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Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Permalink

Radio Lab: Pop Music

jcolman / Flickr

jcolman / Flickr

We ask how songwriters create these songs seemingly out of the ether, listen in on the music a deaf man hears, and examine the timeless appeal of the Elvis of Afghanistan.



It has happened to you. Some song wriggles its way into your brain and won't leave. Now imagine that the distant tune in the back of your head suddenly becomes very real. A real song. Real drums. Real guitar. Volume. These are called musical hallucinations and there are some people who actually suffer from them on a daily basis. 

We hear first from Leo Rangell who awoke one day to the sound of a rabbi singing. Twelve years later, the music is still there. He talks with reporter Lulu Miller about what he thinks the music is trying to tell him. Then Michael Chorost-- a writer who abruptly went deaf one day--tells us about how a world without sound is filled with music. 

We talk to scientists Oliver SacksDiana Deutsch, and Tim Griffiths to try to understand WHY our brains would produce such vivid music.

Songs That Cross Borders

Music has a way of getting stuck in your head. No matter who you are, or where you are, it seems to have this effect. We turn to the man behind all those catchy songs from "School House Rock," Bob Dorough, to get some insight into what it takes to make a hook. Conjunction-junction, what IS your function? 

Then we hear about the song written by an Englishman about an American city whose promise of togetherness really yields loneliness sung by a white Parisian woman everyone thought was black. Sound obscure? You know it. You love it. You hate it. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go "Downtown!" The story of "Downtown" was produced by Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions and originally aired on his series about pop songs, called "Repeat 'Til Fade." 

Finally the phenomenon of American country music's popularity in places like Zimbabwe, Thailand, and South Africa is something we find quite surprising. Aaron Fox, an anthropologist of music at Columbia University, tells us to rethink our surprise... though he denies any kind of meaningful "universals" in music, he thinks that quite simply, country music tells a story that a lot of us get. Check out his book Real Country: Music And Language In Working-Class Culture to learn more.


Afghan Elvis

The odd power of the cover band. So one day in Afghanistan, reporter Gregory Warner started playing "Those Were the Days My Friend" on his accordion. His translator, shocked, asks, "How do you know Afghan music?" Greg scratches his head and thinks, "But this is just some folk song my mom used to sing to me!"

And so Greg learns the tale of Ahmad Zahir, AKA "Afghan Elvis," who became a pop sensation in Afghanistan in the 1970s with his hybrid versions and East-meets-West music. Though Zahir died under mysterious circumstances in 1979, his music lives on with surprising popularity. We follow Greg on his accordion-wielding journey as he talks to Zahir's widow, childhood friend, and numerous fans to get to the bottom of why his songs endure.

Watch Greg's Johnny Cash performance below.