Why are the songs that I listened to only circumstantially—or, rather, heard only circumstantially, mostly because they happened to be on the radio—also the songs that are bound up most intimately with my vague-but-compelling, inarticulable and semi-formed memories of childhood? Dispossessed of all agency and stuck in the backseat of my parents’ old Jeep—or allowed to lie on a musty blanket in the way-back—while we drove from our house to someplace I had no say in whether I did or did not want to go. The AM-only radio turned on, fenceposts and trees and telephone wires, overpasses and streetlights and signs, houses and hillsides flicking past the rear window at however-many miles per hour: in this way I unwittingly consumed the pop music of the early and mid-1970s. These songs became the soundtrack to my primordial memories not because I liked them, not because my parents necessarily liked them, but simply because one of my parents had turned on the radio while we drove. I became a self-aware person to the sounds of Orleans’ “Dance with Me,” Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain,” Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” Wings’ “Band on the Run,” Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze,” Carole King, Anne Murray, Barry Manilow… and the Captain and Tennille.
Who listens to such songs out of choice, out of a desire to hear them at a specific moment? I didn’t, not then, and not later when I was defining and redefining my musical preferences—which, it is not unreasonable to suggest, were consciously shaped out of a reaction against the songs I heard on 1970s AM radio and what I felt they represented. I have always self-identified much more with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” than the Captain and Tennille’s sunnier sentiment, and yet my preferences are still informed, somewhat less consciously, by an abiding, guilty-pleasure fondness for the structures and sounds of 1970s pop.
Except for quasi-ironic, decade-in-review nostalgia television and YouTube’s ongoing cultural recovery project, these songs have faded into the past along with all the other forgotten background noise of my own early life. To recall 1975 in music now is, for me, to recall the year the Ramones signed to Sire Records, the year Patti Smith confessed that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not” hers, the year Brian Eno recorded and released Another Green World, the year Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown” forever defined dub, the year Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony’s “The Hustle” continued to bring disco out of clubs and into living rooms, the year David Bowie sang the “phoniest R&B [he’d] ever heard,” the year the Sex Pistols had the plug pulled twenty minutes into their first gig. Certainly other music fans would recall it differently—but I wonder how many would now recall it as the year of Captain and Tennille.
Pop songs are, and always have been, constructed to restate clichés in an immediately familiar way; to be so catchy and compelling that we can’t ignore them, that we find ourselves humming or singing along, even in the music’s absence; and to withstand constant broadcast on the radio, at least for a brief time, until we tire of them. These songs are also meant as throwaways, to be replaceable by other, often similar songs on next week’s Top 40. Endless replay and of-the-moment sonic particulars instantly fossilized 1970s pop songs in their moments, as those moments came and went. Still, these songs never left me. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has proposed that “[t]here are attributes of musical imagery and musical memory that have no equivalents in the visual sphere, [perhaps]…because we have to construct a visual world for ourselves, and a selective and personal character therefore infuses our visual memories from the start—whereas we are given pieces of music already constructed[,]…[and] the recall of a musical piece has to be close to the original.” Sacks’s hypothesis offers a testament to the violence done by radio. For the past thirty-some years, I have, whenever I’ve re-encountered some 1970s pop hit, recognized—anticipated—its every lyric, its every melody and harmony, its every drumbeat and synthesizer squiggle. Love kept us together far less than the brutality of broadcast did.
“You, you belong to me now / ain’t gonna set you free now,” sings Toni Tennille, all huge, predatory eyes and toothy smile. And it’s true: I do belong to her, to this song, the #1 song of 1975 on the Billboard Top 100, and Grammy Award winner for Record of the Year. But until I finally submitted and salvaged the LP from a dollar bin a few years back, I had never heard this song except by chance, despite the fact it simultaneously signifies for me childhood and the 1970s more than any other three-and-a-half minutes I know.
And, disregarding the song’s dowdy opening bars and its cheerful pop insistence, the odd textures and flourishes of Daryl Dragon’s Mini-Moog synthesizer and his bizarre synth solo, when I listen to “Love Will Keep Us Together” now, I notice its peculiarities and darker corners. What I at first hear as a celebration of marriage or at least commitment—a seemingly conservative gesture in the post-free love years of no-fault divorce laws and singles bars, though perhaps not to Toni Tennille and Daryl Dragon, who were married in 1975 and who remain married—is instead, the entreaty of a woman begging her husband not to stray. There’s a sad desperation in how she keeps imagining “some sweet-talkin’ girl” he will encounter, or “those girls…hangin’ around,” and in how she obliviously fulfills the nagging wife stereotype in the line “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again”: and an equal desperation in the background harmonies that, during the chorus, increase in pitch to a near-screech as they plead “stop! st-op! really love you! / stop! st-op! thinking of you!” and chant “love, love, love, love, love!” like some deranged mantra. Unlike the other songs on the record that feature Toni Tennille’s sisters as backup singers, “Love Will Keep Us Together” includes harmonies overdubbed by Toni herself—making the singer appear intent on preserving control over a position she feels is threatened. The song promotes not sexual liberty (as does Donna Summer’s 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby”) but old-fashioned love, not independence (as does Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I Am Woman”) but mutual dependence, and, in the social and political context of its time—the Equal Rights Amendment, the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, Phyllis Schlafly, Ms. magazine, All in the Family, the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook—it seems a tame throwback. It doesn’t advance or elaborate the basic forms of the chart hit, which is probably why I remember it in terms of its historical moment as well as in terms of its music.
When the Captain and Tennille performed the song live at the Grammy Award show, Toni Tennille introduced it by fixing her gaze at the camera and saying “We’re so grateful to the American people for the way they’ve received our record that we’ve asked a few of ’em to sing along with us tonight.” As they performed, an accompanying video montage of people-on-the-street mumbling and occasionally crooning phrases from the song might have suggested individual empowerment, the consumer adapting the song for her or his own purposes, but Toni Tennille’s word “received,” and the shy self-consciousness of most of these people—unwilling to trespass on the phrases her powerful voice had animated from their radios all summer—told us all we needed to know about how the song reached us, and how much say we had in it. In my case, I received it while literally strapped tight to a padded vinyl seat.
The world I passed through as my parents drove seemed complicated and huge—not because I was smaller then but because I could not discern its workings, and because I felt and was so powerless to effect any outcome in my own life. To be a child often means one is unable to effect outcomes. We can say the same about being a radio listener, despite the call-in vote for the top five at five, or the request line, or the long-distance dedication: none of these participatory gestures will be acknowledged unless they concede to both current demand and a station’s specific format (and, except for the fact they they help popularize radio stations, and thus increase advertising revenue, they would not exist). The commercial radio of the 1970s, like that of today, was as predictable in its structures as the songs it broadcast—a short set of music, a commercial bumper or station ID, a long set of advertisements, maybe a brief traffic or weather update, another commercial bumper, some allegedly personal blather from the DJ, another short set of music—and offered us only the narrowest slices of all possible experiences, repeated hourly, even as we hoped to hear some minor variations in that routine. Radio is a form of manufactured and unreciprocated desire that convinces us the one song we really want to hear is “coming up,” and then deliberately delays that moment. And radio infantilizes us with its devotion to popularity and hits and countdowns, its admonitions—don’t touch that dial!—and its sound effects, its drive-time gags and its shock jocks. For decades it has been an increasingly dehumanized medium, its playlists determined by industry or algorithm. It gives us nothing except on its own terms, which are the terms of the market. Jacques Attali noted in 1977: “it appears increasingly to be the case that a radio station has an audience only if it broadcasts records that sell…. Radio has become the showcase, the publicity flier of the record industry.”
In an era in which the illusion of consumer choice is sacred—even if such choices generally involve the products of one corporation pitted against those of another—it’s unsurprising that many people now listen to the radio a lot less than they once did. Most of us prefer to shut out that huge and complicated world in favor of creating our own soundscapes to usher us through it, and rely on radio only when we’re offered no better options. The radio we do listen to is often, as with Last.fm and Pandora (“it’s a new kind of radio—stations that play only music you like”), personally tailored to the point of absurdity. I typed the name of the band Josef K into Pandora’s search function and was told that the songs played by the resulting “station” would feature “electric rock instrumentation, punk influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing, and major key tonality.” When I gave one of those resulting songs a thumbs-down, the software apologized so profusely—“Sorry about that—we’ll try something else, and we’ll never play that song again on this station”—I felt guilty.
Such wisdom-of-the-crowd, data-mined programming seems its own form of brutalism. I don’t want my music parsed so finely (and who’s to say what is or isn’t a “punk influence” or a “subtle” vocal harmony?), don’t want the mysteries of my taste anatomized or predicted based on what some other listener has liked or disliked, listened to or skipped: the reasons I like Josef K have nothing to do with the explanations Pandora cited for me, and despite the fact that I am talking about the products of mass popular culture, I want to pretend that my relationships with them are unique, unpredictable. Record collecting has been my way, however meager, of refusing radio’s calculated randomness, and after a few years in which I filled cheap cassettes with songs taped from the radio (a form of proto-collecting), my records supplanted radio entirely for me. Listening to my iPod shuffling through its 1970s playlist, I like that “Where Is the Love” has segued to “Drug-Stabbing Time,” “The True Wheel” to “African Descendants,” “Granny Scratch Scratch” to “Gimme Danger” or—a few months ago, in one of the most sublime pairings ever—“We’ve Only Just Begun” to “Ghost Rider”: such randomness is not beholden to market ratings or FCC regulations, but only to my own approval.
I plug my iPod into my car stereo, if I’m taking a drive longer than fifteen minutes—and, after buying Love Will Keep Us Together on vinyl, I digitized the title track so that now, driving my own car to destinations of my own choosing, I can, if I want, hear it once again:
“When the others turn you off, who’ll be turnin’ you on?
“I will! I will! I will!”