Remember when video killed the radio star? We doubt it. We doubt you even remember MTV, that channel where the music video "Video Killed the Radio Star” by a band called The Buggles aired at first broadcast. The Buggles were a one-hit wonder, or—some surmised—even a fake band, put together just for that one song that sang of the brutal, but somehow still bittersweet, death of an era. But of course, it was also marked the beginning of an age. And because we are today in another particular age, long after radio, or MTV, I am able to show you the video immediately, as proof of life, or perhaps death:
Unlike most of you, I am old enough to remember radio stars, or at least their dead and disembodied lyrics. “Ewan ko ba kung bakit type kita,” one of them sang from our transistor radio on one of those damp, idle afternoons in our up-and-down apartment in the mid-70s, “…hindi ka naman gwapo.”
My mother was washing my school clothes downstairs and I could do nothing but picture that woman in my mind, the sort who, like me, fell in love without having to rely on the other person’s looks. To illustrate my point, there was also Dina Bonnevie, who soared into my life on the wings of her slightly off-tune voice singing “Ewan ko, bakit ba ganyan?” I would add my own voice to hers, in a duet that gained heavy airplay. Before the song completely faded out I would scan the airwaves and catch it again in fifteen seconds, playing on another station just a slight turn to the left or the right of the frequency knob. Even if I didn’t change the station, I was sure to hear it again within the next 45 minutes.
MTV turned television into the new radio; we learned to keep the channel on like the background medium radio had been, just so we could catch—or more precisely, watch—our favorite song play again, this time locked and synced to indelible images: bands, hairstyles, models, London. Radio taught us what to sing and listen to, but MTV taught us what to wear and what to dream of, whether it was Paulina Porizkova in The Cars’ “Drive,” or gray skies and cobblestones in The Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.” If radio taught me to love AOR (“album-oriented rock”) and MOR (“middle of the road”) and AT40 (“American Top 40”), MTV deepened my relationship with exhibitionist brooding and teenage eyeliner.
In that way, Booksale is like MTV and radio before it—you sift through everything they throw at you and decide on what you want.
But you might be old enough to know, if vaguely, about Booksale, that store for books and printed matter whose branches seem as scattered across Manila as sari-sari stores. At Booksale, everything seems to have already been heavily read and enjoyed by someone else, or completely unwanted by both their publishers and their intended readers. More interestingly, each Booksale is unlike any other; their stock of books and magazines wildly varies from store to store, and the only way to have a complete experience is to go through each branch within practical reach, systematically going over the shelves on tiptoes and haunches, scanning the spines for what you never thought you were looking for but always knew you wanted.
In that way, Booksale is like MTV and radio before it—you sift through everything they throw at you and decide on what you want. The books are cheap enough for you to keep going, and each title you pick feels like a small, self-contained, hard-earned triumph. In my case, memorable trophies included the complete Dune hexalogy by Frank Herbert, Babette Deutsch’s A Poetry Handbook, and great issues of Spin and National Geographic. But whether the stuff I got at Booksale was secondhand or surplus or a back-issue never mattered, just as much as it was entirely not the point what kind of condition the books one borrowed from the library were.
The greater victory, of course, was how much I learned from Booksale—and continue to learn. I entered my first branch as a young student, and it seems, I’ve never completely left. That’s because the books keep coming and I can still manage to squat in the aisles without my back giving out or my legs going completely numb.
Less than a week ago, Summit Media, one of the largest and most successful publishing companies in the country (to which, of course, Esquire Philippines belongs), announced the completion of its “digital transformation.” This is an unrelated, but weirdly connected, development; I like to compare it to switching radio channels and finding out from a news report that Vic Sotto has just married Dina Bonnevie. In very much the same way, I felt a bit heartbroken, a bit helpless, a bit silly—it was a happy occasion but it was also sad news and I felt like a fool for even imagining I could have done something about it.
Everything goes this way, anyway; people get married and give birth to children named Danica and Oyo Boy; things die. The internet gives birth to everything and kills everything.
I can’t remember the last time I turned on the radio. I turn on something like it—on Spotify there’s a feature called “radio” where they line up a random assortment of songs based on the song you’re currently playing. As you may expect, the playlist is tailored and perfectly attuned to the mood I’m in, whether it’s Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” or Iggy Azalea’s “Team” or The Ramones' “Beat on the Brat.” The result is an eternal mixtape—for those who can understand what a mixtape is—of only the best songs, out of millions and millions, that can possibly matter to me at a given moment.
But quite unlike the media and the channels of old, the internet always knows me, and on a very real and complete level, too.
So now, as of this writing, everything that matters to me, on a certain and very real level, is on the internet: what I watch and what I listen to, what I read and what I write. Like radio and MTV and Booksale, it’s almost free and always there. But quite unlike the media and the channels of old, the internet always knows me, and on a very real and complete level, too. I can’t lie to you about those tunes I listen to, even if I would rather have mentioned Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” or John Cage’s “4’33.” I’ve never bothered to work out how to keep my Spotify profile private so everything I’m listening to is public knowledge. Therefore, my mood is public knowledge—as if it weren’t already, because Facebook keeps asking me how I feel and suggesting how I should, based on all the information on me it has gathered.
Under the same general principles, the online articles that I read or write can’t lie, either. They’ll tell you right on the page how many times it’s been shared and how quantitatively engaging it is. They’ve cut out the guesswork and the fuzziness and given everyone—from advertisers on the page to readers of the page—exactly what they like, whether they know it or not. They’ve chewed out the fat and broken down the shelves to serve us the dishes we always wanted to eat, the discoveries we always wanted to make. Now there’s hardly any need to buy the whole cookbook to read only the recipes we like, or to listen to the entire American Top 40 to wait for the songs we love—we can go straight on through to our personal number ones, our innermost joys and desires.
Still, I can’t shake the small but distinct feeling that for all of these incredible things we are taking with us into this new era, we are leaving some small but useful things behind.
But don’t get me wrong. There is much cause for celebration in this, especially when we call into consideration the fact that a single song or article can be evaluated and enjoyed by millions more people than they ever could have in the age of radio or printed books, or especially the time of Beethoven, when the Kreutzer Sonata could only be heard live, one small audience at a time. (Even Beethoven hardly heard it, having lost most of his hearing a full three years before he composed it.)
Still, I can’t shake the small but distinct feeling that for all of these incredible things we are taking with us into this new era, we are leaving some small but useful things behind. For all the stuff I and millions of other people like myself might like and that we can immediately obtain, there might be some small things that I’ll miss out on, or narrowly miss—like those great articles I never could have chanced upon if I hadn’t gone through the entire magazine, or those authors I never could have known if I hadn’t wanted to let an anthology I had purchased go to waste.
But then again, perhaps I am being too romantic about it. The internet, after all, knows there is only one me for all the millions in the engaged majority, and I can only prefer and consume so much in the moment that is my age, or my lifetime. Maybe I’m being too human for hoping that for all of me that the internet knows, there’s still a part of me that it doesn’t—that part of me that wants to listen to songs not everyone likes to hear, that wants to read, or write, things not many people like to read. That somewhere in here, or out there, there is a hidden, deeper, and more real me, singing out like a faint light, a faint voice from a dead star.