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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 3: 1988

By 1988, the year I turned 20 years old, I'd left Spokane, WA, never (yet) to return with any kind of permanence. Instead, for half of the year I lived in Provo, UT, attending Brigham Young University, and for the other half I was in South Korea, beginning my two-year service (1988-1990) as a proselyting mission for the Mormon church. (Another long story in itself.) You might think that meant I was removed from the radio, and you'd be party right--I couldn't take American pop radio with me on my mission to Korea (though, in the form of tapes, I smuggled a fair amount of it with me). But for the first half of the year, I was exposed to the radio environment of Utah, and that changed everything.

Forget your association of Mormonism with restricted, traditionalist sects that exist in opposition to contemporary American pluralism; modern institutional American Mormonism--or at least the culture it creates--is, in fact, for better or worse, pretty much entirely at peace with American pluralism: so long as they, like any good capitalist body, can pick and choose and buy whatever parts of it, and leave the rest alone. It's for this reason, among others, that the large number of Mormons couldn't stop Salt Lake City and Provo some developing a musical culture along the same sociological lines you saw everywhere else in America where you had major university centers and lots of young single people: a thriving club and local music scene, creating a market which is hungry for the latest thing. That's what radio at BYU was like. My roommate had a boombox, so I could play all the tapes I'd made of songs I'd recorded off the radio at home, but mostly we just listened to the tunes coming out of SLC and Ogden, UT, a little further north.

The station we listened to was KJQ (or KJQN; part of the history here is disputed) 95.5 on the FM, particularly "Radio from Hell" in the morning. (And yes, we did enjoy the immature feeling of transgression listening to that show provided.) It was on this station that I heard, to my knowledge, my first Depeche Mode song (I ended up writing a paper for a philosophy class on "Blasphemous Rumors," which didn't go down well with my very pious professor) and my first Dead or Alive song (the album version of "Brand New Lover" is much better than the single version); it was this station that enabled me to finally correct my most embarrassing instance of lyrical mis-hearing (I had somehow decided that "keep it down now / voices carry" from the 'Til Tuesday hit was actually "let's go downtown / it's so scary"--and no, that doesn't make any sense to me either); this was the station which gave me my sole touch of radio glory (I called up and won some contest--I think it involved a question from George Harrison's Cloud Nine album--and received $100, which I spent on pizza for all the guys on the 4th floor of V Hall there in the BYU dorms); and this was the station that helped me realize that there actually weren't two bands from Australia, one named "I-N-X-S" and the other named "In Excess," but actually just one band. Man, was I glad I got that figured out, just in time for their smash album, Kick.

And there was U2's Rattle and Hum, of course, an album that long divided their fans but which I adore to this day. (A friend of mine from BYU, back in the day, once told me how he saw the concert film at the local theater five times in a single week, and came away determined that, no matter what the cost in time or money, someday he would have hair just like Bono's.)

And what else? The Psychedelic Furs, The Church, Gene Loves Jezebel, and of course Depeche Mode, and even more Depeche Mode, particularly all the songs from the Music for the Masses album. Plus every band that could plausibly be connected to Depeche Mode, include Yaz or Erasure. It was, in retrospect, rather funny and even somewhat comforting to realize back then that I wasn't the only pop music obsessive in the world, particularly not the only Mormon one, and thus didn't have to be the only idiot who would, back in those naive and ill-informed days, feel compelled to explain to anyone who wanted to listen why The Innocents was an awesome album and "A Little Respect" an awesome song much worth dancing too, even if the whole thing is essentially one big gay anthem.

I could go on. Suffice to say that it was thanks to KJQ and the Provo and SLC dance scene that I learned who the B-52s were, and The Replacements, and The Cure, and Bronski Beat, and more. Collectively, being overwhelmed by the New Wave all at once didn't completely erase Hall and Oates and Bruce Springsteen from my memory, but it definitely complemented them. Besides there was plenty of mainstream, R&B-inspired pop in 1988 that still registered. Of that stuff, Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" was pretty easy to justify....

...while Terrence Trent D-Arby's and George Michael's stuff was, er, less so. (Though I can remember more than one earnest rationalizer at a church dance insisting that the song "I Want Your Sex" was actually a morally sophisticated defense of heterosexual monogamy.)

In the mission field, you're not supposed to listen to pop music. I broke that rule--I couldn't make it without the stuff. Though the slim pickings available in South Korea had some interesting consequences. For one thing, I ended up spending a fair amount of time and money familiarizing myself with Korean pop music from the 1980s. Secondly, the stuff I was able to get a hold of (through contraband tapes which the missionaries would share with each other, or just stuff we would sneak off and buy on American military bases), prompted incredibly strong reactions from me. I remember that I would almost break down and cry, listening to tape of Cheap Trick's Lap of Luxury over and over again, late at night in some missionary apartment west of Seoul...

...while Bobby McFerrin's utterly innocuous and infectious "Don't Worry, Be Happy" somehow absolutely infuriated me. I suppose it was because I was unhappy and confused and stressed, and he wasn't: how dare he!! Yes, I've since recovered; thanks for asking.

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