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John Peel (1939-2004)

British Radio DJ John Peel died today, at age 65, but the future belongs to him. Read the BBC story, or the Wikipedia biography for more on this remarkable man.

From the BBC: “Radio One’s Andy Parfitt said Peel’s contribution to modern music and culture was ‘immeasurable'”. Music is something intensely personal, so when a beloved musician or musical luminary dies it’s common to hear such effusive praise, and it’s often overstatement. Not here. John Peel’s contribution to modern music culture is exactly that: immeasurable. For longer than we’ve been alive he’s been intimately involved with cultivating pop music, giving amazing young musicians the leg-up of their lives and articulating scary new sounds to a mass audience.

Another thing that happens when a music great dies is that pundits and critics bemoan the end of an era. In this case, they couldn’t be more wrong; the future belongs to John Peel. A quick show of hands: who here thinks that the precipitous decentralization of media and music on the internet means more people will discover new music from limited, faceless Clear Channel playlists? That’s right, I didn’t think so. Of course it’s true that nothing on the web right now– no mp3 blog (sorry, Tofu Hut), no music magazine (sorry, Pitchfork) and no collaborative filtering system (not even close, Gnomoradio)– is as good a vehicle for music discovery as Peel. But trust us, it’s coming. The blog phenomenon that created 10,000 grassroots pundits is just a few exponential steps ahead of the one creating a 10,000 grassroots critics, editors, and DJs. Within a few years there will be a deluge of music blogs, and Peel’s successors will rise to the top, like cream.

The most loved political bloggers on the right and left are loved for almost the same reason as John Peel. His program, Peel Sessions, was a perfect way to listen to new strange music because he made the case to you why you should take a song seriously. The rare depth of his capacity to appreciate new music–just from listening to him–deepened our own. Anyone who reads political blogs knows the feeling. You don’t read Talking Points Memo or Instapundit to get the latest dirt or the party line. What’s exciting and valuable is that proximity with a very deep understanding of politics. It starts to feel like that their depth is rubbing off and deepening your own understanding. Reading the paper with Josh Marshall = listening to records with John Peel.

So the turbulence of 9/11 and the Bush presidency gave political blogs a jump ahead. And in many ways musicians and music lovers have been slower to pick up on the collaborative, social features of the web than politics folks (opting instead for pretty Flash and ugly PHPBB). But it’s coming. If internet decentralization can give us Josh Marshall and Glenn Reynolds then it can bring us the next you, John Peel. Although we’ll still miss you terribly.

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