I recently spent a pleasant 45 minutes shopping at Kohl’s. Like a lot of stores, they have music playing all the time you’re there, usually pop and, I assume, current (I never recognize it). It’s always there in the background, sort of like white noise. And sometimes I can go through a whole shopping experience without ever once stopping to listen to it.
The thing is, I hate music like that as a general rule. I want voices I can recognize. Take Emmylou Harris, for example. Her voice is so distinctive that every time I hear it, even if she’s singing backup for somebody like Willie Nelson (and she frequently is), I know instantly that’s Emmylou. Nobody else sounds like that. Same thing with Rosanne Cash. Ditto James McMurtry and Steve Earle and Joe Ely. Nobody else sounds like them.
Now before you assume that I’m getting ready to launch into a diatribe against Today’s Pop Music, let me say that this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. Walk around a mall at Christmas. Just try to identify that male singer who’s crooning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Steve Lawrence? Tony Bennett? Jack Jones? At least if it’s Brave Combo, you’ll recognize it.
I guess that’s the point about music that’s played in malls and grocery stores—it’s supposed to be anonymous. You’re not supposed to actually listen to it. No, you’re supposed to let it lull you into pleasant relaxation so that maybe you’ll buy a little more than you thought you would.
But I really think retailers are missing a bet here. Places that cater to teens and subteens, like Hot Topic, always have current pop blaring from the speakers to put their customers in a reckless, what-the-hell frame of mind. Why not come up with musical selections that make you want to listen, and maybe to buy? Hearing McMurtry sing the praises of a red dress might make you more prone to buy an outfit that’s outrageous. Guy Clark’s song about Texas cooking always makes me hungry—play it in the grocery store and see what happens.
Maybe they could go even further than that. I wonder what would happen if stores decided to make you feel happy instead of rushed and broke. Something that would make you want to dance while check out the charcoal lighter. Think of it. Shoe shopping to Smokey Robinson. Doing a second line to Dr. John at the Mall. Or bopping up the aisles to Sing It when you’re looking for CD’s. Something to make you boogie around the store, singing along while you look for frozen peas.
Or maybe not. Given some of the people I’ve seen in stores lately, it might be best that we just keep it bland. But then, who am I to say? Maybe that eighty-year-old who’s taking her time reading the soup labels would really love to hear some Elvis.
So what do you think? Whose voice would you like to hear while you’re picking out lingerie or tomato sauce or varnish? Or would you prefer (sigh) silence?