More Talk, Less Rock

Gabbing about quasi-Christian orgasms and R&B booty reduction with the music critic hosts of Garrison Keillor's newest brainchild, Pop Vultures

Sullivan: You are such a pig. Oh my God. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in booty and in bony...

Belcon: Till booty do us part, baby. Till booty do us part.

This kind of banter is a staple of college and community radio, of course: If the hosts of Radio K's Cosmic Slop (KUOM-AM 770) didn't careen wildly off topic, you'd be disappointed. Yet outside the tiny space corporate FM makes for local-music shows, such dorm-couch gushing is rare in rock talk.

In fact, rock talk on the radio is rare, period. Maybe that's because people who love music, like people who love sports or sex or God, eventually get around to talking about the things they hate--a favorite subject on Pop Vultures and Sound Opinions. "The programmer who's playing Dave Matthews once every hour, he doesn't want to hear two people talking about Dave Matthews sucking," says Jim DeRogatis.

This is a shame, because radio is the ideal medium for pop music criticism--for the very obvious reason that critics can actually play you the music they're talking about. There is also the less obvious reason that talk short-circuits the literary conceits, anxious wordplay, and other flowery bullshit clogging so many reviews. Radio captures that awkward moment, experienced by everyone who writes about music for a living, when a reader confronts you in person with the question: "So, what do you really think?"

"On this show," says Jeff Whalen, "people discuss music in a way in which people actually discuss it in actual life."

Pop Vultures might be slightly behind the times in this department: On the internet, MP3 weblogs such as Fluxblog (newflux.blogspot.com) have opened up the possibility of hearing music while reading about it, and writing about it in a way that's closer to the startling rhythms of human speech. The proliferation of this kind of media might even represent a new, more participatory form of music journalism. Sullivan herself is the author of a hyper-passionate personal weblog, Kate Sullivan's Rockblog (katesullivan.blogspot.com). And her approach to talk radio seems more rooted in the manic, saturated atmosphere of the web than in the strict mechanics of radio.

"My only background in radio is that I started to notice a few years ago that I was obsessed with it," she says, speaking over the phone from L.A. "Starting from age 12, I looked to radio as some kind of emotional crutch and balm and alternate world that I could be a part of."

Having taken her early inspiration from the freeform FM radio of her L.A. childhood, Sullivan now sees an analog to Pop Vultures in the democratic nature of contemporary sports opinion. "I love the way that everyday people can be experts, in a sense," she says. "I just feel like there is this ocean of everyday people all around you that know a lot about music, too, and have thought a lot about it, and feel a lot about it. I was going to a Prince concert on the subway with my friend, and a lot of people around us were wearing purple and started talking about Prince. It was amazing. I wish I'd had a tape recorder."

Not everybody likes this approach, of course. "They don't know what they're talking about," says DeRogatis. "What I've heard of [Pop Vultures], there's a lot of pride of ignorance. Of course, that could change."

And it's still an open question whether Sullivan's inclusiveness will extend to longtime NPR listeners. But one piece of fan e-mail from Huntsville, Alabama, suggests it might:

Whether or not NPR admits it, some of their listeners also listen to mainstream radio (when it's tolerable) and watch mainstream television. Your discussions of pop culture in the past eight years are realistic, articulate, and entertaining.

Of course, arguing with the show is part of the fun: "No," the same listener continues, "I didn't agree with every opinion stated (I don't think that everything Britney Spears touches turns to fairy dust)."

Everyone's a critic.

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