Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Robert - Ambient Music - Today

So I hear there is a new decade! Hurrah! But that'll get you thinking about what you might miss from the previous three or four.

What I miss is ambient music. By which I mean shared music. Unavoidable music. Music your parents made you listen to, music you heard on the clock radio, music on the streets, music in the car. Music you didn't search for: music that found you.

Now that the world has gone digital, and iTunes/iPods have replaced juke boxes (which were still everywhere in New York in the 80s -- the first sign of cool/not-cool in a bar), apartment stereos, boom boxes, and jacked-up car sound-systems as the primary way that we experience music... I miss what used to be like hell.

I like my iPod well enough (when it works), but I also know that I would never have encountered all of this rich oddity had it not been the currency of decades-past musical culture:

In my 60s early childhood, Mom and Dad played jazz, Roberta Flack (who they'd go see live at Mr. Henry's in DC) and the soundtrack to HAIR. (Extra nostalgia points for the way that Washington Square and Broadway looked in the late 70s, when this video was shot.)

Circa 1970, this was the big radio hit, and my first top-ten love. (Keep on past the song for some fascinating documentary about these brilliant weirdos.)

In the 70s, Al Green worked his way into my subconscious, Paul McCartney meant summer, and AM-radio stalwarts like Ambrosia (oh yes) drove me to school once I got my license.

In the 80s, there were bands like Heaven 17 that everyone could sing and dance to in college, and songs like this, this, and this that you heard everywhere (uptown, downtown, all around town) during those long, hot summers after you started your life in New York.

By the 90s, most of this was gone. But NYC, being hardcore, rallied around club and genius, so there were still some shared experiences. And in Europe, there was serendipity on the streets as late as 1997-1998.

One last moment in the ambient: When I lived on 106th Street circa 1990, I had a wild hallucination. I'd gone to sleep, not early, after a big night downtown, and was awakened by a strange sound outside my bedroom window. Looking down from five stories high, I saw a group of black men dancing all around a car with its headlights on and its doors open and its stereo blasting this.

Maybe there will be a time in the 2010s that we see a resurgance of outdoor music culture. Should I start a party? Has someone else begun the movement already?


  1. !!!!!!! LisaLisa 1988: Tiny railroad on rat-infested E. 5th St. and the neighbor kid played that 24/7 at top volume.

    Great post.

    The only place anymore for ambient is in the supermarket! How lame is that?

    Till we left NY in '05 we always made a point of playing our car radio really loud on 23rd St. on a Saturday night. Now we play it on Sunset.

  2. Part of me is right there with you, nostalgic for a chance to catch "Tainted Love" while driving in the Chevy station wagon listening to AM radio (FM? Too technologically sophisticated!).

    But the part of me that is forced to listen to Rush and Journey and Emerson, Lake & Palmer on the radio at my gym thinks, "Eh, change is good."

  3. As both Mlle Paradis and izzybarr have noted, car-radio ambient listening persists! I guess I need to get a car...

  4. @Mlle Paradis: Then we were neighbors. I'd moved from my Avenue A and 13th tenement to a cool shared two-floor loft at 8th and B. Music was so unavoidable then! Downstairs on 8th, somebody played OMD's "Secret" over and over --love that too. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mktqwb89gco)

    I countered with "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_Yx0X-eHn8)

    Man, music sounded great in that apartment!