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25 August 2021

BBC Radio 6 Music’s The Happiness Map is pure escapism disguised as a chat show

Listening to musicians discuss their best travel experiences is both magical and otherworldly. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

Travel and live music – two victims of the pandemic that has consumed the last year and a half. It therefore seems a bit on the nose for BBC Radio 6 Music to have envisioned a whole series in which musicians share their favourite travel destinations. Yet this is what The Happiness Map is all about, with the travel journalist Rob Crossan (one imagines his usual work has been in short supply for him during 18 months of lockdowns) quizzing artists from Elvis Costello (New Orleans) to Emmy the Great (Hong Kong) on their faraway adventures and the music they associate with those places.

In one episode (15 August, 1pm), the DJ The Blessed Madonna (real name Marea Stamper) waxes lyrical about Iceland – a land where the sun never fully sets in summer, which boasts the oldest parliament in Europe and which has more authors per head of population than anywhere on Earth. Iceland is currently on the UK green list and accepting fully vaxxed visitors, and listening made me seriously consider booking a flight. “It’s everything that you have in your mind from your Björk fantasies,” Stamper gushes, before introducing a track from the Icelandic singer’s 1980s alternative rock band, the Sugarcubes. (Listening while stuck in traffic on the M40, I find I’m dancing in my seat.)

[See also: BBC Radio 4’s My Teenage Diary is as delightful – and embarrassing – as ever]

Over 60 minutes of reminiscence and Icelandic electro pop, Crossan and Stamper chart their way from the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon, across “a landscape that bubbles and spits at you”, to Iceland’s uniquely “hedonistic” festival scene. The Happiness Map, and its tantalising exploration of distant places, is pure escapism disguised as a chat show. Iceland is “almost a naturally psychedelic location”, Stamper says. “It feels magical, it feels otherworldly.” That’s sort of what listening feels like too.

Perhaps there isn’t much of a point to this programme other than to remind us that life exists beyond the living room walls that formed the boundaries of our lockdown existence. Stamper says she is soon off to Iceland herself – proof that the world is finally starting to open up again. It made me hopeful and anxious in equal measure. But the music was a refreshing departure from the chart favourites that plague commercial radio. And it got me through my traffic jam.

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat