I’ll be honest. I’m not nearly as into music as the general population seems to be. I love the feeling of discovering a new song that really hits me, but that’s a rare experience, and the catalog of songs that I am really happy to hear has grown at a snail’s pace over the years. Toward most of the music that people go crazy for, I usually react the way most people do to a pleasant color of house paint: “Yes, that would be something nice to have in the background.” When someone tells me that they’ve been listening to the same song on repeat for hours, I can’t help but think how boring that sounds.
This general ambivalence isn’t the kind of thing I usually own up to. I’m perfectly happy to admit that I don’t care about sports, don’t like everyone’s favorite sitcom, and don’t pay much attention to the news, but saying you’re not that into music is like confessing that you’re a pod person. You might as well shrug off emotions, beauty, sex. So, when someone asks me “Have you listened to much…?” I start preparing a false look of faint recognition—like I know it’s familiar, but can’t quite place it—before they even get to the band name.
Even now I’m too embarrassed not to mention that there are songs that can swallow me up when I hear them, but usually it feels like my thoughts are too loud for music to get through. Maybe I’m just wired wrong (or maybe it comes from growing up in a house where my major exposure to music was my dad deciding to play one of the three songs he knows for hours on end…) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally need to listen to something to get me out of my own head.
While a lot of people listen to comforting playlists when they’re going through a tough time, I spent my last period of personal crisis playing episode after episode of WNYC’s Radiolab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the show explores weird and cutting edge ideas in a way that is engaging and provocative, and always manages to suck me in, like a story about a woman who became addicted to gambling as a side-effect of her Parkinson’s medication, or another that picks apart different theories about why runners from one province of Kenya dominate in marathons.
As their website puts it, “Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” That description would sound pretentious to me coming from any other source, but Radiolab does what it does so well, and Jad and Robert do such a good job of cutting through any hint of pretension, and inviting you to just be curious and fascinated with them.
They offer the perfect mixture of comfort and novelty that keeps me coming back, and I find myself, on almost a daily basis, remembering some strange study or story that I heard about on Radiolab. It has that amazing capacity to continue enriching your life long after you’ve finished listening (like Glomar responses), which is exactly what great music does too, isn’t it? Either way, I can’t recommend this show highly enough. All of their past episodes are available at radiolab.org/archive/ If you’re anything like me, you’ll work through all 12 seasons in a matter of weeks while trying to sort things out with your girlfriend. If not, you may want to pace yourself. Here's the latest episode, about why we fight, and why some of us are left-handed: http://www.radiolab.org/story/whats-left-when-youre-right/