Over Memorial Day weekend I helped staff a retreat for the high school students at my church. I've gotten to know several of them over the years, helping at junior high retreats or serving as a confirmation sponsor, that sort of thing. This retreat was somewhat accidental--for the youth director, a last-minute need for an extra adult male (and I am nothing if not extra adult), and for me, a weekend with no fixed plans. I took notes over the course of the weekend, I think about three blog posts' worth. Here's the first.
There was a time--I remember it--when part of the adventure of a road trip was finding something to listen to. You'd rock out to your favorite radio station till you got too far from home, then you'd scan frequencies, listening for something good. Along the way you'd learn bits and pieces about the region you were driving through: radio stations along the Canadian border report weather conditions in degrees celsius, not fahrenheit; the deep South has lots and lots of radio preachers; Iowa likes classic rock; and so on and so forth. Of course, you might have thought ahead and brought along your favorite 8-tracks or cassettes or CDs, but those were often last resorts. You were on a trek, both literally and sonically.
That time has come and gone. Having embraced the insights of Andy Crouch's Culture Making, I often think of the iPod as a cultural artifact, analyzing it through an anthropological grid. And one of the many implications of the shift in music culture from physical product to data file management is the end of the aural pilgrimage, that parallel auditory tourism described above that accompanied road trips of yesteryear. There was a time--I remember it--when a carload of travelers would scan the airwaves, looking for a coherent frequency broadcasting something intelligible to sing along to or be edified by. That time has come and gone. Now we hit the road searching for static.
We search for static because with supplemental technology the iPod can broadcast onto unused airwaves. Even this innovation is slightly outdated; my carload of kids was devastated to learn that I didn't have a USB port to plug their All American Rejects/Nickelback/Anberlin/Black Eyed Peas playlists directly into my car's sound system. Fortunately for them, one kid was used to such archaisms as a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT and had brought his port with him. We plugged it into the cigarette lighter, found sufficient static, and all of a sudden: "Boom Boom Pow."
I loathe the Black Eyed Peas, to be perfectly honest, and one of the kids in my car failed his weekend challenge to convince me that Nickelback has talent. I, meanwhile, had a carful of my own CDs, and it was my car, after all; but after I played one song from my archives I was evicted from the DJ's seat. I suspect there's something developmental about musical taste; some day far into the future one or more of these kids will probably be muttering under breath about the cookie-cutter noise that the adolescents in their lives are making them suffer through, about how they could stand a little exposure to the artistry of songs like "Peanut Butter Jelly Time." I think about that and laugh a little. But I hope I'm wrong about the death of the road trip listening tour. You don't necessarily find great rewards as you search unfamiliar airwaves, but there's reward in the searching, I think; and in any case, there's something pathetically postmodern about searching for static. I'll bet a preacher somewhere in the south is yelling about it right now.