Ed Driscoll

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

An Alternet author has a sad because her local supermarket plays the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” in the background. Or as Matt Welch writes at Reason, “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But the Rolling Stones Should Be Banned From Trader Joe’s!”

Today’s not-The-Onion headline comes from AlterNet:

Trader Joe’s NYC Store Defends ‘Racist, Sexist, and Misogynistic’ Songs on Playlist

Even after Elliot Rodger’s killing spree, Trader Joe’s manager says the store will keep playing a famous song that demeans women.

Even after Elliot Rodger’s killing spree! The nerve of these supermarket managers, not policing their Muzak to weed out songs that no one besides an AlterNet contributor could dream of linking to the Isla Vista massacre! Author Lynn Stuart Parramore goes on to describe her confrontation with store management over the misogynistic classic “Under My Thumb“:

Why should I have to hear about a guy comparing his girlfriend to a dog while I’m buying vegetables?

I decided to ask Trader Joe’s this question. Just so they would know I wasn’t making things up, I printed out the lyrics to “Under My Thumb” and brought them into the store with me. I was directed to a young man named Kyle Morrison at the manager’s station, to whom I explained in friendly terms that I was a frequent shopper and that I had heard a song playing over the sound system which, in the wake of the Elliot Rodger killing spree, made me feel uncomfortable. I told him the name of the song, and offered him the paper with the lyrics. […]

Without looking at the page, Morrison’s first response was to tell me rather smugly that art was a matter of interpretation. I asked him to read the lyrics, and let me know how he interpreted them. He said he didn’t have time, so I read off a few for him.

“Do you think those lyrics are offensive to women?” I asked.

He looked uncomfortable. “It’s just like the radio in your car,” he argued. “There are all kinds of songs playing on different stations.” […]

I did manage to reach Trader Joe’s customer service department and spoke to someone named “Nicki” (she refused to give her last name), who told me robotically that the music lists were set and Trader Joe’s would not change them.

“Even if they are offensive to women shopping in your stores?” I asked. “No one ever complains,” she said curtly. “I’m complaining,” I replied.

Why yes, Lynn, you are!

Misogyny being a regrettable part of life; romantic struggle being the single biggest subject of pop/rock music, and art being art, we will always have songs that fail the Parramore Test.

It’s nice to know that even as he’s a month away from turning 71 years old, Mick Jagger can still offend someone. But to understand how this moment came to be, return with us now to the not-so-thrilling days of 36 years ago, when supermarkets and retail stores still universally played easy listening instrumental Muzak in the background. When my father built his retail store in South Jersey in 1977 and installed an AM/FM receiver and overhead speakers in the customer portion of the store, one of my first questions about it went something like this:

ED JR.: Dad, can we put the radio in the store on WYSP or WMMR [then the two biggest rock stations in neighboring Philadelphia]?

ED SR.: No.

ED JR.: Aww, how come?

ED SR.: We’re going to play [whoever was the easy listening instrumental station in Philadelphia.] Because the music isn’t for us. It’s for the customers.

Presumably, boomers with dads who owned businesses had conversations like that throughout the post-Beatles-era America, until one day, Dads got fed up enough to collectively give in, and said in unison, “Fine. Leave us alone — put whatever the hell you want on in the background if it’ll make you happy,” and the boomers won the argument.

For someone who grew up when easy listening background music really was the universal background music for retail shopping, it’s still sort of shocking now to walk through a supermarket and hear songs such as the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,”  or Led Zeppelin, or Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up,” which, as I’ve written before, is one of the finest songs about masturbation ever written, and for that very reason is not a suitable choice for supermarket Muzak, which didn’t stop the Moorestown, New Jersey ShopRite from playing it when I was in town to visit my mother a few months before she passed away.

Last week in Northern California, I heard my local Safeway playing The Clash’s “London Calling” on their supermarket Muzak system. Whatever paeans to socialism Joe Strummer may have composed during his heyday, I’m sure the surviving members of the band appreciate the royalty checks, but it’s just surreal to hear what was once described as punk rock becoming background music for being a pound of steak and a 20-pack of Diet Coke.

But these songs really are background music compared to the Gangsta (Sic) Rap my local 24 Hour Fitness plays for a couple of days a week, interspersed with other days, when it’s the obligatory classic rock and fast-paced techno workout music. Rap days lend a truly post-Weimar feeling when sweating away on the various Nautilus machines while in the background atonal grunted lyrics with frequent references to pimps, hos (sic) and popping caps in whitey’s ass waft gently from the background at 120 decibels in volume.

But then, as Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, which also discussed the ubiquity of rock, at the apex of the MTV era, “It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.” That line was quoted by Mark Steyn on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Bloom’s book, in a meditation on “Present-Tense Culture”:

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.”

But this is the world that the Boomers created. Along the way, their elders crafted rock songs as weapons, to help usher in the new world of nihilism they thought. So sorry if today’s generation isn’t enjoying the wreckage or the soundscape, but if they’d like to go back to the previous generation’s retail Muzak, I’m certainly game. Or as James Lileks wrote in 2010, “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.”

In the meantime, Stacy McCain has some words of wisdom for vaporish Alternet readers who now wish their supermarket Muzak to come with trigger warnings, a la Tom Sawyer or the Great Gatsby at Oberlin:

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