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?


Kate and Nathan said...

Check out the "urban-like setting" at this "main street" (i.e. far-flung, pedestrian un-friendly) setting in the town where I used to live. Totally creepy:


(This is Beth's friend Kate from Ffld, by the way! :))

Mr. Bacon said...

As a side note:
I guess the outdoor faux-urban space is a new version of the indoor, microcosmic simulacrum that Baudrillard describes. Outdoors, it's harder to control temperature, lighting, etc. I guess this phase in mall design is more akin to Las Vegas casino architecture than to indoor mall scapes? Recreating a city seems more rooted in 'the real', as opposed to a utopic, indoor, fantasy environment. Maybe this just means we're just farther away from 'the real', and we desire simulacra that are closer to that real, and not fantastic.

Also, that the 'Bodies' exhibit was on display at Southpoint is amazing and scary--I think doing great things for art space delineations but not so great things for the role, or value, of art.

Brooke said...

I think that many suburban towns (and plenty of cities as well) lack anything that functions as a town square. There have been some weird attempts to make the mall into a cathedral/spiritual town center: http://www.fbclakeland.org/templates/System/default.asp?id=37524
The problem is that is it hard to sell private space with a profane and commercial interest as public and sacred space.
If the mall is going to be straight up about its frank consumerism, but still wants to try to pose as a city center, why not use Motown to commodify actual culture?

Matthew said...

That's a nice point, Brooke, and one that illuminates a new perspective on the matter. I think you're on to something by viewing the mall as a latter-day town square, and even a surrogate spiritual space.
The question of how Motown commodifies actual culture is interesting: I think of Motown as a genuine cultural product of the US. Even if one views Motown music as a highly-automated, mass-produced product assembled from fragmentary & recyclable bits, one could still say that it is this very factory-produced quality that mirrors the cultural orientation of the industrial and post-industrial US.

I just think it's notable that in the mall, which functions as perhaps the most idealized space in America, music typically known as being "black" serves as the soundtrack to Americans' spiritual-consumerist quest.