Red Guard on the Microphone

The past couple of days have been fairly musical. I’ve long noticed that the one place that I can reliably hear morose music is my local Albertson’s. The musical loop goes something like this: Annie Lennox’s Why slows things down, and is followed by Nora Jones’ Don’t Know Why, which cools things down a bit more, and then hands over to 10cc’s I’m Not in Love, which brings us inevitably to Mike and the Mechanic’s The Living Years and then back to Annie Lennox. This onslaught of low-grade Weltschmerz makes grocery shopping miserable. Of course, as with every facet of the corporate retail experience, one person’s misery is another’s pile of cash. The music is designed to create a solitary and self-indulgent sensory bubble. It’s a bubble in which you’re encouraged to wallow. Inside the bubble, it smells of donuts, and it has Annie Lennox reminding you of that crappy breakup/tragic moment/melodramatic appeal to the heavens that you thought you’d long forgotten. The solution to all this is at hand, of course – make your choice of anything from the chilled plenitude of the supermarket shelves.

On Saturday, I was prompted to find out whose big idea this was, who it was who told the corporations to set up retail space so that the act of purchase is simultaneously an education in the virtues of retail therapy. The reason for the sudden interest in the ‘atmospherics of shopping’ was a fantastic brunch I went to yesterday, a benefit for West Oakland’s Peoples Grocery. The Peoples’ Grocery is wonderful bit of resistance to the marginalization of people of colour in urban America. West Oakland, with a population of 24,000 people had one supermarket and 36 liquor stores, three of which sold groceries in 1996. Next door, in Emeryville (home of Pixar – to give you a sense), the population of 7,000 has three grocery stores, and the smallest smattering of liquor stores.

Prices in liquor stores are 30-50% higher than in supermarkets partly because of the terms on which small retailers buy them, and partly because there’s a great deal of scalping going on. It doesn’t take much to see that redlining is alive and well in America – the population of West Oakland is predominantly people of colour, while Emeryville much whiter. (Incidentally, I found it hard to get disaggregated data on this, beyond noting that according to the 2000 US census, 125,000 of Oakland’s 399,000 population is white, compared to 3,000 white in Emeryville’s 6,900 population, data from here. Inequalities within city limits don’t show up on the official data I’ve seen – better figures gratefully received).

At the brunch, a local woman – whose name is on a piece of paper that I’ve lost – told the four hundred people in the Tailor Memorial Church that she’d been pregnant when the grocery’s mobile market started out. She was concerned about the health of her baby, and wanted to eat properly. Hard to do, being as she didn’t have a car, and being as you need to be rich to shop at Whole Foods (aka Whole Pay Check). The bit that I got excited about, though, was that she was first drawn to the Peoples’ Grocery mobile market truck by its jumping sound system. The food inside wasn’t bad either, apparently. Cheap, provided from local farmers, organic, and actually available in West Oakland.

It’s great that good food is available cheaply in West Oakland. But more important is also a change in the culture of getting the food. No tear-jerking credit-card-bending mind-numbing muzak, but some damn good hip hop, and a bunch of people having fun. Read more about the Peoples’ Grocery here, contact them via and if you can possibly support them, please do.

The music connection continued throughout the day. After the benefit, I went to a rally for the hunger strikers in downtown Oakland. It is day five of their strike. More here. As I was waiting for the rally to start, I heard a rap with this refrain:

This little piggy is a target

Cuz this little piggy raids homes

This little piggy shouldn’t start shit

The Red Guard is on the microphone.

On returning home, I found the answer to the “who’s to blame for crap music in supermarkets” question, in the pages of The Journal of Consumer research – an interesting place to spend just a little time. Papers with titles like “Product Aesthetics Centrality Scale” vie with “A Role for Poetry in Consumer Research”, for example. The music question, though, is helpfully covered in a review by Ronald Milliman snappily entitled “The Influence of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons”. Permalink via JSTOR to Ronald Milliman’s review of the atmospherics of restaurants here.

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