Lost in Space

Meet the new radio, XM. It's bad. It's nationwide.

XM radio is perfect for a very specific kind of music fan: the passive listener, the kind who loves hearing music, and loves being surprised and learning something new, but is unwilling or unable to work for it. For the freaks and the geeks -- those for whom consumption of music is just as important as the listening experience -- nothing's gonna fill that space in their noggin that gets its thrills from discovering something new. XM is a vehicle for that, yes, but it means trusting a corporate monolith to make these sorts of decisions for you.

Anyone with an active passion for music is going to get her particular rocks off by popping in the CD she's been waiting to hear all day -- not by popping on XM and hoping it's gonna provide a similar jolt (and it does have that potential). An active music lover's idea of heaven is the road trip, because on a road trip, you're deliberately trapping yourself in a small space for an extended period of time, and therefore are able to pile all those CDs into the wallet and listen listen listen to all the music you just bought but haven't been able to digest. Or you can load the I-Pod with 1,000 MP3s and hit shuffle.

Who needs someone else calling the shots? No amount of bandwidth is going to change that reality, and no self-respecting music fanatic is going to leave that up to some corporation. Said fanatic will drop $300 on a 100-cd changer and hit shuffle: bingo, a radio station.

So if you're an active listener, keep the CD changer.

If you're a passive listener, you'll love XM.

But, like cable, there's a lot of crap within. XM accepts cultural/historical assumptions, relies on singles rather than album tracks and neglects much of the passion. You'll hear "Born to Run" on a few different stations, but there's no way in hell you'll hear "Darkness on the Edge of Town." You'll hear a Donald Glaude mix on "The Move" (channel 80, "Modern Electronic Dance"), but you're not going to hear Matthew Herbert's Let's All Make Mistakes; the dance stations (4 channels, "Modern Electronic Dance," "Club Hits," "Urban Mixes" and "Disco") are sick with flavor-of-the-week syndrome, as are many of the "alternative" stations.

Many of XM's stations seemed designed to fulfill one of the (sad) aspects of many people's desires: music as a memory serum, music used to take the listener back to another moment in their lives, to relive the fantasy, to fire the good-old-days neurons.

But, with a billion bucks invested in this new musical delivery system, of course (and alas) they can't hit us with 24-hour Tuvan throat singing, or a commercial-free minimal tech-house station. They've got to recoup and you can't recoup by jamming the Throbbing Gristle all the time. Commerce is still king on XM, which is why it'll never be completely satisfying for the headz.

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