Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Quality of Supermarket Muzak

Something odd happens every time I go to the supermarket now. I should preface by saying I love going there anyway. It occurred to me last night while picking up a few items (coffee soy milk, peanut butter, a big bottle of this weird Greek grape drink “made with real aloe” although it’s pretty much high-fructose junk, but the aloe is real, and I lightly chew on the small bits as I drink this). But the air conditioning, the lighting, the small thrill of spending money, particularly on food that provides sustenance. Even in a bad supermarket, I enjoy myself.

I’m not sure if all supermarkets are like this, but there’s one by my place, part of the Best Yet chain (which I’d never heard of before it bought the old Waldbaums there previously), that has the best muzak I’ve ever heard. It’s not even muzak – it’s clearly either satellite radio geared towards an extremely tasteful oldies station, or some programmed music that really works. In short order, yesterday I heard: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding, “Heaven” by The Talking Heads, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” by The Monkees, “So Alive” by Love and Rockets, “The Wanderer” by Dion and the Belmonts, and “Nights on Broadway” by The Bee Gees. It’s like this every time I go in, a cross-section of hits spanning the 50s to the 80s. The muzak being played in my supermarket is vastly preferable to the predictable sounds that come spilling out of any jukebox in any bar.

Do kids today even know what muzak is? Until a few years ago, every time you walked into a supermarket, elevator or doctor’s office (or were put on hold), you heard muzak: orchestral versions of hit songs that were often schmaltzy or mind-bendingly bizarre in their arrangements. Sometimes, it wouldn’t even be hits – just casual, leisurely orchestral music designed to chill everyone out. Think Lawrence Welk.

But I guess those days are gone. Most public places now, I hear identifiable pop music being played on sound systems. My gym plays the worst fucking music: late 90s pop. I guess they figure the gym is populated mostly by people in their mid-to-late 20s, therefore they play this shitty music from these folks’ teen years. I can’t even identify the artists – if it’s not late 90s, then it’s current. I don’t ever need to hear “Hollaback Girl” again – the though of this woman in her mid-30s singing such a fucking infantile, bad song – it boggles the mind. (It’s “Micky” for today? I always thought “Micky” was a pretty generic new-wave song, made all the worse by its constant repetition over the years. Does anyone listen to that song seriously and enjoy it? Don’t answer that.) Or some band of post-Mickey Mouse Club wiggers in pajamas drawling “yeah, yeah, yo Dre, turn it up” while they croon some horrendous, generic “soul”/vaguely hiphop number. The only thing worse is the occasional emo/hard rock song with some goateed 19-year-old braying like a billy boat with his balls caught in a vice. It’s either that or generic Matchbox 20-style rock, which I’ve never been able to listen to.

That’s the reason I wear headphones when I get on a cardio machine or lift weights. My boxing classes, the instructor favors a mix of hiphop and caribbean soca-style stuff. Really not that awful, but it’s background noise to me. There’s a guy at the Tuesday class, another instructor, who boxes alone before our class begins, and he’s invariably blasting nothing but Eminem at ear-splitting volume while he goes apeshit on one of those long kickboxing bags. I can’t be in the same room – it’s literally uncomfortable to be in the room with the music that loud. Nice enough guy when you talk to him, but his taste in music, man, it blows. And I haven’t quite made the correlation to how loud music improves a workout.

I’m in mild shock that the supermarket is the one public place that “gets” it musically. Then again, I’ve thought about this and have to wonder. At my age, I’m fully aware music made from the 50s to the 80s is now considered “oldies” in some sense. Yes, even all those hip alt 80s bands – they’ve been around two decades now. And never mind that current “hip” bands are pale imitations of them (The Arctic Monkeys? Meh. I hear all these bands critics and hipsters carry on over and think one thing: been there, done that, next.) Music from the 50s and 60s is not “my” music. I wasn’t born in the 50s, and I was a small child in the 60s. “My” music was the 70s and 80s. I’ve gone on listening to pop music since then, have taken in country, blues, big band, soul, reggae, etc, along the way, but naturally the music of my youth is 70s and 80s. And only with the 70s do I allow myself to love some of the really bad popular stuff.

With the supermarket, I’m wondering, what does some kid make of this music? Like it? Recognize that it’s generally much better than the schlock that’s being vomited on him these days? Think it’s annoying? Think it’s bad? I ask these questions, because I cast myself back to the teenager I was in the late 70s, in a supermarket in Pennsylvania, and I can’t imagine anyone liking that music. The caveat is that canned muzak was playing on the system – probably a samba version of “Yellow Submarine.” I know the music has changed since then, but I’m wondering how much I’ve slipped into the role of an older person “digging the oldies” as he shops in a supermarket, as opposed to a lifelong music fan who appreciates the good shit the supermarket is now inexplicably playing on their sound system.

Whatever the case, it’s a strange feeling to realize the fucking supermarket is a much hipper place to hang than most bars these days. They played “Mama Mia” by ABBA last week. What a long, strange trip it’s been with that band. Of course, ABBA are now considered pop geniuses, despite or because of the cheese factor that accompanied their routine: two married Swedish couples singing in phonetic English. I surely recall the 80s and even early 90s, when you couldn’t find an ABBA CD anywhere, they were considered some lost, campy 70s band that rightfully faded away, and the first collection I finally found for them was a greatest hits import from the UK that made the hipster at the record store snicker when he bagged it.

Take it further back in time. Brother M, who had a good-sized collection of 70s pop singles, played records constantly in the basement, where he had a stereo, a chair and a small barrel to put his albums and singles on while he sat there, listened to music and smoked. That was it – his teenage domain. I’d eventually invade his domain by lifting weights down there, but there wasn’t much overlap as he’d head down there later in the evening. His tastes started out cheesy enough, but eventually he got high-faluting by 70s standards, getting into prog rock and Steely Dan, and the kicker, Todd Rundgren and Utopia stuff, some of which is stamped on my brain. (Todd's Hermit of Mink Hollow album is indelibly tied in with Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey as a result of him dogging the eight-track on one our summer shore visits to our uncle’s house there.)

Since Brother M got so heavily into “intelligent” rock (fucker stole my Alan Parsons Project I Robot album), he often found the stuff I was listening to laughable. Queen. ABBA. ELO. I remember him mimicking the idiotic chorus to “Telephone Line” at me (“Doo-wop/ Diddy-doo-do-wop/ Do-wah Do-Lang/ Blue Days/ Black Nights/ Do-Wah Do Lang”), as a not-so-subtle hint that the latest three-song (in outline format) Utopia album was way beyond that silly pop shit. Most of the kids in his graduating class chose Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” as their favorite song. (A bunch of stoned idiots, really – that’s not even the best song on that album. And I can guarantee not one of those stoners puts on that song now and thinks, "Ah, the good old days." He thinks, "What the fuck was I smoking the day they passed around the "favorites" sheet for us to fill out?")

Well, one night, I clearly remember, there was a thunderstorm, and I couldn’t sleep, so I went downstairs and for whatever reason, tried to sleep on the sofa. It must have been past midnight, one of those hot/humid nights where sleeping is just not good, no matter what you do. To add to the insomnia, I could hear bass rumblings coming from the basement: Brother M was down there listening to music. Probably just back from various teen misadventures with various troubled youth from the neighborhood.

After about half an hour, a startling revelation occurred to me: he was playing ABBA’s song “Mama Mia” over and over, at top volume. He must have been high, that was my only explanation. If he thought ELO were a bunch of jackasses, ABBA was beneath contempt. (I had all their singles in the 70s … don’t think I ever bought an ABBA album … that only happened in the 90s when their material started being reissued.) I was afraid to go down there, and find some space alien sitting in front of the stereo instead of Brother M.

I’ve kept that secret for almost 30 years. Cat’s out the bag now! Not much of a secret, really, but when I heard “Mama Mia” in the supermarket the other week, I immediately pictured 17-year-old Brother M, in a tie-dye shirt with “Young Americans” on the front in home-made block letters, smoking, huddled in the darkness on a stormy summer night, listening to this great pop song alone in the middle of the night, lest he die of shame for publicly admitting he liked it.

Ended up buying a six-pack, mega-roll of Charmin, shit, almost $10, but closer to $8 with the coupon I had, while I traveled in time from Queens to a small town in northeast Pennsylvania.


Andy S. said...

"coffee soy milk ... a big bottle of this weird Greek grape drink “made with real aloe”"

Yecch!! You put shit like this into your body, but you're worried about what someone's putting into your ears??

Jeff B. said...

I recall Elvis Costello saying that ``Dancing Queen'' was an influence on the piano line for ``Oliver's Army,'' so maybe the separation between pure pop and ``intelligent'' rock has never been that much. I've always been an unembarrassed Abba fan. ``Dancing Queen'' fit into a nice rotation with ``Fox on the Run'' and ``Island Girl'' on mid-1970s WIFI 92 in Philly.

procol said...