad music, the precise opposite of the good music of the "Old Soul Song." The narrator goes to sleep frustrated at his inability to write. He hopes that sleep will bring inspiration, or at least forgiveness--he intends to dream about riding the Freedom Train, a journey to liberation, eternal love and redemption. But once he's asleep, all conscious volition goes out the window. Instead of healing, his dreams bring painful nightmares--terrifying, ugly phantasms that are awfully realistic: the despair of being able to see only "dark on the horizon," isolation and apocalypse in a barren land, poverty and sexual exploitation in a brightly commoditized and hellish shopping mall, and finally the desperate terror of a sinking ship--in other words, no release at all from his cage. We can read the pop song, the bad music, as the source of all this darkness.

I never used to wake up with a clock radio. I’m not sure why, but I think it might have something to do with fear. You see, when you wake up to music, the music enters your dreams and provokes them. I can’t consciously recall most of my dreams past the first three or four seconds after waking up. If it was a good dream, I can spend the next five minutes waking up to a vague, peaceful yearning as I try and fail to remember the lovely details of imaginary stories, histories, sensations—forgetting more than I can remember. The only ones that are strong enough to remember tend to be very dark. Then, I wake up sobbing about terror, death, and loss.

But beyond the unreliability of talk radio or NPR, radio music can hold even more danger for that fragile state between waking and sleeping. If I wake to a good song, maybe one like the Old Soul Song, my whole day can start well. But if a bad song pierces my subconscious, a song I really dislike--usually a pop song playin’ loud--I can wake up in a dark mood, starting the day off badly.

But no radio station programs all good songs. Nearly all FM radio stations seem determined to play bad songs most of the time, with an occasional good song to keep up our hopes for beauty and sweetness, to tempt us to keep listening. So our compromise has been to tune to a reliable station that programs its early morning slot to the exact same set of songs day after day, inserting new songs very slowly, month by month. That way, my subconscious can come to expect the bad song, and it’s less of a shock. Additionally, it predicts the next two or three songs, and forces me awake and into the shower before the really bad song comes on and ruins my mood.

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