retail music

Welcome to Hell.

For most people, workplaces are functional spaces to do work. My middle-class readers probably think of “workplace” as synonymous with “office,” a grey box that exists for people to go to for their jobs. Others might think of factories, which are like offices, but with higher ceilings and weirder clothes.

Having worked a few retail jobs now, the feel of going to work at one of these is entirely different. The working space overlaps with places that other people might go on their day off, even for fun; think of all the cute dating profile pictures of people browsing Powell’s or The Strand. Any space starts to feel different when you spend 20–40 hours a week in it, but there’s one thing that changes the most depending on whether you work there or not:

Fucking retail music.

Most of you have probably been in some sort of store (supermarket, café, bar, easily-held-up bank) lately. Do you remember the music? Was there any? Was it any good? Would it have affected you much, in any way, if it had been completely different music?

Regardless of your answer, the people working there sure as hell noticed the music. The sounds coming from the speaker are, for workers, a proxy for how much control they have over their workplace, versus how much the managers or owners exercise meaningless control. One of my favorite cafes in Seattle, Solstice, routinely blasts experimental electronic music or rap, and judging by the perpetually-filled tables, it doesn’t seem to drive away many clientele. If it does, it’s necessary to keep the lines to a reasonable length. But at most places, the overly-fretting types that are more likely to become retail small business owners or store managers are constantly on the lookout for even a seconds’ worth of sound that is in same way inappropriate: too noisy, too aggressive, too passive, too sexy, too “not by Adele.”

Customers aren’t affected by repetition, because if you’re in a specific store 10% as often as an employee, you’re an absolute weirdo. But music, especially the melodic pop that’s often played as inoffensive filler, is specifically engineered to get stuck in someone’s head after just a couple listens. If you have that sort of music as one of a few CDs in a CD changer, anyone working there for eight hours is probably going to hear each of those songs a half-dozen times in a day. The same is true for any low-song-count Pandora station (and judging by the number of Pandora ads I’ve heard in cafes, $5-$10 a month is entirely out of the question).

I’m unsure which is worse: repetition of good music, or repetition of bad music. Playing bad music is obviously unpleasant, especially around the holidays; at Barnes and Noble, as with many other generic mainstream retailers, managers insisted on holiday music, and it was all awful. There was one CD that had an uptempo Christmas jazz song to the tune of the theme from The Flinstones, and it was on that CD twice. My current relationship can be traced back to one of our first conversations, where we bonded over our undying hatred for it.

But repeating music that one likes, A Clockwork Orange-style, can be even worse. People’s hatred of bad things is amplified by repetition, but an overloading of something good can reverse an opinion, or even change someone’s personality forever. When I was a teenager, going back through Rolling Stone’s top albums of all time, playing anything from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life around my mom was met with immediate howls of disapproval. This isn’t because the music is bad (she still likes a lot of his stuff), but because thirty years prior, she had a Pottery Barn job with it practically on a loop.

I didn’t quite understand at the time how something from so long ago could make her dislike one of the classic R&B albums until I had my first job out of high school. At the time, I was getting more into indie rock, but still had a foundation of enjoying ~classic rock~ (Led Zeppelin, The Doors, etc). The older people at the workplace had a stranglehold on the Sirius radio, setting it to a Clearchannel-style classic rock station that inoculated me against ever wanting to hear those artists again. When I got home, I would play what was, to my ears, its exact opposite: blasts of feedback from bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain. (I’ve since descended into completely incomprehensible ambient music, but Psychocandy still bangs.)

I’ve never been someone who wanted to merge my working and private lives. Clocking out for the day should mean a complete disconnection from the job and everything about it. Everyone seems to know that going to work sucks, so we should be able to drop the pretense of being happy to be there when we leave. But music isn’t so kind. The repetition of sound gets lodged in my brain, whether it’s the weekend, or I’m waking up, or I’m trying to fall asleep. As soon as a stupid melodic fragment or a specific synth line is remembered, I’m mentally back in that retail space. I’m not getting paid, but my mind still thinks it belongs there. For the rest of my life, there will be specific songs (most of which I don’t know the names of) that will haunt me, occasionally popping back up on the radio to tell me that those retail jobs never truly ended.