Food Shopping Background Music: Potential Inappropriateness Abounds

Shopping for groceries is one of those annoying tasks you have to do once or twice a week, depending on your habits and needs. Maybe there are some people out there who enjoy the act. Perhaps for them, creating a list for a week, perhaps a carefully planned menu, all of that stuff, perhaps all of that is a pleasure for these people. It might fulfill an instinctual need to hunt and gather. God, who knows. What I DO know is that I am not one of those people. Grocery shopping is a boring old activity that involves many things I despise: making decisions, forethought, crowds, and being out in public.

I believe grocery store managers realize that there are all sorts of customers, and they try to make their stores as pleasant as possible to encourage repeat purchasing experiences. All of the items are arranged systematically, for ease of locating them. The workers are made to be friendly and happy. And they have installed a little sound system in most stores because someone somewhere must have done a study that says that people are more likely to shop happily if they can do so to a mild, inoffensive beat in the background.

I think it is a good idea, all of this playing music in the backgrounds of places. I do enjoy music, and even when they play songs that I would never hear on my own free time, such as, say, any song by Gwen Stefani ever (she and No Doubt in general seem to be a staple of grocery stores everywhere — it causes me to laugh in a way that is unkind), I can still say that I am glad that I am not left to shop in silence. That unwieldy sentence deserves a summary: I would rather listen to crap like Gwen Stefani’s annoying voice than eavesdrop on the often-bewildering drone of fellow shoppers punctuated by the shrill cries of their horrible infants. The songs played are often easily forgettable and mildly pleasant, or at the very least not at all distracting from the shop process. I might notice that Gwen Stefani is imploring me to “don’t speak” for the umpteen billionth time in the Pasta Aisle, but I can still select a pasta suited to my tastes.

An illustration of Gwen Stefani in the produce section of the store. As she holds up an orange and looks at us, the words around her say "don't speak... pick out some produce."

But this article isn’t REALLY about how much I don’t like that ridiculous singer, no matter how many snarky observations I have on hand, or outright insults if we dare speak of the Hollaback Girl Fiasco. This is about the handful of times when I have been out shopping for food items, and the speakers in the store have played a song that was so noteworthy for its soul-sucking depression, its sheer catchiness, or its just plain old out-of-placedness, that I had to stop shopping until it was over.

  1. Erasure – Chains of Love

I think the store should be obligated to install strobe lights and fog machines for whenever this song comes on.  Maybe some of those multi-colored lights, too.

I have actually heard this song repeatedly while at the grocer’s market, and each time, I have to stop shopping. Sometimes I can keep myself from dancing and singing it to the other customers, but each time, I certainly am made to smile. And it isn’t just a quiet smile, pleased to hear a favorite song in much the same way that I would be pleased to see an old friend. No, this smile positively beams. I enjoy every time I run into this tune at the store because it somehow magically puts me in a good mood for the entire rest of the day and often into the day after, as well. Sure, maybe my shopping experience is extended an additional three or four minutes, but I don’t mind.

There is something about Erasure that lifts me out of a pit of depression, if I happen to be in one, and if I happen to want to be lifted from such a place. If I actually need to be up and out of bed, and not a weepy mess on the floor, I can put on Erasure and be CERTAIN that I will find the strength to live life another day or two. However, I think it is a bit too cheerful for selecting an ice cream, or steering a shopping cart in any direction other than “a dancing circular or figure eight motion.” How can I possibly choose a produce object or a cereal when I am desperately wanting to break these chains of love??

  1. Prince – Kiss

A Prince video set in a grocery store.

Once again, this might be a problem for me only because I am a big fan of this song. But I am not the only one. As I recall, the time I heard this play in the Dairy Aisle, everyone surrounding me looked energized. We looked at each other and tapped our toes, nodded our heads to the song. We even smiled at each other the sort of smile that people who are suddenly bonding have. I cannot really accurately describe that smile any more than that so I hope you have understood me and even experienced such a moment in your lives. Such is the power of Prince, I suppose. It was like suddenly finding ourselves at a Prince concert, or finding him, really himself, Prince, singing that song in between the sour creams and the organic milks. I could still select a milk after a few minutes, but I did so with a grin not normally seen in Dairy.

Now, I don’t really ever think of any song by Prince as “grocery store appropriate,” but I suppose that this is one of the least offensive ones that I can think of. He mostly speaks of a kiss, and it sounds like he really does mean a mouth-to-mouth kiss. This doesn’t make me lose my appetite in any way, which is good. But I was so busy marveling at the fact that I was wanting to make kisskisskisskisskiss KISS sounds to strangers who looked as though they were trying to keep from doing the same to me that I do not really consider it conducive to shopping at all. It is more like conducive to open anonymous shenanigans with people all over food items, which is sort of creepy, but I think the Old Prince would have wanted it that way.

The power of Prince, indeed.

  1. Van Halen – Unchained

All of those guitars and yelps do nothing for my ability to think about baked goods.

It was seven in the morning, I had been up all night. I decided to beat the crowds and pick up a few items that had been all eaten up a few days earlier. I staggered into the brightly lit store and as I perused the Bread Selection, this song came on. My particular moment made it rather surreal, but honestly, if it had been 3:30pm, 8pm, 1am – ALL times would seem out-of-place to hear this song in a store.

It wasn’t even an issue of “oh no I am stuck in the early 80s!” because I don’t remember this song EVER getting much radio play. This was not a random instance of hearing “Jump” yet again, although I must say that I have never heard David Lee Roth shrieking his banshee cry before or since in any grocery store. Even though I admit that I expected to see mullets and concert t-shirts with the sleeves cut off turning down the aisle at any moment, I knew in the back of my mind that even in 1983, this song would not have been heard in this setting at all. Maybe walking through the parking lot, blaring from the speakers of some big ridiculous muscle car, but not here. Not while good people were busy krogering. I can’t remember what preceded or followed this song, so I am going to bet that it went back to playing the ordinary fare; perhaps some Supremes followed it, perhaps Celine Dion. I was too busy feeling conflicted and confused during the entire length of this song to select a bread. What a morning.

  1.  Don McLean – Vincent

An appetite-extinguishing song if ever I have heard one.

My god. Why would anyone ever write this masterpiece of depression and regret for a piece of art history? More than that, why would anyone play this on the radio? Why would anyone allow it to be played at a grocery store? I would have found it thoroughly acceptable if a worker had picked up the intercom and spoken through the duration of this song in order to keep people from wanting to weep. And for those who are not the crying kind, at least spare them from feeling inexplicably guilty for the suicide of a man from long ago.

I think Vincent van Gogh was an interesting figure. His paintings are visually pleasing, and his story is a good one. I appreciate this man. But this song. Lord this song. Ever since I heard it as a youth, it has always sent me plummeting. Why could no one help him? I need a time machine to go back and give him a hug. I do NOT need to look at snack cakes or Meat Selection. When it came on, I was actually in the midst of walking from one part of the store to another, and I just stopped. I stared at fish cuts as I contemplated van Gogh’s tormented existence. Even if you do not care about the mental instability of an artist long dead, if you can select a meat to the tune of this song, I think you may be a monster. If you didn’t listen, and aren’t listening still — then perhaps you never will. This fact makes me sad for you. It just makes me plain sad for ALL.

No shopping was done as it played.  It is a Grocery Store Soundtrack No.

  1.  Harry Chapin – Cats in the Cradle

Buying chips won’t stop everyone you know from growing old and dying.  :(

That’s right. I heard this song at a grocery store, in the Snack Chip Aisle. On ordinary days, this is a tough one to sit through, but I just happened to be with my friend and we had just visited his dad, who was dying of lung cancer at the time. On our way home we said, “we might as well stop to get some food items.” And there it was at the end of our shopping expedition.

I’m not sure if most people get depressed at the grim and unrelenting passage of time. I would imagine so. It can’t be just me. This song always set me back for days upon days when I would hear it, and that was when I was still a child! Hearing this while simultaneously facing the slow death of a loved one, well, who knows how many other people in the store at the time were also facing similar troubles. I did not bother to look around me, but I just imagined that the entire store stopped. All activity ground to a halt while we tried not to think about the things that we could not avoid thinking about. The friend and I discussed that maybe we should put down our groceries and visit our parents again before it became too late. This is terrible for business, stores of the world. Please put forth a little bit of screening effort in the future.

As closure, I will mention that we just paid for our things and left. We did not visit our parents. We probably just felt heavy with a strange sort of remorse for the next little while. Much as I am now suffocating in a wave of such, having listened to this song on loop as I wrote this section. What a bad idea.

What’s in STORE for Me Next?  Ahyuck

These are just the five most-recent instances of noticeable songs being played as I select eats. These are the songs that have stopped me in my tracks, for good or bad, in the past two years. I am beginning to see this as a silver lining to my shopping experience. Every time I embark on a new grocery adventure, I wonder if I will be made to dance, or to choke on tears — sobbing amongst the frozen foods. When will I hear “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, or that “Do You Realize?” song by the Flaming Lips? Heaven help me, hopefully never. When will I happen upon “Pump Up the Jam” by Technotronic? I did once in a shopping mall — in the general concourse, not a potentially suitable store within the mall. On the same excursion, that mall also played “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. If that had been in a grocery setting, it would have been all the more surreal. There is something tricky about combining food-getting with music.

Now if you will excuse me, I must undo all of the hurt brought by Harry Carpenter by listening to Erasure and Technotronic until my brain melts, taking regret and shame with it in twin streams from my ears and nose.

Away from me, self-destructive thoughts!

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