In 1990, New Line Cinema released a box office failure starring Christian Slater as a teenage pirate radio DJ who inspires a surge of others to take to the air and find their voice. Come and gone nearly three years to the month before I first got online, Pump Up the Volume nonetheless for me is the patron film of the blogosphere.
For a brief, shining few months in 2022 the film was streaming on HBO Max, only then to disappear as mysteriously as it had appeared. It’s thematically appropriate, however, that a lofi version is available for download from the Internet Archive. It resides permanently on a USB stick that’s plugged into my television.
What starts for Mark Hunter, voice-disguised as “Happy Harry Hard-On”, as a way to speak into the void where maybe, just maybe, at least one person will hear him becomes, too, a place for others to speak by sending letters. He’ll call if you include a number. Other voices begin to flow through him. He gets things wrong. He tries to atone. He gets things right. He struggles with what he’s sparked.
What’s more, he also begins to expose the ways in which the system enveloping them all in fact is dividing them, ruining the discarded few for the “good of the school”. All of which—the students connecting to each other’s truths and to greater truths around them through Harry—for Principal Creswood is nothing but an existential threat. The systems that contain us, the systems that discard us, cannot abide our solidarity. They cannot abide our empathy.
In the end, the Federal Communications Commission bearing down on him as he and his newfound connection Nora propel themselves through their suburban Arizona housing development in the roving transmitter of his mother’s stolen jeep, the equipment which disguises his voice breaks.
Okay, this is really me now. No more hiding.
Listen, we’re all worried. We’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes, and with having ears. But just remember one thing: it can’t get any worse. It can only get better. I mean, high school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point: surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you strong. Living will. So just hang on, and hang in there.
You know, I know all about the hating and the sneering. I’m a member of the “Why bother?” generation myself. But why did I bother coming out here tonight? And why did you? I mean, it’s time. It begins with us—not with politicians, the experts, or the teachers, but with us. With you, and with me. The ones who need it most.
I believe with everything that’s in me that the whole world is begging for healing. Even the trees, and the earth itself, are crying out for it. You can hear it everywhere. It’s the same kind of healing I desperately needed and finally feel has begun, with you.
Everyone listen up. It’s not over yet. It’s just the beginning, but it’s up to you. I’m calling for every kid to seize the air. Steal it. It belongs to you. Speak out. They can’t stop you. Find your voice and use it. Keep this thing going. Pick a name, go on the air. It’s your life, take charge of it. Do it, try it, try anything. Spill your guts out. Say “shit” and “fuck” a million times if you want to, but you decide.
Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive.
Earlier that day, not long before Nora gets expelled as part of Principal Creswood’s illegal scheme to kick out problem students but keep the government money earmarked for them, Nora makes it clear to Mark: “Don’t you see? You’re the voice. You’re the voice you were waiting for.”
It’s a message his climactic monologue then passes to the throngs assembled on the grounds of his high school, and to those within reach of his low-power signal. As he and Nora are carted away by the police, the film’s soundscape crossfades into an aural montage: voice after voice after voice taking to the airwaves.
“Hi, everybody, this is Amy at 97 FM in Springfield, and my show is Radioactive. Can anyone out there hear me?”
“This Is Ethan from L.A. and I’m here with Stop the Violence.”
“I’m sixteen but I’m not sweet.”
“Are you running the streets? Call the real runaway hotline.”
“This is Paul, everybody. Give me a call.”
“This is I Am, Are You?”
There’s been a lot of pontificating lately that the web is ripe for a blogging renaissance, wishing for it to be true. Much of it from people who don’t seem to notice that’s it’s already begun. Maybe they don’t anymore know quite where to look. Maybe the sorts of blogging they’re seeing isn’t what they mean. (To the blognoscenti, do things like “wordvomits” count?) If you haven’t seen it, either, that’s okay. All you have to do is choose to be a part of it. There’s never been a better time: those who managed to monopolize our attentions and keep too many of us chattering for a few hundred characters at a time to the benefit of advertisers are losing their relevance.
I’m not one for making personal resolutions, but let me suggest one on behalf of the blogosphere: this is the year we pump up the volume.
Nora’s not just talking to Mark, and Mark’s not just talking to other fictional teenagers. From three decades in the past, they’re talking to me. They’re talking to you. Even though no one’s been able to hear them because the film’s practically been consigned to history. Don’t you see? You’re the voice. You’re the voice you were waiting for.