Shop ‘Til You Drop

Shop ‘Til You Drop

Lean CuisineYears ago, every supermarket I would go into without fail would always play Muzak™. Apparently the benefits of broadcasting such fare in shopping emporia was that it was supposed to get people more involved in the consumer process and to subliminally convince them to actually buy more things. Nowadays, however, most supermarkets that I wander into opt instead to play a mainstream pop radio station. I’m not sure what the ultimate economic effect of this shift is, but it is something I’ve become more acutely attuned to as of late.

This is probably because I have the uncanny ability to walk into the two supermarkets in my neighborhood every time a Katy Perry song is playing on whichever radio station it is that these supermarkets feed through their speaker systems. Either that or Katy Perry songs are pretty much always on the radio no matter what time of the day it is. If it’s the former, I suppose I’m being punished for years of trying not to be trapped by my own personal judgments and to have an appreciation for all of the world’s music. But if it’s the latter, then there’s something tantamount to mind control at play on the airwaves.

Although one of these songs was literally stuck in my head for many hours after leaving the supermarket and at one point I woke up in the middle of the night with it running through my brain, I’m particularly annoyed by them. Rather I’m annoyed at the ubiquity of any song or anything else for that matter. I was riding on the Times Square/Grand Central shuttle about a month ago and every single spot in the entire subway train had been literally covered with ads for Lady Gaga’s new album. It felt somewhat akin to being in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq where every place you turned had an image of “the benevolent leader.” Yet it didn’t make me buy the album, which Amazon recently was offering customers for as low as one dollar.

There does seem to be a very concerted effort to force mainstream pop music into our consciousness whenever and wherever possible, presumably with the hope that folks will buy this stuff and the recording industry will rebound. According to reports released last week, overall sales of recorded music between January and June 2010 actually increased for the first time in more than seven years, so the plan must be working.  Lately every time I withdraw cash from an ATM I’m greeted with ads for three blockbuster summer pop music concerts I can’t miss—they’re always the same three concerts. Yet to show you how effectively this particular advertising scheme worked on me, the only one of the three that I can remember at the moment is Britney Spears, but that’s because I had already been saturated with information about her during grocery runs in years past. So supermarket song saturation is more effective than ATM messages, at least for me. Though thankfully I learned over the weekend that not every supermarket has the same soundtrack.

On Saturday, my wife and I wandered to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in search of hard-to-find Mexican ingredients for some recipes she was cooking up—there’s a big Latin American community in that part of the city as well as some amazing and very cheap Mexican taquerias, all of which are extremely authentic. When we walked in the big supermarket there—quite wonderfully named Bravo—I was in the process of preparing my cerebellum for another Katy Perry medley, when lo and behold instead there was a live band playing Dominican tipico meringue, accordion and all! It was at an ear splitting volume, so loud I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts. But nevertheless, it was an utter delight to hear some music in a public space that I had actually never heard before. Perhaps more people would be made curious about music if they constantly heard different things instead of the same stuff over and over again. While internal repetition in a specific piece of music can make for an ecstatic listening experience, hearing the same music over and over again usually makes people immune and ultimately oblivious to whatever might be fascinating about that music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “Shop ‘Til You Drop

  1. Kyle Gann

    It felt somewhat akin to being in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq where every place you turned had an image of “the benevolent leader.”

    Frank, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to the difference between a socialist totalitarian state and a corporate (= fascist) totalitarian state.

  2. Joseph Eidson

    Nice article, Frank! I just wanted to chime in that I too had such an experience with Katy Perry. I happened to hear “Firework” in a store and it would NOT leave my head for at least a week. Waking up in the middle of the night with “yadda yadda FIREWORK something something COLORS BURST” replaying over and over is a nightmare I would not wish on my worst enemy. Surely Mrs. Perry’s music needs to be classified as a controlled substance and tightly regulated by our government…


  3. Joseph Holbrooke

    “But if it’s the latter, then there’s something tantamount to mind control at play on the airwaves.”

    Frank, I agree but don’t share your cynicism. It is mind control but I think it is overall very positive. I see the Katy Perry songs, and the other top ten hits that are in constant rotation, as part of a massive propaganda campaign aimed at young people worldwide. The goal is to help them learn the values of our society and to develop enthusiasm about living life. For instance, check out the messages from the current top 10, numbers 4 and 7 are Ketty Perry songs:

    1. Enjoy your life.
    2. Work hard and enjoy the rewards.
    3. Love can be a rich and complicated experience, but that’s a good thing.
    4. Enjoy your life.
    5. Love can be fun and feel good.
    6. Love can be risky, but that’s a good thing.
    7. Foreigners are sexy and we should get to know them better.
    8. Love is hard to figure out.
    9. This could be a good life.
    10.Love can be a rich and complicated experience, but that’s a good thing.

    Sure it seems monotonous and overly simplified to us, but sometimes young people need this sort of saturation. Think about it like the voice on the train saying what train you are on, what direction you are going, and what stop is next. You’ve be riding the same train for years and you know every bump and turn on the rout. The voice coming over the speaker is not for you, it is for someone who just got on or doesn’t know where they are going.

    1. Frank J. Oteri


      I really love your spin on this even though I can’t quite agree with it. Curiously I’ve rarely been accused of cynicism. I’m usually accused of the reverse, but you might find me even more cynical once I say that it seems patronizing to state that “sometimes young people need this sort of saturation”. My very reason for being annoyed at the sonic barrage I described was not because of the specific music, but because of the barrage which has been, indeed, a “monotonous” “saturation.” I’d be equally annoyed if every day I had to listen to Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony (one of my favorite pieces in the world). That is, once I got over how cool it would be if every one listened to that every day!

      Bottom line: I’ve always had a hard time with “should” which dates back to when I was one of those “young people” which is why I got into this stuff in the first place. So-called contemporary music was something that didn’t feel like it was being shoved down my throat the way that mainstream pop music usually does. Interestingly, when I was young, I felt that standard repertoire classical music (like Beethoven and Mozart) was also being shoved down my throat when I was trying to learn about music history and I found that equally irritating.

      I’d be thrilled to learn more details about the top 10 songs you list. For my edification and that of the rest of our readers, could you tell us what they are? I suppose we could all look them up in Billboard but since chart positions keep changing I wouldn’t want to mismatch them. In the true confessions department, sometimes I do mismatch music. I’ve mixed up Mozart and Haydn chamber pieces before. Just yesterday (and I can already hear the scowls of folks who think that we should all be extremely well-versed in current pop culture), I thought I was hearing Katy Perry yet again at lunchtime when in fact it was Rihanna. To my uneducated ears, the overall song styling and vocal timbre (autotune and all) on “The Only Girl in the World” sounds remarkably similar to “Firework”. I would like to be able to better distinguish them. Help.

      1. Kyle Gann

        Yea, Frank! The word “should” should be expunged from aesthetics. As I’ve written, “must” should follow “music” only in the dictionary. I hate Zydeco because it gives me a headache, and I hate (God, dare I say it?) the blues (although I love boogie-woogie and bebop) because I don’t like having a feel several measures in advance for what the next harmony will be. Glad to see your cynical streak coming out in middle age. Anybody should be allowed to hate anything, as long as we’re not in a power position to censor the thing we hate.

      2. Joseph Holbrooke

        Here is the billboard charts:

        Some things moved around since my list, but no matter, you get the idea. It is mostly all the same all the time. But that’s my point. It is a relentless positive message that helps keep us on track.

        Did you see the news about the closing of the 405 in LA over the weekend? Can you imagine the kind of non stop propaganda campaign needed to make a project that big go so smoothly?

        Now think about scale. The hit songs in constant rotation are part of a project involving billions of people, not just millions. I’m not asking anyone to like it. But if you can understand its critical role in our thriving civilization you might not be so annoyed by it.

  4. Terence O'Grady

    When I was writing my PhD dissertation in musicology in the mid-170s, I chose a topic that was still pretty unusual at the time—the music of the Beatles. At that point in history, most of my colleagues in musicology (including the younger ones) tended to look down their noses at any and all popular music, not really attempting to differentiate between the various styles and artists at all. I thought that was a little close-minded. If they gave it a chance, I thought, they might even like some of it. (By the way, my advisor, Prof. Larry Gushee, was very different than most. He had given a talk on Frank Zappa at an AMS convention before I gave one on the Beatles and was surprisingly well versed in current popular music as well as being an expert on early jazz.)

    Fast-forward a few years. By the 1980s, the ethnomusicologists (always a broad-minded group and in this instance perfectly happy to steal a march on the straight musicologists) had begun to get very interested in popular music, with a preference for the popular music of non-western cultures, no matter how western pop-influenced it was). Eventually, many of the younger musicologists (American and European) began to come along for the ride and, in more recent years, have made some very significant contributions in the scholarship of popular music. (One could, of course, suggest that while they may have “studied” this music, they didn’t actually “like” this music. But I think in many cases they did.)

    And now, on sites like NewMusicBox, I find that it is almost de riguer to be a fan of pop music for various reasons, no doubt mostly sincere ones.

    But at this point in my life, I’d like to offer a dissenting voice on this matter. I don’t think anyone is under any obligation to like any popular music (or anything else for that matter) if the reason for doing so is to appear “liberal” or well-rounded in one’s listening tastes. It would be unfair to criticize any type or style of music if you never gave it a chance, of course. But if you try it, and don’t like it, that’s just fine in my opinion. Will you be accused of being close-minded if you let your views be known? Absolutely! At least in some circles. But so what?

    I don’t find the music of Katy Perry and Rihanna to be particularly interesting and I’m not in the least embarrassed to admit it. I find Mr. Holbrooke’s litany of the “values” implicit in these songs laughable. (I initially assumed I was supposed to.)

    Because so many people are “closed” to New Music, I think New Music composers and fans sometimes over-compensate by taking the position of being “open” to just about anything in the universe. If you feel that way, great! If you don’t, that’s OK too.


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