Who controls the stereo in your car?

When I’m in the car by myself, it’s easy to choose radio stations. I listen almost exclusively to talk radio; the more vitriolic the better.

When I’m driving with my wife and son, the consensus leans to music. I say consensus, but that’s a euphemism for a two-to-one vote – or a single vote so compelling you ignore it at your peril. At home, we pursue our tastes to nobody’s detriment. In the car, we are three members of an ad hoc music committee.

In addition to driving, I’ve been reduced to being a provider of mobile DJ services, turning up the volume on one song, eliminating another, then tracking through a hierarchy of other radio stations until something inoffensive emerges. In the past, we’ve agreed by mutual consent on songs that can play unmolested. “Young Folks,” by indie Swedish band Peter, Bjorn and John, received a free pass. Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand has most favoured status for “Ulysses.” The Tragically Hip’s “Love is a First” is similarly favoured as everybody gets their heads around that great guy mumbling: “It’s just that you don’t just blurt … love is a curse … love is a curse … love is a curse.”

I’ve got nothing against the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire,” but my wife and son hate it so much that I automatically reach for the pre-set. “Oh, the Boss is Coming”, by the Arkells – don’t even think about it.

It’s a complex system, but understandable. Songs with clapping in them all get play. Anything by Nirvana gets a free pass, because my wife wouldn’t have it any other way. Kurt is still cool, so no arguments.

Emerging rules are more problematic. Metric was on the outs, but now it has earned most-favoured status for “Help, I’m Alive.” I’m no longer sure whether that translates to a retroactive free pass for “Monster Hospital.”

We used to have a blanket “No Dallas Green” rule that applied to any project he was involved in: Alexisonfire, City and Colour, Neverending White Lights or solo projects. “He’s too sappy,” I offered early on. “He spends so much time thinking about himself that now he’s always choking on something or having trouble breathing.” Unfortunately, I tarried too long on a channel switch while negotiating road construction barriers, and my wife fell partially under his sappy spell. “His angst is edgier than I thought,” she said.

I like MGMT’s “Kids,” but I get shouted down when I try to play it. My revenge is to hide a lot of oddball selections in the pre-sets so that we have to listen to a truly alternative playlist on the way to the next acceptable station. Everyone has an opinion on contemporary music, but it takes a few minutes for everyone to marshall their resources against “The Theme from The Good the Bad and The Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro or “A Walk in the Black Forest” by Horst Jankowski. By the time my wife gets around to complaining: “Peter, that’s hoary!,” the song is over or we’re pulling into a parking lot.

Things have gotten more complicated recently. Although I’ve made efforts to expunge all of the pre-sets of the car’s previous owner, they’re slowly returning. When the invisible passenger asserts his or her rights, there’s a mysterious beep and instead of “new rock now” we’re treated to commercials about seniors’ residences in a home-like setting or pre-paid funerals. I can poke all I want at the car radio buttons, but I just get to choose between ghost preferences – radio shows about cut worms and rose blight or sad-sounding DJs recalling three songs for a quarter on the juke box.

The fifth committee member? Our dog, Rupert, has developed a facility for stretching his paw in such a way as to change each pre-set to the same station. It’s kind of amusing, except for the other day when he offered his services by replicating a station favoured by the ghost passenger. Every pre-set now featured “The Music of Your Life” from some small town on the fringes of the dial. I was about to make the effort to switch it all back when I caught the opening strains of “The Theme from The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” “The dog’s really messed it up,” I announced. “I’ll have to fix it later.”

A car radio is a tool of democracy, and ghost, dog and driver have won this one squarely, three to two.

Photograph by: Grant Black, Calgary Herald