The Returning Permanence of Aaliyah
In the fall of 1998, I worked at a radio station in Marshall, Minnesota. This was, for a time, a dream — my first university major was in television and radio broadcasting, and I was preparing for a long and definitely illustrious career as a radio DJ.
- “Two is Enough” — Seam
- “Hold U” — Indigo De Souza
- “Gravity” — Clams Casino & Plu2o Nash
- “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” — KIDS SEE GHOSTS (w/ Ty Dolla $ign)
- “Just Begun” — Talib Kweli + Hi-Tek (w/ Jay Electronica, J. Cole, & Mos Def)
- “Edgar the Elephant (Acoustic)” — Melvins
- “Picture Book” — The Young Fresh Fellows
- “Books about UFOs” — Hüsker Dü
- “California” — Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise
- ”Beware of Darkness” — George Harrison
- “Line Up’” — Elastica
- “Strong Island” — JVC Force
- “Are You That Somebody” — Aaliyah
- “Lucky Star” — Club Intl (w/ Madeline Follin)
- “Paris Is Burning” — St. Vincent
- “Until You Came Along” — Golden Smog
- “Whirlpool” — They Might Be Giants
The concept of radio — of good radio, that is: curated selections to fit a specific situation, formatted and sent into the air, forever lost — fits me, in a weird way. There’s no long-term record of mistakes, no anxious nervousness that a flub will have any lasting memory. There’s no permanence to radio, and that’s part of its charm. It’s for you, at that time, and only that time.
That radio station, which was a part of the university’s communications department, was more of a pseudo-station. It wasn’t broadcast over the air. There was no tower, there was no frequency. At the time, in the days before streaming, it was a kind of shadow station that provided a sound bed underneath Marshall’s community calendar station.
This was perfect, really. I considered myself a pseudo-punk kid, and a pseudo-station with no real reach was a perfect place to experiment. I had already gone through my “sell everything that wasn’t released on Revelation Records” phase, and I was slowly beginning to add artists back into my rotation. Where life had been a non-stop cycle of early-era emo, pop-punk, and whatever Hot Water Music classified as, my radio station days began adding things like Radiohead deep cuts and Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. I ironically played a handful of Spice Girls songs until it backfired and I actually ended up enjoying them.
And, while I can’t remember what my favorite song was at the time, I know exactly what my second favorite song was: Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”
If you don’t know Aaliyah’s story, here it is in a nutshell: she was probably groomed by and definitely illegally married to R. Kelly. She bounced back and started to change R&B alongside Missy Elliot and Timbaland. She released this amazing song on the soundtrack for … Dr. Doolittle, of all things. (Her second-best song, “Try Again”, was also on a soundtrack, this time for Romeo Must Die.) She died in a plane crash in 2001, and her music — until just a few weeks ago — had never been available for download or streaming in the modern era.
For modern music fans, Aaliyah was lost, her permanence at risk; Aaliyah felt like a ghostly legend, rather than a playlist mainstay.
The irony of all this is not lost on me. I’m a collector and a completist. When it comes to being a completist — and collecting, in this case, might mean watching every film by a director, or creating a perfect setlist, or owning an artist’s complete commercial output — every item exists in one of two states: it’s in, or it’s out.
Early on, you measure your collection by what you have — by what’s in. As you get closer to completion, you begin focusing on what you don’t have — what’s out.
Then, weirdly, your collection reaches a critical point at which you turn back inside. There are fewer things to chase, and the focus becomes using what you have. You worry less about the single film you never saw and you begin focusing on the body of work you’ve already amassed. You actually begin forgetting about those few outliers. They become lost. Even worse, they become inconsequential.
Their permanence wavers.
Musical legacy takes a lot of forms, but to keep it healthy it requires two things: permanence and visibility. Things go quiet for a lot of reasons: A crate of 45s never released in digital form, from punk bands who never recorded again. A series of original songs repurposed by more popular artists. A warehouse of masters lost to a fire. A revolutionary artist kept unpublished after her death. Maybe this is why I still collect records, or still self-host a 16-year-old blog. Maybe it’s why I feel such a rush with something that was once gone comes back into the spotlight. To keep our grip on something is to no longer risk losing it.
There’s a deeper metaphor here, but I’ll let you figure that out. For me, after years of being lost, I’m just thrilled to hear “Are You That Somebody” again.
Maybe there’s more to dig into here. Or maybe I just missed this song.