Belfast Telegraph

It's time high street changed the record; I'm tired of always getting it in the ear when quiet is all I crave

Shopping should be an opportunity for us to switch off instead of being bombarded by music, says Gail Walker

Silence is golden The Tremeloes sang somewhat paradoxically way, way back in the 1960s. But how right they were - Marks & Spencer's decision to hit the big red off button and ban piped music is one of those 'where were you when you heard the news?' moments.

To which the answer probably is: in a cafe listening to a barrista's tedious playlist of a) thrash metal classics, b) cutesy lounge legends, c) desperately tasteful indie and/or Americana, or d) a self-mocking Eighties megamix.

And yet all this is relative bliss compared to the backing music provided by those stores which just plumb in Radio 1 (if their target is Yoof) or Radio 2 (if their customer base is Yoof's dad).

The truth is that very rarely in this 24/7 social media world are we alone with our own thoughts even though many of us find ourselves increasingly longing for just 10 minutes of silence.

And when you think about it, shopping should be one of those occasions when we can let our minds meander on their own sweet way. We like to prattle on about mindfulness, about being centred and just enjoying the ebb and flow of life and, bizarrely, a scout round your favourite stores should offer just that sense of savouring the moment, of losing yourself, of relaxing.

Alas, no. Thanks to the branding boys at head office those rare chances of solitude are shattered by the unwonted appearance of Beyonce, Kanye, Olly Murs and the rest of the gang.

It isn't just a case of not liking Singer X or Band Y or snarling about the banality of corporate playlists.

Most of us aren't on the avant-garde cutting edge and are fairly MOR in our tastes. I claim no great musical superiority.

But what really galls isn't just the snatched away opportunities to stand and stare, but the sheer presumptiveness. Because at the black heart of every playlist is the corporate belief that they know us, our likes and dislikes, what makes us happy or sad, what makes us willing to part with our hard-earned pounds.

All of which makes me want to yell: "How dare you? You don't know me at all. In fact, I don't want you to know me - I just want to buy some milk."

It's like being force-fed a diet of corporate smugness. Regardless of the musical genre, be it indie, Americana or Urban R&B, the bottom line is always the same: 'We're young. We're happening. We're surfing the zeitgeist. We're authentic. Stick with us.'

Who wants to be THAT patronised? Treated like that much of a sucker? In comparison, Radio Costcutter or Radio Superdrug have a kind of own-brand integrity. They're basically upfront about what they're doing - 'we're not here to hoodwink you, we're here to bash out a few hits in between telling you there are massive discounts this week on Cornettos... or Rimmel'.

In contrast, the 'sophisticated' approach of most of the big chains seems like an increasingly annoying tugging at the elbow. 'Look at us! Look at our exquisite taste! Our sophistication. We're cool. Buy some of us.'

But they aren't and we aren't. Even worse, the whole thing rots away at the fundamental alchemy of music - that it is a transformation, a totally unique meeting of artist and listener.

As any self-regarding poseur knows, context is everything, and I seriously doubt anyone's ears have ever been opened by something they heard standing tutting beside a till point while the person in front couldn't find their credit card. It also rusts away at reputations. In their wildly differing ways, Johnny Cash and U2 have their merits, but I will now forever associate The Man In Black's late ruminations on mortality and steadily approaching death with the flavour of fresh-baked cherry scones. And With Or Without You will no more be associated with the pain and obsession of love, but rather with trying to find the right pair of boots.

None of this is Johnny's or Bono's fault. No, it's down to the people who run these big chains. Quite why they think we want music lobbed at us constantly is not clear. After all, music has never been so ubiquitous. If we want soundtracks to our shopping we merely have to slip on the earphones and listen. And guess what? Our musical taste will be more than a match than that of Dave from the marketing department.

So why do they bother? Do they think we are little more than grown-up children who will throw a tantrum if not continuously 'entertained'. Or that we are so shallow that the prospect of spending a couple of minutes with our own thoughts will throw us into a full-blown existential crisis, spilling coffee all over ourselves and walking into clothes rails?

It's time for the high street to change the record. Who knows what we might think about if only we were given the chance…

Belfast Telegraph


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