Whatever Happened To Supermarket Music?



Joseph Lanza

Whatever happened to supermarket music? There was a time – not very long ago – when one could stroll through the aisles of an A&P or a Safeway while violins, pianos, guitars, harps and trumpets played soft instrumental versions of old standards and current hits. These ceiling serenades offered the musical equivalent to a parallel world, a temporary reprieve from the ordinary fare that people tend to enjoy at home or in their cars.

Unfortunately, most supermarkets and other venues have replaced the ghostly orchestras with an original artists goulash — usually apportioned at a higher volume, in a haphazard sequence, and with little to no regard for the logic of the landscape. Shopping at an A&P in Hoboken, New Jersey, I was amazed to hear Bobby Vinton‘s unabashedly sentimental “Take Good Care Of My Baby” immediately followed by the gritty hard rock of “Dirty Water” by The Standells. A restaurant like Denny’s, which caters to a very heterogeneous clientele ranging from ages 8 to 80, is now likely to emit oldies by Stevie Wonder and The Eagles, a regimen that threatens to alienate both seniors and youngsters not hep to baby-boomer nostalgia.

This “foreground music” trend could very well be more about economics than changing musical aesthetics. Since the mid-1980s, Muzak™, once the giant of background tunes, has increasingly distanced itself from its elevator music history. The company once hired full orchestras to reinterpret favorite songs, but with mounting musicians’ union levies, the process has proven too expensive. As a result, Muzak and other background music providers have opted for private record label agreements, enticing clients with foreground choices that supposedly reinforce a chosen business image and consequently have a more aggressive environmental impact.

This a la carte approach, which Muzak publicists like to refer to as “audio architecture,” may not be quite what Erik Satie had in mind when he set the groundwork for Muzak in 1920 with his intentionally nondescript “Furniture Music.” He threw a notorious fit when he played it for gallery patrons who responded with undivided attention. He jumped into the throng and pleaded with them to continue carousing and NOT listen! Echoing Satie’s concerns, the Muzak Corporation once summarized the effect its product was supposed to have on its target public by touting the slogan: “Music to be heard but not listened to.” This was probably a terrible miscalculation since it validated the assumption that such background music is somehow inferior. It also fed into the misguided notion that there are “tasteful” alternatives to the standard supermarket brand.

Anti-Muzak naysayers used to complain about background music being too “manipulative,” but with foreground music, the manipulation seems much more insidious. Walking into a Rite Aid and pelted by variations on hip-hop, I feel subjected not only to the whims of the store manager but also to a clutching fashion apparatus that never lets go. Whereas the older “elevator music” functioned as sonic air-conditioning, the newfangled alternative can be likened to designer scents pushed through a ventilation system. Unlike Starbucks, which sells CDs of the same “smooth jazz” it pumps through overhead speakers, supermarkets never showcased the anonymous Muzak ensembles that orchestrated the journey from the corridors of consumption to the cashier. The tunes were there just to aid a buying mood and not sell themselves.

This effort to add “prestige” and “personality” to the shopping routine proves that elevator music’s detractors do not object to the idea of manipulating people through music – just so long as it is their kind of music and not what they might uncharitably designate as “schmaltz“. Brian Eno, among the more prominent of these “alternative” soundscapers, has been quick to claim that his “ambient” approach is a vast improvement over the old Muzak. Still, there is that hilarious anecdote from the early eighties about patrons at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport who got so creeped-out over Eno’s Music For Airports that the regular background music had to be restored.

While doing research for my book Elevator Music, I was inspired by the wise words of a (now former) Muzak programmer. According to him: “When musicians are left to themselves to make art for the sake of art, not considering public taste, demographics or psychology, they will put together something that won’t please everyone… My task is to amalgamate tastes. Imagine trying to please 80 or 90 million different viewpoints of the way things should be.”

There is something civically – even aesthetically – right about generic music complementing generic environments. This is among few examples when a one-size-fits-all policy makes sense. When entering a public sphere like a supermarket or a mall, shoppers are entitled to an aural escape, a sound mark to delineate the safe shopping environment from the more cacophonous and unwieldy world outside. If air-conditioning is therapeutic air for soot-infested cities, then supermarket music is therapeutic music for a world of conflicting musical attitudes and noises.

By complementing an original version of a song, the supermarket version provides an audio depth of field, an appropriately vague contour for the transient surroundings. The originals are too specific, carry too much baggage, and make for a much more flattened audio perspective. One could argue that the current use of original artist songs in supermarkets has the same distracting and demystifying effect that the compilation soundtrack has on many of the newer movies. What better way to ruin a story than to slobber a bunch of pop tracks over a film’s narrative and closing credits! And all to justify a CD release that can be called a “soundtrack” in only the loosest sense.

Oddly enough, the only respite from this chronic waking life is in the recent spate of retro commercials that resurrect supermarket music as a popular mythology. There is the mild cha-cha that plays while shoppers browse for “Pork: The Other White Meat,” or the sweet elevator strains soon drowned out when two slackers engage in a Doritos crunching contest. And all those naysayers who once complained about supermarkets full of “syrupy” strings can only declare a Pyrrhic victory. They must now contend with a soundscape that is much louder and much more cloying. When the elevator music gets turned off, the hype really begins.