Less Payola, More Ella

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, July 29, 2005

What a bummer summer. Iraq is either a bloody mess or a tragic quagmire, depending on your level of optimism. Suicide bombers are busy memorizing subway maps. The blast-furnace heat that baked the country has eased, for now, but here comes hurricane season. If you want to escape to the beach, a tank of gasoline costs a small fortune.

But if you believe, as I do, that the truth will set us free, then amid the gloom there's a ray of light: Thanks to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, now we know one reason why most of the music that gets played on the radio is such unchallenging pap.

I don't begrudge Spitzer his naked headline-chasing, because he delivers the goods. This politically ambitious scourge of Wall Street has turned to the music industry, obtaining a $10 million settlement from giant Sony BMG and a promise to stop bribing radio stations and their employees to play certain songs.

How did "I'm Real" by the thin-voiced Jennifer Lopez and "Hold On" by angst-ridden rockers Good Charlotte get played by a station in Buffalo? Sony's Epic Records division paid for the program director's personal trips to New York City and Fort Lauderdale. To get the station to play a song by throwback glam-rockers Franz Ferdinand, Sony had to give the guy an "extravagant" trip to Miami.

A program director in New York City got a plasma TV and an entertainment system "worth several thousand dollars" in exchange for playing hip-hop music from Sony Urban. A compliant program director in San Diego also got a flat-panel TV, but the transaction had to be buried in Epic's accounting system so it was disguised as a "contest giveaway"; the supposed winner of the fictitious contest was a friend of the program director's who had agreed to accept the TV for her.

A radio station programmer in Greenville, N.C., got travel expenses, a laptop computer and a PlayStation 2, similarly disguised as contest prizes "awarded" in a false name. Spitzer's accounting of Sony payola goes on and on. Sony paid stations to play songs by the whiny John Mayer, the petulant and scratchy Avril Lavigne, the derivative Maroon 5 -- and songs by Jessica Simpson, whose "music" defies my powers of description.

All of this is detailed in vivid internal e-mails that Spitzer obtained. When will companies learn that if you're about to do something questionable, it's a really bad idea to spell it out in an e-mail? Here is one overcaffeinated promotion employee, angry that stations were playing the bombastic Celine Dion single "I Drove All Night" in the wee hours when no one was listening:

"OK, HERE IT IS IN BLACK AND WHITE AND IT'S SERIOUS: IF A RADIO STATION GOT A FLYAWAY TO A CELINE [DION] SHOW IN LAS VEGAS . . . AND THEY'RE PLAYING THE SONG ALL IN OVERNIGHTS, THEY ARE NOT GETTING THE FLYAWAY."

You're right in assuming that the "flyaway" was a junket to Vegas. One such "contest" for station employees even offered the chance to "play blackjack with Celine."

There are other reasons why the music on broadcast radio is so uninteresting. One is the consolidation of station ownership by behemoths such as Clear Channel, Infinity and ABC, which leads to standardization of formats and playlists. You might hear a little more go-go in Washington and Baltimore, or a little more R. Kelly in Chicago, but basically we get the same music from coast to coast.

Another reason is the decline of music education in the nation's public schools. The next Stevie Wonder may be out there somewhere, brimming with undeveloped talent, but he might never get the chance to learn to play the piano. Instead, he might settle for laying down a few computer-assisted drum tracks and seeking fame as a rapper, calling himself MC Blind or something like that.

But if you want to realize just how low our standards have fallen, listen to the pop music of the 1940s or '50s. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald -- her incomparable voice, her musicianship, her subtlety and nuance, her perfect phrasing. Listen to the way she can flat-out swing. Yes, I know there was only one Ella. And I'm not suggesting that in 2005 we should be grooving to 50-year-old tunes. We need modern music for modern times. I'm just saying we should demand that the musicians we shower with fame and fortune be talented, and that they work to perfect their craft.

And I'm grateful to Eliot Spitzer for making the point that radio programmers shouldn't be bribed to assault our ears with monotonous, thumping mediocrity.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company