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Ed Driscoll

Lost in a Supermarket

April 7th, 2011 - 12:27 pm

Attention, ShopRite management: The Scorpions are a fine heavy metal group.* They are not a fine example of supermarket muzak. The same can be said for AC/DC, the Georgia Satellites, and Elvis Costello, all of whom I heard while making a quick expedition to one of your stores today. Regarding Mr. Costello, “Pump It Up” ** is one of the finest songs about masturbation ever written; for that same reason, it is also not a fine example of supermarket muzak.

Plus it’s insulting to the musicians. How must it feel to walk out of a recording studio knowing that your group just nailed the dirtiest, nastiest, rudest heavy metal song ever recorded in the history of man, and then 20 years later hear it on the speakers of a suburban supermarket walking down the frozen foods aisle? Back when I was a kid, rock and roll was something hard and bracing with a veneer of still being slightly “underground” that you had to seek out; supermarket muzak was all syrupy strings and soothing melodies.

At some point in the mid-1990s, I guess, that all went out the window. Back in 2007, in a meditation on “Present-Tense Culture” and Alan Bloom’s The Closing Of The American Mind, Mark Steyn quoted Bloom’s statement that “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself,” and added that in terms of music for public consumption, “We are all rockers now.” And when your local supermarket’s muzak is indistinguishable from your local Classic Rock FM station, despite having a much more diverse clientele, both statements are more true than ever:

Bloom is writing about rock music the way someone from the pre-rock generation experiences it. You’ve no interest in the stuff, you don’t buy the albums, you don’t tune to the radio stations, you would never knowingly seek out a rock and roll experience—and yet it’s all around you. You go to buy some socks, and it’s playing in the store. You get on the red eye to Heathrow, and they pump it into the cabin before you take off. I was filling up at a gas station the other day and I noticed that outside, at the pump, they now pipe pop music at you. This is one of the most constant forms of cultural dislocation anybody of the pre-Bloom generation faces: Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music. I was at the airport last week, sitting at the gate, and over the transom some woman was singing about having two lovers and being very happy about it. And we all sat there as if it’s perfectly routine. To the pre-Bloom generation, it’s very weird—though, as he notes, “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.” Whether or not rock music is the soundtrack for the age that its more ambitious proponents tout it as, it’s a literal soundtrack: it’s like being in a movie with a really bad score. So Bloom’s not here to weigh the merit of the Beatles vs. Pink Floyd vs. Madonna vs. Niggaz with Attitude vs. Eminem vs. Green Day. They come and go, and there is no more dated sentence in Bloom’s book than the one where he gets specific and wonders whether Michael Jackson, Prince, or Boy George will take the place of Mick Jagger. But he’s not doing album reviews, he’s pondering the state of an entire society with a rock aesthetic.

Regarding that entire society with a rock aesthetic, a couple of years earlier, after hearing The Cars’ “Drive” on his local supermarket’s muzak, James Lileks wrote:

Not their best song, and I believe it was one of those “let the bassist get one out of his system” numbers. Still, this represented victory. In my skinny-tie days we had the conceit that our music stood in opposition to THE SYSTEM, whatever that was. The grocery stores played Muzak versions of songs that were muzak to begin with – I mean, you don’t truly understand the banality of the melody of “Horse with No Name” until it’s played by a string section. In retrospect I miss the Muzak; I really do. Part of me now wants a grocery store that’s brightly lit with big googie graphics and chipper music-to-seduce-Stepford-wives songs percolating away in the rafters. But that’s over; we won. There’s no alternative to the old alternatives anymore.

Or as Lileks wrote last year, “In fact if I managed a store today I’d play the old Muzak; some could enjoy it Ironically, others could enjoy it for what it was, cool and distant, a soundtrack of idle consumerism.”

Plus with the whole Mad Men early-’60s fad, it would seem pretty cool to shop in a store that looks like this — and sounds like it, too.

* I saw the Scorpions in concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum around 1985; my hearing finally returned at 3:27 PM on Tuesday of last week.

** My old rock group played “Pump It Up” once or twice back then; the chromatic main riff was certainly lots of fun to bash out. Before it become music to shop for Fresca.

They were playing Cars over the PA system. “Drive,” as it happened. Not their best song, and I believe it was one of those “let the bassist get one out of his system” numbers. Still, this represented victory. In my skinny-tie days we had the conceit that our music stood in opposition to THE SYSTEM, whatever that was. The grocery stores played Muzak versions of songs that were muzak to begin with – I mean, you don’t truly understand the banality of the melody of “Horse with No Name” until it’s played by a string section. In retrospect I miss the Muzak; I really do. Part of me now wants a grocery store that’s brightly lit with big googie graphics and chipper music-to-seduce-Stepford-wives songs percolating away in the rafters. But that’s over; we won. There’s no alternative to the old alternatives anymore.

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