Monday, September 24, 2012

Seeing and hearing: Radio and TV in modern culture via Frightened Rabbit's Old, Old Fashioned

Finished reading Jonathan Sterne's excellent book The Audible Past yesterday. Sometimes, in particular works, there are chapters or sections that are well worth the time to be read again and again. The conclusion to Audible Past lands squarely in this category. While effectively wrapping up the entire work, the conclusion also raises additional questions and areas for additional study. One of the more memorable bits in this conclusion is Sterne's examination of the relationship of the metaphors of sight and hearing, especially in Western language and thought. After finishing up this book where the relationship of sound and vision were very much on my mind, my daughter and I were hanging out listening to Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight. The fifth song on this album is Old, Old Fashioned and the lyrics fit particularly well into the thinking about the relationship between sound, , sound reproduction, bodies and media that Sterne has explored throughout the book. So, largely for fun, here's an exegesis of FR's Old, Old Fashioned's lyrics and its connection to listening, sound reproduction and culture.

The first four verses w/ chorus are below with all lyrics available here:

I'll turn off the TV
It's killing us we never speak
There's a radio in the corner
It's dying to make us see

So give me soft, soft static
With a human voice underneath
And we can both get old fashioned
Put the brakes on these fast, fast wheels

Oh let's get old fashioned
Back to how things used to be
If I get old, old fashioned
Would you get old, old fashioned with me?

Put the wall clock in the top drawer
Turn off the lights so we can see
We will waltz across the carpet

So give me the soft, soft static
Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet
We can both get old fashioned
Do it like they did in '43

In the first verse, the act of turning off the TV is turning off a host of other voices and images that interfere with the song's protagonists' own conversation(s).  The speaking of the TV versus the act of having a conversation with the ensuing or desired destruction or silencing of the TV is a popular trope within Western culture. This trope holds that destroying your TV is in the best interests of the individual and his/her relationships. (Good examples can be found by googling kill your tv.) Because we are so easily distracted by the combination of moving images and audio, our conversation cannot transcend or push back that of the TV unless it is turned off.
However something needs to replace the TV as a medium to draw people together. Thus the radio, drawing deeply on the nostalgia of the radio as a centralizing, community-building entity is called upon; see Norman Rockwell illustrations of listeners gathered around the radio. Additionally, turning off moving images forces the erstwhile viewers to look at each other, hence the radio " dying to make us see". Note that the radio which projects no images but only sound is a better conduit of sight because it connect the listeners with, presumably, a better understanding of the real world through personal conversation and interaction. There is the subtext that sound/image are difficult, if not impossible to traverse in conversation but sound only can be pushed into the background so that conversation can be foreground. Additionally, the radio's "soft, soft static" pushes back against the hyper-edited, HD-obssessed TV viewing. The radio as a media object that receives and interprets particular waves, in fact would be useless without those waves, also, in this context, functions as a communicative medium that reconnects two individuals. The chorus's desire to get "old fashioned" and "back to how things used to be" refers not only to the removal of interfering media (TV) but also the restoration of the relationships between the protagonist and his audience. Nostalgia is drawn on heavily here, while nostalgia is often for a falsely remembered golden age, in the case of this relationship the couple is well able to relive their previous relationship by reducing the relationship back to what mattered, time together.
Both verse one and verse three make entreaties to re-enabling the ability to see by the means of listening. The radio in verse one is "...dying to make us see" while verse three asks to "Turn off the lights so we can see". The joint juxtaposition of opposites is mirrored in both verses. Where verse one calls for sound to cause the listeners to see, verse three sees turning off the lights, which mirrors turning off the TV-also light-emitting,calls for the absence of light to cause the individuals see each other. While normally we seek to "shed light on a matter" in this case the reduction of light allows or helps to foster reconnection. Presumably the parallelism between the TV's light and the room's light are both or have been distracting enough to warrant their dimming.
It's particularly interesting in the third verse that time is stuffed into a drawer. Where watching TV kills time or is accused of doing so, here time is deliberately taken in hand to be disregarded until further notice. Rather than wasting time, time is gathered up and subjected to the listener's control in defiance of its passing. Sterne suggests that "In bourgeious modernity sound recording becomes a way to deal with time....moderntiy being assumed to assure the perpetiuty of cages, the constanty of upheaval and transformation. But the sound recording itself also embodies fragmented time. It offers a little piece of repeatable time within a carefully bounded frame." (p. 310) Time now only exists for the listener based on the length of the song. Also, the repeatable time is not only the possibility of replaying a particular favorite song but also attempting to recreate "how things used to be".
The fourth verse re-emphasizes the importance of made sound rather than relying on outside, edited or delivered sound. The singer asks "give me the soft, soft static/ Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet" The human or organic aspects of the radio static is mirrored in the static created by the interactions of the listeners in and with their environment. The fire is a real fire, not a fake one on TV. Not only is the static generated by dancing feet, but also the static is generated by bodies moving together and over physical surfaces. Since the TV is off there is not danger of vicariously living through the dancing of others. The dance is itself the old-fashioned waltz which is both a way of marking the time signature of a piece (waltz time-3/4-tying back to repeatable and controllable time) and performing an fairly dated dance style.
Sterne, in his conclusion emphasizes the importance of sound culture to our modern way of living. "...we must first recognize that there is a domain of significant and connected questions surrounding the social life of sound in all its manifestations." (p. 348) The enjoyment of sound, via the radio, between two people is deliberately contrasted between the isolation of TV (image/sound) even while being watched by two people. What struck me in playing around this idea and listening is that this song, Old, Old Fashioned, becomes the song playing on the radio. Old, Old Fashioned is itself a waltz and while the lyrics presume a slightly pleading one-sided conversation, the song as a whole calls out on a larger scale to any one listening to join in and dance, turning off the TV to  embrace literally the physicality and immediacy of the available present relationships. Passively listening is not enough. Passivity is for the TV watchers. Dancing or movement is for the radio listeners.
Throughout this song while vision, 'the gaze' is privileged as two individual relearn to look at one another, listening is incredibly important. The dancers must here the music in order to dance to it. Seeing each other is not enough, the dancers must also speak to one another to "remember how things used to be" and stop death. In this song, listening halts the progress of the death of a relationship.
Additionally, to grasp the full impact of the lyrics of the FR song in the first place, one must be able to listen to or hear the song.
 It's interesting that, in this case, I was listening to this song as a MP3 which is the least physical or the least old-fashioned of any of the currently available musical formats. I also, unfortunately, have never heard this song on the radio. Fully embracing the song's calling for an return to old fashioned ways would, in my case, nullify my ability to listen to it because of the changes to how music  is consumed. Except, I think this is missing the point slightly. The medium of the music matters less than the act of listening to it and to the conversation we generate "like soft, soft static" between one another. And not simply passively listening but dancing "like they did in '43".

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