I've always had a kind of unnatural love for the Top 40. When I was really young, I got my very own radio for Christmas, and thus began my love affair. This was long before CDs, and one of the first things I fell in love with about radio was the feeling I got when my favorite song of the moment came on the radio. Like most people at that time (in the dark ages - ie- the early 90s), it wasn't likely that I had the song on a tape, and there was no YouTube, so when it came on the radio, that was my chance to hear it. I would hate it when I turned on the radio and it was at the very end of a song I liked, but on those days when I turned on the radio and my favorite song came on directly afterward, it felt like the world was on my side. I'd sometimes hear a song that I like several times before I knew the name of it or what artist performed it, and for a couple of weeks, it would just be a mystery: "I don't know what it's called, but I've got to hear that amazing song again."
When I was a little older, I got a CD player. My very first CD was Mariah Carey's album, Music Box. I liked this CD because my best friend's older sister always listened to it, and I looked up to her. Me and my best friend, Cami, would have singing contests to the song "Hero". That album taught me how to sing. I must have been 7 or 8. I later sang "Hero" at my elementary school talent show. To this day, I still have every word, every note, every nuance of that entire album memorized. For awhile it was the only CD I owned, and I listened to it and sang along at the top of my lungs until the CD barely worked anymore.
Back then, the reason I bought CDs was because I was absolutely obsessed with one song. A lot of those songs were the theme songs from movies. Among my first CDs were the soundtracks to the movies "That Thing You Do!" and "The Preacher's Wife" and "Grease", the movie. But with no iTunes, if you wanted a song, you bought the whole album and learned to like the rest of the songs on it. I bought the soundtrack to "The Prince Of Egypt" because of the Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston duet, "When You Believe" that I was obsessed with. Before I got the CD, I had to listen to the same 30-second clip over and over again that I had found on the nascent internet. If I got a new CD, and the lyrics weren't printed in the CD sleeve, I would spend hours listening to the track little by little and write down the words on a pad of paper so I could memorize them and sing along. Over several years, I developed quite a CD collection as well as a special connection with each song on every album I owned.
But I still loved radio. When I turned 16, I didn't have a CD or cassette player in my car for a year, just a radio. The songs that were popular on the radio that year I will know intimately for the rest of my life. I remember the first time I heard the song "This Love" by Maroon 5: I'd never heard anything like it, and it mesmerized me. I bought the CD and couldn't get enough of it for months. To this day, I still find that song incredibly catchy and original. I had the same feeling the first time I heard "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and "100 Years" by Five For Fighting. I associate all these songs with the year I was 16: the year I got my first car and gained so much freedom, the year I first fell in love. I remember listening to all these songs in my car while I raced home with the windows down to make curfew. I felt like I owned the city.
Another great thing about radio music is that it was so universal. You don't have to pay a monthly fee or subscribe, radio just lived in the air. Anybody could access it, and everybody did. Everyone knew the Top 40 hits. And those songs were about being in love, being brokenhearted; having fun with your friends, being free, or growing up. Things to which everyone could relate, no matter what your background. It brought people together.
But over the last several years, I've noticed the passion I once had for popular music has waned: I noticed that I rarely loved any song the way that I used to love so many. I don't get excited about songs much anymore, because on YouTube and Spotify, I can listen to anything on demand. I don't have to hunt down the CD at the store, and listen to songs little by little for hours, writing down all the words and letting that recording become a part of me. I don't have to wonder what that song is called or who sings it; I just type it into google and the mystery is solved. I used to go through music so slowly. but now I shuffle through music so quickly that I barely pay it any attention before I move onto something else. I haven't "worn out a CD", figuratively speaking, in ages.
Neither do people all listen to the same thing anymore. With satellite radio and mp3s, traditional radio is nearly obsolete. You don't have to listen to the same 40 songs as everyone else. You can listen to your niche music, whatever small portion of the spectrum suits you best. But as a result, the so-called "mainstream" is shrinking. There's no longer a small body of music that everyone listens to, that we all have in common.
I know that things have gotten better and easier, and now we can keep our whole music library with us in our pockets and listen to music we want to listen to, and that many people's tastes weren't paid attention by mainstream radio. And even simple things we used to do, like scour the city for the CD we're looking for, seem laborious now. But these days, I still love pop music, and I still listen to the radio most of the time in my car even though I could listen to virtually anything I want. The radio makes me feel connected to other people who are listening to the same thing as me at the exact same time. and it makes me feel connected to my past.
I know that things will never be the same, and that's ok: I guess music is becoming more and more accessible. Somehow I hope to learn to fall in love with songs that way again. but until then, I sometimes close my eyes and imagine that I'm back there again having singing contests with my best friend or discovering a beautiful song in a movie or on the radio and not being able to get it off my mind until I found it and it became a part of me.