Last night, I was in a handful of clothing stores on 34th Street—Macy’s, Daffy’s, and Old Navy. Don’t ask. O.K., do… Clothing stores are a very interesting microcosm of contemporary life. Everybody wears clothing, aside from folks who live in nudist camps who are way more marginal to the mainstream of society than those of us who are part of the comtemporary music community. So, it follows that we all have to obtain clothing somehow. And, while yes, there are clothiers, personal tailors, and such for the well-to-do, the rest of us have to go into clothing stores from time to time.
Music is a very central part of the clothing store experience. No matter what store you go in, there’s music playing, and it usually skews toward the loud, pop, and dance-oriented, if not always exactly recent. You can hear music that’s nearly as old as I am in clothing stores from time to time, e.g. ’60s pop-rock and Motown. But, no matter what it is, all the music sets a particular tone that is energetic and carefree, and ideally makes visitors eager to buy something new to wear.
As the cadences of a great mid-’70s Stevie Wonder song kept getting interrupted by P.A. announcements requesting that so-and-so report to such-and-such, I kept thinking that maybe there could be better music for such an environment. What would happen if, say, the soundtrack were changed to a pointillist Darmstadt-type score like Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Cage’s all-encompassing Atlas Eclipticalis, or something more recent with a similar sonic contour? This music can be equally energetic and carefree. Granted, high modernist compositions lack both a steady beat and tonal drive, but those missing components would be potentially added benefits in this setting. Interruptions from a P.A. would not be nearly as jarring since it would not block a particular harmonic resolution. Plus, since the music would be unknown to most visitors, no one would be disappointed when their favorite portion of a familiar tune was excised out in order to convey a crucial message to a missing cashier. And before you start thinking such a switch would inevitably spell instant disaster for business, if the prices were right and there was a good variety of sizes, I think people would still come. It could even give such a store a special caché.
Mind you I’m not advocating for older classical music, which many bus and train terminals now use in place of Muzak—it apparently annoys vagrants so much they don’t stick around to harass people. Older classics would inevitably suffer the same fate as “Sir Duke”: denied expectations both from the music’s internal structure and listener familiarity, although admittedly few folks could probably hum the missing bars of classical pieces that get interrupted at Penn Station. Most minimalist pieces, with their steady rhythmic drive, would also be unsuitable, as would any recent composition with a traditional climactic arc. Only high modernism, pure and unadulterated, is well-suited to fit this particular bill. And, who knows, we might attract a whole new audience for new music this way; isn’t that how Steve Wonder’s old hits stay in the public consciousness?