I was in Stop and Shop a couple of days ago, and I heard Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded me With Science” playing over the speakers. I went home, turned on the TV, and saw a commercial for some sort of something involving the purchase of something I apparently have been dreaming about, with “Sweet Dreams,” by Eurythmics playing in the background. Then, a few days later, while I was waiting for a friend of mine to try on some clothes in a Macy’s fitting room, The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” started to play over the store speakers.
The whole thing reminded me of a scene in the film “Broadcast News,” where Albert Brooks, playing a news writer, tells news producer Holly Hunter about why the new anchorman, William Hurt (who is basically a pretty face with no brain) is the Devil. Satan will not be monstrous looking, Brooks says. He will be good looking and charming, and instead of destroying you all at once, he will convince you to settle for less and less, just a little bit at a time, until you look back and realize that you’ve completely sacrificed your ideals.
I know...it was just a couple of songs, and I must accept that, at 50, I’m part of a prime consumer target audience. People want me to buy things, and, while buying things, they want me to think back to my teen years, when MTV meant not reality shows, but an astronaut planting a day glow flag with the network’s logo on the moon, and actual music videos played all day long.
Again, I know...hey, if making me think of my teen years means that I buy things and keep the economy moving, then it’s all good, right?
At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel like Benjamin the donkey in “Animal Farm,” when he tells the horse Clover that all of the idealistic commandments of the farm have dwindled down to “All Animals Are Equal...But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”
I’m having a lot of moments like this, where some small thing will make me realize that there have been many, many changes, all of them so incremental that you don’t notice them until you pull back and realize that many incremental changes add up to major changes. Sometimes this is a good thing--such as those times I suddenly realize that my students have grown and matured in life affirming ways--but many other times, it makes me cringe.
I think about how, when I became a librarian, it was a sacred tenet of my profession that whatever people checked out was their business, and that libraries simply didn’t violate that person’s right to privacy, at least not without a fight. I think about how, when I was younger, there were many local television stations, each with their local flavor, and how all of the syndicated stations now just seem like satellites of vast corporate entities. I think about how there were many, many more local businesses.
And I think about the music I used to hear in department stores and commercials.
Department store music used to mean something called MUZAK. This often consisted of kitschy versions of popular music, and there were, in fact, tons of radio stations that used to play this stuff. My dad loved it, and whenever he took me to the office as a kid, I was in for forty five minutes of rich, orchestral string versions of Beatles classics.
More than the radio, however, you heard this stuff wherever you shopped. Often, it wasn’t even any particular pop song. It was original music that created a kind of numbing, soothing background to the serious business of being an American consumer.
It was such a component of shopping, in fact, that it often made its way into movies as a ripe target for satire. Mention the original 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” in the same sentence that you mention MUZAK, and any horror movie fan will start singing:
And when I turned on the TV as a kid, commercials had original music. These were things called “jingles,” and if you grew up when I grew up, you learned them by heart. If you’re much younger and reading this, none of the following will mean anything, but for folks my age, it will cause a flood of memories sufficient to trigger a stroke: hold the pickle; Coke is it; feeling 7 Up; you deserve a break today; gooey gooey rich and chewy inside; I wish I were an Oscar Meyer weiner; I am stuck on Band Aid brand ‘cause Band Aid’s stuck on me; the Meow Mix song; Schaeffer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one; when it’s time to relax, one beer stands clear, beer after beer; Me and my RC, me and my RC...what’s good enough, for other folks, ain’t good enough for me; wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too; the incredible edible egg; if it doesn’t say O, Oreo, than it isn’t an Oreo; hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us; Hershey is the great American chocolate bar; and so on, and so on.
The thing about these two things--department store music and TV commercials--is that they left contemporary music alone. Yes, MUZAK occasionally did watered down versions of some notable piece of music, and yes, there were those occasional commercials that featured a well-known song (The Doors accepted $75,000 for Buick to use “Light My Fire” in a commercial). Still though, the rule was that department stores and grocery stores were the province of MUZAK, and commercials were the province of jingles...and they never, ever used the original piece of music.
That all started to change in the 80s, when legendary artists began to sell out left and right. There was the misery of a Michelob beer commercial featuring Eric Clapton knocking back a few with his band while “After Midnight” played over it. Then there was the depressing spectacle of musicians hawking Honda Scooters, the saddest of these featuring Lou Reed, with “Walk on the Wild Side” playing in the background, looking at the camera and saying “Hey...don’t settle for walkin’.”
Now it’s slipped even further. When Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” accompanied a commercial for a cruise line company, it just felt as if Satan won yet another small victory in his quest to destroy all the rebellious, life affirming power that music has. There are even times where publicity for an artist mentions a commercial that features a song by that artist. In fact, that’s been going on a while; when I was in a used CD store (there are still a few kicking around), the cover for a Nick Drake CD had a label that said “featuring ‘Pink Moon,’ as heard in the new Volkswagen Cabrio commercial.”
And then there are department stores and supermarkets, where all this music I grew up with (and plenty of music that is current) has now become the new MUZAK. When I was growing up, we used to call that cheesy music “elevator music.” Now, the music of my childhood--and the childhood of today’s children--is often the very music you hear in elevators.
What makes it perhaps the most upsetting for me is the realization that this has, of course, been the norm for a long time. I just didn’t notice the way it creeped up. A frog doesn’t notice when the water in the pot is getting warmer, and it boils to death.
Look, I know the music is the music. I know that I can listen to it at home or with friends, and enjoy it as much as I ever have. At the same time, though, whenever I hear a song in a commercial or hear one at the mall (or the supermarket, or the elevator), part of me dies.
This music used to inspire me to rebel against the oppressive drive to conform to a consumer culture. Now, it seems, it’s all about getting me to buy something.