How to make girls cry
Olivia Glazebrook analyses the power of Magic FM, scientifically programmed to tug at your heartstrings
The term 'feelgood' generates a groan from most who hear it. Feelgood movies: corny old romances. Feelgood music: cheesy love songs. Sitting on a sofa with a packet of Maltesers and a box of Kleenex, bawling along to Celine Dion singing 'All By Myself. We all think were above it. And what's so 'good' about being reduced to tears by tales of heartache, loss and abandonment? Well, something in it appeals to fans of Magic FM. To judge by the confessions of my friends, the station has been stunningly successful in its five years of existence, now playing 'feelgood favourites 24 hours a day' to 1,535,000 London listeners a week. Magic — which is owned by the razzle-dazzle company eMAP — is beaming its signal to 15 per cent of the capital's weekly audience, according to Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) figures for the second quarter of 2004: 725,000 people 'wake up to Magic 105.4', and presumably they're feeling good as soon as they're sentient. Twizzling the knob on my Roberts Revival from Radio 4 to 105.4, I settle back to find out what feeling good feels like.
The answer is, a bit depressed. An initial pleasure at recognising so many of these tracks, and being able to sing tunelessly along to them, gives way to a feeling of claustrophobia and gloom. The singers seem endlessly to indulge in undignified begging: How deep is your love? Why do you have to be a heartbreaker? Can you feel the love tonight? I want to know what love is — I want you to show me . .. 'Oh, put a sock in it,' I want to shout. And I am disgusted with myself for having so many of these songs committed to memory. How did this happen? My pop-radio-listening days were roughly 1987-1993 (school), and all the Virgil I learned for Latin GCSE has been mysteriously, insidiously replaced by lyrics like 'Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears' or 'I made a life out of loving you . .. you made a life out of hurting me'. I ask you! My heartstrings are being viciously plucked and I resent it.
To find out who's responsible I telephone the offices of Magic FM. I am put through to the charming Trevor White, programme director, Who chooses which songs go on his radio station? 'I do,' he replies with a laugh. How wonderful. What power: 2.8 million lis teners nationwide per week, and one man in charge of making them feel good. To my disappointment he adds that he employs 'consultants' for further input. I ask Mr White if he listens to Magic. Yes, he says, he does. And does it make him feel good? A firm 'Yes' to that too. But, I say, these songs are very sad — they're all about heartbreak and bad weather. He corrects me. The songs are 'not melancholy', he says, but 'uplifting'. He adds that a 'sad. song will be carefully timetabled, in order. I imagine, that the listeners don't get too depressed. This sounds spooky. I had been hoping that Magic came up with its playlist by sitting a woman down in a booth, piping music into her headphones, and then ticking a box whenever she starts blubbing. Perhaps I am not far off the mark.
But Richard Park of the Richard Park Company sets me straight. His consultancy firm is employed by Magic to help assemble their playlist. They are dedicated to finding the 'greatest songs' of the last 30 years for Magic. I quiz him about the bad side of feelgood. He doesn't approve of the term at all: these are 'enduring songs for enduring situations', he says, which I take to mean that whether or not we're fighting a war on terror, people keep on getting dumped. Mr Park tells me that this is 'thinking person's music', for people who listen to the lyrics and don't just jump to the beat. But I'm not so sure. Magic is escapist radio: unchallenging, uncomplicated, soothing. Nothing makes its
way on to the playlist without being vetted; there's no 'you heard it here first' slot — after all, the quirky taste of a DJ might lose them a few listeners. The Magic DJ does little more than read links between songs in a cheery, inoffensive voice. This audience is not trying to broaden its musical horizons — it tunes in to he coddled into a trancelike state.
The target audience for Magic FM is female, though not exclusively so, and aged between 35 and 45. It is also strangely elusive: no one I know will admit that they listen to Magic FM. One friend tells me that her brother-in-law leaves it on for the dog when he goes out to work. Another declares, somewhat shiftily, that he only ever hears it in minicabs late at night. In my local coffee shop the two girls behind the counter, wearing hunted expressions, deny they are listening to Magic even though I know they are, because the same song was playing in my car just seconds before. 'Only by accident,' another friend says with a nervous giggle. Even I don't want to be caught listening. I wind the windows of my car up at the lights. Why is it shaming? Am I unwilling to admit that I have volunteered to be emotionally manipulated? Yes, obviously. I am also unwilling to be cocooned from the raucousness of daily life ... and yet it is a struggle to resist Magic's sophisticated, scientific programming.
If one is in sentimental mood and not doing anything else too taxing, shouting along to the radio is a pleasing sideshow. Yet it is a guilty, shortlived pleasure. Nostalgia is strangely addictive, and must be unhealthy in large doses. Repeated exposure to lyrics about heartbreak, pain and the mysterious mystic love of the 'classic anthem' (My love is stronger than the universe') is somehow choking. I wondered whether Magic FM would make me feel like falling in love; I seem to have fallen into a terrible funk. It really comes down to whether or not one approves or disapproves of emotional selfindulgence: wallowing in nostalgia, regret and all those other soppy notions. I of course am far too busy for that sort of thing... but I might just give it five more minutes.