XPN’S Most Essential Mistake (A Repost)

88.5 XPN began it’s annual countdown this week, so I think it’s an apt time to repost one of my earliest entries from this summer. Why? Because it outlines precisely why this countdown is, well, kind of a dumb idea. Let me know what you think…

ORIGINALLY POSTED JULY 29, 2008:

For those of you not keeping score at home, it’s been a few days since Post Number One. Days pregnant with the pressure and tedium of deciding what Post Number Two was going to concern. Throughout that time, I kept making subtle promises to myself that it would not be wasted on the banal or superficial. That the post would center on a “big idea”, like the recently dreadful irresponsibility of the media as it pertains to the status of America’s economy; or that maybe it would elucidate the virtues I have recently discovered are inherent in the act of walking; or perhaps it would poetically eulogize Tony Snow, or maybe showcase an exciting and exclusive interview I had with Beck, wherein we discuss everything from Scientology to his new album “Modern Guilt”. But after all the internal haranguing and wringing of hands, I have finally settled on a topic—and, ironically, it concerns perhaps one of the most superficial creations of modern times: The countdown list.

To put a finer point on it, the particular list I’m thinking about right now is 88.5 WXPN’s forthcoming countdown of the “885 Essential XPN Songs.” No, this is not a matter that will make or break the evolution of mankind for centuries to come, or one that will most likely even register on your radar of importance so much as five minutes after you’ve finish this reading this. But when I heard this countdown theme mentioned on the radio yesterday morning while I was enjoying a delicious bowl of Craklin’ Oat Bran, my body responded as I would imagine it would were I having a stroke. And this was when I knew the issue could not be avoided.

To be sure, the fact that I would even express of modicum of concern over this matter—let alone care enough to make it a post on my blog—says more about me than it does about the countdown itself. But life is full of moments when one is forced to decide whether or not he will be the bigger person and ignore an evil obviously lesser than the strength of his own character, or give into the temptation and wage a losing battle against a pettiness sure to make him seem smaller than he was at the start. In this case, I have sadly succumbed to the temptation. I have chosen to wage a very silly war.

Without equivocation, I adore XPN. If the radio station were a woman (and personally, I think she would look something like Natalie Portman), the two of us would have been married for almost ten blissful years by now, with a beautiful brood of talented, ambitious children to boot. To extoll its innumerable virtues here as one of the greatest radio station in the tri-state region would be a waste of both our times. But if thiswere a marriage, the countdown about to occur would most certainly send us both into counseling (or force me to cheat).

The extreme guilty pleasure I derive from countdown lists is no secret to those who know me. I can recall numerous evenings as a child when, during dinner or after brushing my teeth, I would casually posit questions to my mother or father such as, “What are your top ten favorite scary movies of all time?” Or, “Who are the five worst worst quarterbacks in the NFL?” I didn’t know it at the time, but thinking back on those moments now, I realize forcing my parents to categorize their preferences so succinctly was just another way for me to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. In other words, it was impossible for me to conceive of a universe wherein Bob Dylan was no different than Jimmy Buffet, or Joe Montana was no different than Randall Cunnigham. Such a world would be unjust and insane, and I needed my parents to assure me this was not the case.

At the age of 27, the situation is no different today. I still engage in endless debates with family and friends over the qualification of artistic brilliance; and while in a few rare cases these melees of personal opinion have almost ended friendships (“Rush vs. Zeppelin 2003” comes to mind), most are superficial, forgettable, and, in the eternal scheme of things, a waste of time. But they are one my dearest addictions, and I cannot give up the habit. For this reason, I was quite excited when XPN announced its “885 All Time Greatest Songs” countdown in 2004 (in my opinion, “God Only Knows”). I was doubly excited in 2005 when they launched the “885 All Time Greatest Albums” marathon (in my opinion, Houses of the Holy). And I was giggly as a schoolgirl for the “885 All Time Greatest Artists” countdown in 2006 (in my opinion, Bob Dylan). But then, in 2007, desperate to keep the trend going, the station took a turn for the worse and started tallying the ridiculous list of the “885 All Time Greatest Musical Moments.” What the hell does that even mean? Music is not defined by it’s “moments.” It’s defined by its music! (And even if it were, why wasn’t “The birth of Mozart” number one on the list?). Now, in 2008, XPN goes and dives right into its own nascent pool of pretension and lays this egg on us. It’s a crime against the righteousness of the countdown art form—and I cannot abide.

As I said at the outset, it’s a silly war to wage; and to be sure, XPN is so transparently reaching in this case that its absurdity needs little exaltation. But I could not let the moment pass without crying out with my displeasure. On it’s Web site, XPN claims this countdown is supposed to highlight “the tracks that are at the heart of the XPN listening experience.” But since XPN prides itself on being relatively genre-less (which is kind of a lie anyway, since I can’t recall the last time I heard them play something from Mos Def or Rage Against The Machine) doesn’t it seem absurd to ask people what songs are “at the heart of the XPN listening experience”? Not only is it self-absorbed and severely affected, but it’s also no flippin’ fun. Arguing about albums or musicians or songs gives a person the thrill of taking ownership over the art in his or her life. This does not. Imagine the conversation:

“Yeah man. I think the most quintessential XPN song is ‘A Case of You.’”

“Hell no! How can you say that? There’s no way ‘A Case of You’ is more XPN essential than ‘Into the Mystic!’”

Bullocks.

The XPN “experience” is about the sum of its parts, not the parts themselves. I listen to the station because that experience includes everything from The Hold Steady to Bjork to Jackson Brown to James Brown to Sigur Ros. I can’t reduce it, nor would I ever want to. Debating the “885 All Time Greatest Songs” over a few beers is thrilling and reckless. Debating the “885 Essential XPN Songs” sounds about as exciting as arguing over the best way to cook asparagus, or why she really still is just “Jenny from the block.”

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2 responses to “XPN’S Most Essential Mistake (A Repost)

  1. Hey Nick,
    I volunteer to wage the battle on XPN’s side. People seem to love rankings (or the media loves to throw them at us, one or the other), but for my money, I’ll go with the essentials any day!!!! Besides that XPN is trying to make it fresh (shudder, you!), best to worst is so subjective—that absolute, best to worst, doesn’t exist, and I for one, never liked subjective opinions cast onto a group. It’s like telling everyone they should like hot dogs with chili better than hot dogs with kraut. Essentials is more like, ‘hey let’s hang out and share some good tunes,’ as opposed to ‘hey, let’s argue over my taste vs. yours.’ Rankings are battle cries; Essentials are peace-pipe smoking rallies. I wouldn’t have found Melody Gardot if I weren’t so pleasantly invited to the party. So I say, let’s have a hot dog with whatever you want on it, and listen to some good tunes, damn it!!! : )

  2. I’ll chime in the middle here – first, i agree that xpn is, at its most “essential” the sum of its parts, but also, excited to find out what listeners find the songs they think most explain this sum. As listeners, we were asked for our 10 most essential songs, not just the one. I think this levels the field. As far as the results – I’m using them as a shopping list, starting at the top and working my way down to collect some awesome music, as I found, as the countdown went on, my extensive music collection was STILL sorely lacking.
    Best to you!
    Dianne
    http://www.artbydianne.blogspot.com

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