Fear Itself: Cruising for Music
Issue #59, February 2002
Record stores are curious, unmusical places. They bear no trace of the collective excitement that greets even the most humdrum live concert. Instead, they are laced with consumerist anxiety and loneliness. Collectors hover over stacks of eight or ten CDs, trying to winnow them down to six or seven. Amateurs stare helplessly at a sea of Sibelius.
— Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Compare the loneliness of record stores to the sociability of book superstores. In Mark Alan Stamaty's comic strip Boox, clerks at the fictional superstore Coddler Books regale customers with pizza parties and bedtime stories. Real-life clerks at such "big box bookstores" as Borders and Barnes & Noble complain of customers who stain books with cappuccinos, smuggle them to the restroom to jack off, or stand idly by while stray toddlers pee on the shelves. "Rather remarkably," Jim Collins writes in the Harvard Design Magazine, "the [book] superstores have cultivated an atmosphere that allows, if not encourages, their patrons to ignore or suppress the consumer impulse and to use them as substitutes for the lending library." People can settle in with their books and with one another at these stores; they are places for living.
It is odd that print — some say the most solitary medium — should give rise to a vibrantly social marketplace, while music — perhaps the most elementally collective mode of communication — should feel so solitary in its consumption. Music stores were also once places for living. In the movie Hairspray, John Waters' paean to early-1960s' Baltimore, a little music store on the wrong side of town is lovingly depicted as something halfway between a record shop and a record hop. Neighborhood kids dance in the aisles as storeowner and local personality Motormouth Mabell deejays from behind the counter. Waters even depicts the little store as a flash point in the local desegregation battle, as white kids venture across the tracks to shop and hop with the black kids.
By contrast, in the post-millennial music superstore, there is no place to sit, no place to talk, no place to dance. There is only an endless array of titles, genres, aisles, and sections that cows all but the most in-the-know young buyers. For adults who are past their peak concert and club going years, music stores are among the few spaces of public, collective, musical experience. Yet music shopping itself feels restless, insular — an entirely means-ends proposition. "The ... people I like," says the record-dealer narrator in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, "are the ones who are being driven to find a tune that has been troubling them, distracting them, a tune that they can hear in their breath when they run for a bus, or in the rhythm of their windshield wipers when they're driving home from work." People often seem to be on so desperate a mission to find the right records — the ones that will maximize their future pleasure — that no social contact can be allowed to distract them.
In a 1983 music video, backed by a hypnotic synthesizer line, Annie Lennox, looking very much the dominatrix, glares at the camera and gestures toward the gold and platinum records mounted on the wall behind her. "Sweet dreams are made of these," she sings. The silence of music stores is not that of connoisseurs but of addicts or "johns" reduced to a needy, animal state. In the music trade, the "production of demand" is not just an economic abstraction or an exercise in marketing savvy; rather, it involves the trafficking of a powerfully addictive anaesthetic. Popular music is a regime: it is a system of power and a regulated structure of behavior, and we are its willing subjects. Audiophiles argue about the comparative merits of albums and singles, but the true value in pop music — the true unit of measurement in its regime — is neither the album nor the song but the hook. A pop musical hook is an endorphin fix, a love-removal machine, a sex toy for the audio-erotic. "We are in the nicotine-delivery business," Jeffrey Wigand famously admitted on 60 Minutes, describing how Brown & Williamson calibrated the amount of nicotine in tobacco to augment consumption. The music industry is in the hook-delivery business. Hooks are meted out sparingly like carrots on sticks, like the rapid-fire glimpses of midriffs in music videos. We flock to music stores in pursuit of hooks, scanning the aisles for sounds to ease the misery a little, like a mother's soothing voice or the rumble of a womb. In the music store, everybody's looking for something.
The street-level dealers of pop hooks are the clerks. No doubt all kinds of salespeople harbor a certain private contempt for their customers, but music store clerks are a breed apart. A faux newsbrief from The Onion nicely captures the requisite attitude for music store work:
"Record Store Clerk Gazes Down From On High In Aloof Indifference" (Austin, TX) — Lording a full 14 inches over the miserable, vulgar wretches who roam the aisles of Dave's Discs, record store clerk Bryce Lukas surveyed the teeming masses from his position at the front counter with a mixture of indifference and scorn Tuesday. "See them scurry for their precious Bob Marley and Metallica CDs," Lukas said. "One almost pities them, these corporate sheep who have never even heard of The High Llamas or the Future Bible Heroes, much less Tortoise. Yet they are content, are they not, to inhabit their Sony-Elektra world, fulfilling their tedious R.E.M.-consumption duties?" Lukas then lowered himself to the level of a customer to direct her to the latest Sarah McLachlan release. "Aisle four, just past soundtracks," he muttered, eyes half-closed, with a dismissive, irritated wave.
Nowadays, as the performances in pop videos more and more resemble army drills or taebo routines, pop music itself increasingly resounds with power and discipline. All current pop music seems to aspire to be music that "doesn't involve but subjugates," music that "turns the dance floor into a gulag." Simon Reynolds used those words to describe late 1980s' dance group Front 242, but they are even more true today. The music store, too, has become like a gulag, where the clerks are the masters of puppets. Record stores may be the only legal businesses where salespeople can be so openly sadistic. In Hornby's novel, the gonzo clerk Barry "simply bulldozes customers into submission. He rubbishes them because they don't own the first Jesus and Mary Chain album, and they buy it, and he laughs at them because they don't own Blonde on Blonde, so they buy that, and he explodes in disbelief when they tell him that they have never heard of Ann Peebles, and then they buy something of hers, too." Though the context of this fiction is a humble boutique record shop, it seems to presage a capitalist future where the consumer is no longer king, but a drudge who takes orders from the very workers claiming to serve him.
If the reigning emotion of record stores is quiet desperation, record chains and their suppliers have tried to contain or at least rationalize this desperation. Scholar Will Straw notes that starting in the 1970s, music executives worried by the drop-off in adult buyers started speaking of "selection stress," the anxiety of consumers faced with an array of unintelligible goods. Straw writes, "The chain store confronted middle-aged shoppers with young, frighteningly subcultural sales clerks and heavy metal music blasting from an entrance which was itself blocked by displays of unrecognizable (to these shoppers) current recordings." In an effort to ease selection stress and boost profits, music companies have moved to eliminate from the transaction even the tense bit of sociality between customer and clerk — to eliminate, in fact, everything and everyone that stands between the hook and the solitary consumer. The industry's old marketing strategies of tours and broadcasting have thus given way, not only to the Internet, but also to a battery of in-store promotional tools. Though record stores have long been among the most advertising-intensive commercial spaces — besieging customers with oversized displays, blaring audiovisuals, and endless piles of ad-filled magazines — the spatial design of these stores has, of late, become more subtle and multi-layered. Using online databases as well as point-of-sale technologies, music companies can now target consumers with deadly precision, converting the physical space of the music store into a hypermedia-like, human indexing system.
The centerpiece of this new commercial design is the listening station, a technology that finally enables the private, antiseptic communion between consumer and commodity that sellers crave, even within the ostensibly public space of the store. If the record store is the red light district of the music business and the clerks its hard-edged pimps, the listening stations are its peep shows, where lonesome, lecherous encounters between buyers and goods are briefly and teasingly sanctioned. The only listening station I've ever found tolerable was at the Blockbuster Music store in my old home city of Tampa. Seats were arranged around a circular bar where you'd bring your off-the-shelf selections. An attendant unwrapped your CDs and inserted them one at a time in a personal player for which you controlled the track and volume. You were thus afforded the opportunity to relax and browse in the manner of a bookstore. You'd sit alongside other customers, all of you, weirdly, in different aural worlds. Sitting there, you couldn't resist looking over the discs of the person next to you and then at the person, trying to connect their appearance with their musical tastes. You might even be tempted to ask them to trade headphones briefly. Here, then, there was the possibility of choice, co-presence, performance — some semblance of life. Predictably, the bar was often occupied by a succession of freeloaders, mostly those "mall rats" and "teenagers" who are the bane of retailers. Soon, the store restricted use of the bar to two or three discs, and soon after, Blockbuster's music outlets were bought out by the Wherehouse chain, which opted, like other chains, for standing, kiosk-style listening stations, where listeners can choose among snippets from a limited number of songs and albums.
With these systems, your choices are determined by the chains and their suppliers, and limited to whatever sub-generic exemplars they happen to be pushing at the moment. A few electronica discs here, a few alt-country discs there — the same acts you've seen in Rolling Stone, on VH-1, and a hundred other places. Captions under the display discs serve as robotic surrogates for the clerks, priming shoppers with research-driven listening tips ("If you like Sheryl Crow, you'll love Shelby Lynne!"). You don the headphones and stand there awkwardly, trying to tune out the store's background noise. If you stay for too long, the help starts giving you looks.
Of course, it's impossible to listen to music under these conditions. But the purpose of listening stations is not listening. Like the Real Audio clips offered by online music vendors, their purpose is "previewing." Record buying used to be a messy, hit-or-miss, serendipitous affair. Only one out of every four or five records you brought home would ever do anything for you. But you'd connect with those few records at your leisure, through repeated hearings, as the skill and vision of the musicians slowly revealed themselves to you. Now, listening stations hold out the promise that we can eliminate risk from our purchases by forecasting future pleasures based on first hearings under the worst of conditions. People stand there and scan the CDs for usable hooks, sampling a few seconds of each song in rapid succession, like executives rifling through resumes.
Like book superstores, music superstores would like to promote themselves as "third places," as public places of leisure and sociability — as if the crisis of late modernity were only a matter of place, and leisure were any longer possible. The reality is different: we run around, stockpiling sounds and social relations, grabbing hooks for quick and easy consumption, and grabbing other people the same way. Theresa Senft writes that there are many versions of the "society of the spectacle." If the characteristic attitude of cinematic society was the gaze and that of televisual society the glimpse, she argues that the rise of hypermedia heralds a society of the grab — a bored, restless, aggressive pursuit of momentary pleasures. At the listening stations, we grab thumbnail impressions of the latest pop supernovas or of bands who've spent years honing their sounds, just as we grab glimpses of T-&-A from cyberporn sites or combo meals from fast food drive-thrus.
If, as some have argued, new forms of music and noise anticipate and usher in larger social changes, it's possible that the book superstore and all commercial space — indeed, all of social life — will continue to move ineluctably toward the lonely, sadomasochistic, chemically-induced desperation of music stores, drive-thrus, and websites. The only hope for change is not a return to a nineteenth century, liberal facade of "third places," but a revolution that breaks on through to something unprecedented.
Rob Drew teaches Communication at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. His book Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody is published by AltaMira Press.