All Grim Fascination, All the Time

In my days as a commuter, particularly the last few years, I usually spent most of my trips up and down the Harbor Freeway on dreadful phone calls that were about as much fun as passing a kidney stone.  But there were days when I didn’t need to do that, and I could listen to the radio, or to one of the six CDs loaded in the player in my trunk. 

If anyone wanted to find out how I was really feeling, deep down inside, they could have asked me, “What did you listen to?”  If I said music, that was a sign I was in good spirits.  If I said “talk radio,” that probably meant I was in the throes of depression.

I was reminded of those grim days by LA Observed’s report that “Jamie, Jack and Stench,” a morning show on Star 98.7, is cancelled.  I occasionally listened to Jamie White, “Stench” (worst nickname ever), and former child actor Danny Bonaduce when that was the lineup.  With various co-hosts, Jamie White has been on Star 98’s morning drive shift for nine years, according to the LA Times

If I was listening to a political talk host like Laura Ingraham, Al Franken or Hugh Hewitt, that was an indication of a mild, manageable melancholia. Howard Stern?  Creeping despair and angst.  But if I was listening to Jamie White and co. or Tom Leykis, that was a sign I’d gone clinical and should be on suicide watch.  

Why did they bother me so much?  If you don’t know the programs, they’re both phone-in talk shows in which the hosts and their callers tell us as much as they can get away with about their sex lives.  Not just intercourse, but the whole process of meeting people of the opposite sex, dating, sleeping together, becoming dissatisfied with the sex, cheating on them and rationalizing it, finding out they’re cheating on you and not putting up with their rationalizations, breaking up with them, posting embarassing information about them along with nude pictures on the Internet, getting a restraining order… you know, modern romance. 

Of all the words used on these shows, the most common was probably “bitch.” The sex they talked about is anything but ecstatic. It’s more of an exchange of value, in which both sides are looking for the edge. The highest praise is bestowed upon men who cadge sex out of a woman without spending any money courting her; and on women who manage to do the reverse–find a man with a lot of money and make him burn through a lot of it before yielding to his sexual demands. 

In the world of Leykis and White, the opposite sex is always the adversary, never to be trusted.  Falling in love is equated to being a complete idiot, especially if one falls in love with a partner who is of the wrong economic status, or who is less attractive than one’s personal attributes are worth on the open market. But that’s another part of the contest.  Boys, you’re supposed to make attractive women think you’ve got more money than you do.  Girls, if nature didn’t give you the physical features required to catch a wealthy man, then it’s off to the plastic surgeon for a makeover.

Both shows thought they were funny.  There was a lot of guffawing when a caller would talk about a succesful con job they’d pulled off, or a nasty breakup that left the ex-partner completely humiliated.  But all I could pick up from these programs was a lot of anger.  Here we are, the most fortunate people on the planet, living in the free-est and wealthiest country, many of us in the beautiful Mediterranean climate of Southern California, and all anyone thinks about is how dissatisfied they are with their sexual status.  These people don’t even sound horny to me.  They only want the kind of sex that validates their self-image–with people that make others envious.

The callers to these shows are all 20- and 30-somethings, and at the time I was a mid- to late-40-something, happily married and with lots of fond memories of my wilder years. I can’t recall ever evaluating a woman the way they do on such shows, nor can I recall being evaluated that way.  Anyone I connected with romantically or sexually, it had to do with something undefinable, not a checklist.  The whole point was to feel good. It was private. And while break-ups are inevitable when you’re young, they were rarely something to celebrate. 

The popularity of shows like Leykis’ and Jamie White’s suggested that, somehow, without me noticing, the world had turned a lot harsher, and happiness became more elusive for the generations coming up after mine.  I listened to those shows when I was trapped in a different misery of my own, so I guess I was looking for something that reflected it — even though it made me more depressed and worried for the children in my life.

Star-98 says White was dropped because “management decided that the show is not a long-term fit with the music-intensive, artist-driven direction that began last April….”  Those words sound reassuring to me.  I’m not familiar with too many of the “artists” the station’s website talks about, but the change might mean they found out their listeners wanted to be inspired by something special in the mornings, rather than be dragged down into the muck of dysfunction, resentment and envy that Leykis and White celebrate. 

3 thoughts on “All Grim Fascination, All the Time

  1. Good riddance, if you ask me. I’ve been in LA a long while now, and no matter how suicidal I ever felt behind the wheel of my car, I never, ever, listened to this sort of thing. Mostly because–and I think you’ve said this in a way–the anger and dysfunction you identified come out in these conversations about sex, but they’re not really *about* sex at all. You’ve got a pretty dense topic here; from where I’m sitting, LA can be a particularly hard city to make decent human connections in (you hinted at this in the beginning of your post in reference to your own life). I’m not sure why that is, exactly . . . if it’s “The Industry,” the dramatic social and economic stratification, the invasion of the internet, or what.

    Beautiful blog, by the by. Just found it today and will gladly subscribe.

    (Oh, and my suicide-watch-while-driving music of choice is Johnny Cash’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”

  2. Leykis should be hanged. I never found my way over to the now canceled show of which you speak, but your description sounds about right. It’s all so ugly. And the thing is, I grew up listening to Love Line every night. Adam Carola and Dr. Drew were able to talk about sex, with teenagers, in a much more, if not enlightened, at least humane, way. And funny. I’ve never heard Stern or Leykis say anything funny.

    Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog included an extended digression about pornography production, in which he imagined a war of the sexes in the industry where members of each tried to humiliate those of the other by causing them to orgasm early, or at all. Which, well, at least everybody got something out of it.

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