Thursday, June 22, 2006

Another Great Moment in the History of Background Music, Redux

Perhaps it's a consequence of being raised during a time when background music in stores was almost exclusively Muzak, but, as I've noted here before, I find myself frequently surprised by what I hear on in-store background music services. The other day in the grocery store, the background music yakked up the following set of three: "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, "Roots Rock Reggae" by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley.

The Troggs are widely recognized today as one of the godfathers of punk. "Wild Thing" was criticized back in the day for its primitive three-chord structure. Later records were banned from some airwaves--"Love Is All Around" for supposedly being about masturbation, "I Can't Control Myself" for its general horniness. And a famous obscenity-laced tape of them in the studio is said to have inspired Spinal Tap. Not exactly the grocery-store pedigree.

Marley is one of those rare artists who ascended to a greater level of popularity after dying than he ever achieved while he was alive. It's a safe bet that many of the people under age 50 pushing carts around the store probably own a copy of Legend, one of the best-selling back-catalog albums in history. "Roots Rock Reggae" isn't on it, but its sound is familiar enough--Marley's best-known songs are practically a genre unto themselves. Nevertheless, the number of people walking around a suburban grocery store who are familiar with reggae must be dwarfed by the number familiar with modern country, but I rarely hear country tunes in stores--not even the Faith-Hill non-twangy variety.

Astley strikes me today as someone who would have won American Idol if it had existed in the late 80s. He's got a big ol' voice, even if it seems odd coming out of a guy with such a baby face. However, his producers, Britain's famed Stock-Aitken-Waterman hit machine, used it on bland dance-pop, of which "Never Gonna Give You Up" is the most egregious example. It wasn't until Astley cut loose from them in the early 90s that he made his best records, the blue-eyed soul ballads "Cry for Help" and "Hopelessly," either of which would have sounded a lot less jarring next to Bob Marley.

Now I suppose such a set might represent the Jack-ification or iPod-ification of the world. Not only that, but it's possible to view this we-play-anything ethos as an admirable form of musical democracy. It might even make good business sense, given that the average grocery store will attract a crowd ranging in age from birth to death. It's not that I'm musically anti-democratic: After all, my own LastFM playlist occasionally shows evidence of similarly whiplash-inducing musical transitions--if not worse. But there was something distinctly odd about Troggs/Marley/Astley. And if not odd, then certainly blogworthy.

Your thoughts on the nature of in-store background music, odd songs you've heard, or anything else you have to add are welcome in the comments. And if you haven't done so yet, be sure to vote in the poll.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

I think that the rise of XM, Sirius and the other digital music providers is really opening the door for stores, etc., to have a wide range of stuff. Although, obviously, most people don't pay too much attention to it (a point my wife hammers over and over when I say something, good or bad, about the music in the store, etc.), it's nice to hear a wider range of material. For awhile Jocks & Jills, a sports bar/restaurant next to where I work, played '60s and '70s R&B. Usually the music was of the Motown/Philly/disco variety, but one day Walter Jackson's lush ballad "It's An Uphill Climb (To the Bottom)" came on and it was like the earth stopped for me lol.

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Dave P said...

I think Starbucks might actually be part of the reason we're hearing more interesting fare in stores these days. Say what you will about their ubiquity or high prices, but they do have good taste when it comes to the music compilations and best-of CDs they offer by the register (they purchased Hear Music a few years back, which seemed odd at the time but now makes perfect sense).


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