Even though I’m in my mid-twenties, I’m officially feeling old because of GTA 4. Somehow the Rockstar Games masterwork is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary in the same year that its successor, GTA 5, also celebrates its tenth anniversary. Truly wild times indeed, but as we take a look back at Grand Theft Auto 4, there is one element that still shines today – the brilliant selection of radio stations.
Enacting a satirical gusto within most GTA entries, Rockstar Games has continuously examined exactly what the so-called ‘American Dream’ is about over different stories. You’ve got the almost beat-for-beat retelling of Brian De Palma’s gangster hit Scarface in GTA Vice City. There are the stylings of Michael Mann’s Heat in GTA 5. Even GTA 4 pays homage to William Friedkin’s excellent The French Connection. Yet, story beats aside, any Grand Theft Auto game earns its worth in salt with a decent selection of tunes to explore cities like Los Santos, Vice City, or even Anywhere City for the old-school fans out there.
The radio stations in a GTA game are, on the surface, seen for their ability to create immaculate vibes. I mean look at Vice City and you’ll be enraptured by the late Laura Brannigan’s Fender Stratocaster-soaked Self Control. GTA 4 takes this one step further though, using its radio stations to directly tap into Liberty City itself and paint each district with distinct brushstrokes. Stations like The Beat 102.7 carve etchings into the streets of neighbourhoods like the Firefly Projects, Schottler, and downtown Broker. Lyrical musings from Nas’ War Is Necessary and Mobb Deep’s Dirty New Yorker fluctuate between asserting social dominance and hard-hitting truths about escalating street violence.
Rockstar Games has often revelled in the filth of Liberty City. In the PSP spin-off Liberty City Stories, the game’s fictitious newspaper the Liberty Tree states that “Liberty City [is] ranked [the] worst place in America. Again.” That same ethos breathes throughout the HD-era equivalent, manifesting itself in new ways. The contrast of status clashes, most of the time with guns drawn, is heavily in GTA 4 and it couldn’t be better exemplified in areas like Alderney, Star Junction, and East Holland.
Alderney stores away old mansions and housing estates perfect for retirement, or as holiday homes for the wealth-obsessed socialites found engaging in nefarious activities in nightclubs seen in The Ballad of Gay Tony DLC expansion. The musical delights of Electro Choc are imbued with a heap of EDM treats from Justice, The Chemical Brothers, and the favourite of Ryan Gosling fans, Kavinsky. Their synth-tinged soundscapes condensate on the mirrors of Nightclub bathrooms, while clubgoers and Liberty City’s upper-class residents wave around their gold watches and designer clothing.
It isn’t all just music that permeates the air of GTA 4, though. Sensationalist talk show segments found within the ironically labelled Integrity 2.0 station, featuring multi-game in-universe host, Lazlow Jones. The station is branded as “media inter-mingling” by Jones, as the host proclaims that Integrity 2.0 the next era of broadcasting called “Radio 2.0.” Before the conveniences and oversaturation of podcasts on streaming platforms, Integrity 2.0 allows players to experience Jones roaming the streets of Liberty City, bothering citizens and attempting to solidify himself as someone making “media history” with influencer-esque reporting.
In a way, Integrity 2.0 ties every area of GTA 4 together. The ludicrous state of Jones’ reporting and questionable subject matter piques the interest of the everyday citizen, no matter whether they’re making ends meet in Broker or living the high life in the Middle Park area. Jones is an essential part of the radio station line-up in GTA 4 in this regard.
But what about our protagonist, Niko Bellic? Trying to escape a life of regretful actions and hardships, stations like The Journey offer a tranquil landscape for escapism. Ambient music, mixing elements of shoegaze and electronica, is heard all over The Journey. In a city that never sleeps like Liberty City, a small semblance of peace is extremely valuable. A comfortable nature can be found in The Journey’s track listing, acting as a distraction away from Niko’s distorted reality of that aforementioned ‘American Dream’.
Named after the same Russian city, Vladivostok FM is noted as the preferred radio station for Niko, his cousin Roman Bellic, and antagonist Vladimir Glebov. It specialises in an array of music that appeal to each of their homelands, though Niko often laments through GTA 4 that he’d prefer to forget his time at war. Vladivostok’s inclusion further affirms the increased maturity of GTA 4, from a character perspective, as Niko’s plight originates in real-life events. Previously, other GTA characters have only had origins that remain based in the GTA universe. Bringing Yugoslavia into Niko’s past grounds the game in a fresh way, backed up with Vladivostok’s tracks to underscore it.
I can only hope that GTA 6 attempts to offer this kind of richly detailed attention to music – not just appealing to raw artist popularity. Revisiting the rumoured and leaked location of Vice City is ripe for a similar exploration that could examine the idea of faded 1980s nostalgia and the millennial concept of romanticising it.
Will the decade-long wait ultimately make it one of the best games in Rockstar’s library? We’ll find out in due course, but I hope there are some great radio stations to dive into.