Dirt: TV On The Radio
Commit to the bit.
Daisy Alioto on the Weeknd’s new album, Dawn FM.
Last year, John Mayer released Sob Rock, a record based on the concept “what if I wrote this in the late ‘80s and you all just forgot.” Mayer, who was 11 in 1988, was simply engaging in the time-honored practice of nostalgia for nostalgia. He did this by using era-appropriate gear, letting technology do the heavy lifting. Sam Sodomsky wrote in Pitchfork, “once the novelty of its production wears off—the stadium synths and slick guitar solos, auxiliary percussion and yacht-paced, mid-tempo cruise—Sob Rock reveals itself to be just another John Mayer album, a work to be judged on its own terms.”
This month, the Weeknd released a concept album that also has roots in the ‘80s but goes even further to make technological nostalgia the center of the record. That concept? A radio station that accompanies your drive through purgatory. The DJ? Jim Carrey. Technology evolves faster than music can. And therefore, we will get more concepts that draw from the same eras but layer the 20th century with specific listening formats.
The irony of the radio format, for me, is twofold. When House of Balloons came out in 2011, the first in a trilogy of mixtapes, it wasn’t music you heard on the radio. It was music you “discovered” on tumblr after being reblogged by a guy in Philly who later offered to build you a website for your college blog. When you clicked on his tumblr, “High For This” was playing in the corner of the browser and some model in a Thrasher shirt (no bra) pouted next to a Soundcloud link to “slowed down arctic monkeys.” It was the era of FM as top level domain. Before Dawn FM, there was Ask.fm.
Blinding Lights (2020) was the first time I actually heard the Weeknd on the radio, no easy feat given I barely went anywhere that year, and then of course there was the televised Superbowl performance, nothing like the mixtapes. The Weeknd’s music has always been mediated by technology (hello, synth) but not that technology. Not the monoculture, for Christ’s sake.
Ok, and the other irony, the era of radio is hardly past, it’s just passé to a certain type of person that prefers to get their music from the internet and their nostalgia from formats still enjoyed by the majority of the country. You know…me. “I feel like this stat would shock some people on Twitter,” said NPR’s Bobby Allyn, highlighting a New Yorker statistic: “for every hour that Americans listened to podcasts in 2021, they listened to six and a half hours of AM/FM radio.”
On Dawn FM, interludes from the DJ turn shock jock banter into affirmation memes and prerecorded sign-offs into sermons. On the final track, “Phantom Regret,” Carrey intones:
And if your broken heart's heavy when you step on the scale
You'll be lighter than air when they pull back the veil
Consider the flowers, they don't try to look right
They just open their petals and turn to the light
Sometimes Dawn FM feels like the Weeknd is using radio to express the limbo of life online. As Craig Jenkins writes in Vulture, “Dawn FM isn’t so much a nostalgia trip as an exercise in dislodging oneself from time.” Elsewhere in Vulture, Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan say, “Dawn FM sounds like a reference to a reference, a radio song transferred to cassette and compressed into an MP3.”
David Byrne writes in How Music Works, “There are two conversations going on at the same time: the story and a conversation about how the story is being told.” I’m reminded of The Black Keys music video for “10 A.M. Automatic,” meant to resemble a public access television channel, which begins and ends with a solemn reading by a rabbi. It only works because they play it so straight.