Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Heard It Through the Rock

My initial posting will be appropriately modest in scope. Here goes:

So last night the wife and I made our occasional excursion down to the local shopping mall, at the southern end of town.

This place has been giving me the creeps for the past 2.6 years. I'm not going to rehash the usual lefty, anti-capitalistic schtick about what horrible places malls are...well, I kind of am, but with a slight twist. The mall has an indoor part (which looks much like any large, over-engineered, too-bright-and-shiny mall across the US), and an outdoor part. My real beef is with the latter. It has been skillfully (?) constructed to resemble an urban space--a small commercial district of an anonymous city, a bit too perfectly-arranged and ultra-clean to ever resemble an actual commercial district, though.

Now I'll probably reveal my age, my parochial worldview, and my snobbery: before moving down to D-ham from the Big City, I'd never experienced this type of faux-urban outdoor section of a mall. I had been in plenty of large, posh indoor malls, as well as the older, venerable form of outdoor strip-malls, but never a city-ulacrum like this one. The first time I'd encountered "the Streets" (the mall's name), the street-signs mocked me; the aura of "town square" taunted me. But it was the music that was most chilling, and still is.

Walking around the "streets" that first time, I heard music in the air. I looked up to find the speakers hanging from walls or storefronts...but I couldn't see any. Then I realized that the music in the air was not coming from just above my head, but rather from below--around my ankles, actually. The rocks play music; the fake rocks placed in strategically-located chunks of nature (trees, fountains, sometimes maybe just small rectangular patches of dirt?) pump out music. What kind of music? Usually black music, in my experience. I'm talking about soul, funk, R&B.

Last night, it finally dawned on me: how appropriate! Black music, the *idea* of "black music," has been a prized and fraught entity in US history. To state the oft-repeated and now-obvious: black music is one of this country's most valued commodities and biggest exports. If the shopping mall has become the most "real" space in the increasingly unreal landscape of the US precisely because of its unreality, we could say (a la Baudrillard) that the mall
is now the postmodern American locale par-excellence. If shopping is the most American activity, and the one that most Americans are best at (I probably need to include myself in that last charge), then black music *would* make the best soundtrack for our shopping experience. What would the average wedding reception (another great American consumer experience) be without Motown, James Brown, Kool & the Gang, and some Philly Soul (and maybe a bit of Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald thrown in for the "classy" moments)? If black music looms large in the US historical and racial imagination, both articulating and forming phantasmal desires and expressing a vague feeling of realness, then why shouldn't it form the sonic "wallpaper" (that's from Adam Krims for all you fellow nerds out there) for our shopping experience? Most US citizens desire black music; most desire things at the mall; most desire desire--why not bring them all together?