As I write this, I'm at work. I work at a small coffee shop on Indianapolis' Southside called Coffeehouse Five. The music playing currently is John Cale’s 1974 album Fear.You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but settling on this album required a great deal of deliberation, no small amount of weeping and a side helping of gnashing of teeth. I tend to make things much more complicated than they need to be.
There are, you see, countless variables that inform (or that at least that should inform) what music I choose to play on the shop’s stereo. Sometimes I make the wrong choice. I can say with absolute certainty, through the 20/20 lens of hindsight, that the pitiless brutality of Autopsy’s Macabre Eternal was not right for the sunny summer Monday on which I debuted it (for what it’s worth, I hardly got through the first song before I realized the grave error of my ways). But what about Cale’s Fear? Does it appeal sufficiently to the music lovers who will come in? What about the people who don’t care about the music, is it background-y enough to get out of their way? Do I even like it? (The answer to this last one question is a resounding yes, if you were wondering.)
Probably the most important deciding factor is whether the music I’m playing will either appeal to, or at the very least not offend, our customers. People are typically good sports when I’m inconsiderate, though. I once ill-advisedly left my iPod on shuffle, and the older gentleman for whom I was making a drink at the time smiled and said not a word about the 60-second pummeling he was subjected to by the Agoraphobic Nosebleed song “Ex-Cop.” The retail adage that “the customer is always right” keeps echoing through my already embattled brain.
And I suppose, in a sort of post-modern, truth-and-rightness-are-relative kind of way, this is correct. Every person who comes in to my store wanting only to hear show tunes is perfectly entitled to believe that show tunes are the apogee of modern music free of any sort of judgment from a snide (or just mentally taxed because of the plague of difficulties inherent in picking music to play) barista. That being said, regardless of how magnanimous I am feeling and how much I really do like a lot of show tunes, I’m not sure that I could abide a soundtrack like this. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this.
There’s a reason, I think, why the stereotypical coffee shop playlist consists of melodic, quiet, and often, in my opinion, bland, folk music. This type of music seems almost perfectly constructed so as not to offend. The problem with relying on the “inoffensive canon” in my eyes is twofold. First, and most personally: I don’t typically care for this type of music (see my above professed adoration for music containing elements of “pitiless brutality.") It does not offend me (and how could it?), but it does not appeal to me. And this lack of appeal is the crux of the second failing: namely, that stereotypical coffee shop music opts for the easily achieved goal of being inoffensive while altogether eschewing the loftier, and significantly more challenging, goal of appealing to as many people as possible.
This is how picking music got so complicated for me. As far as I can tell, there is no way to predict the dispositions of each and every customer, so I have to guess. I’ve also got to take in to account that what appeals to me might not appeal to everyone else. It’s difficult stuff, like doing high school algebra, except that every time you finish a step the teacher adds another variable for you to consider.
John Cale’s record ended a few minutes ago while I was making a drink, and it was quiet in the shop for a minute or two. The guy in the corner for whom I just made a latte has no idea of the mental turmoil I’m wading through as I walk the few steps from behind the counter to the stereo. My only hope is that the new Bill Callahan album appeals to him.
This piece is part one in an occasional series about muzak.