The Moving Edge

January 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every so often I meet Claude the brand consultant for morning coffee at Zabar’s café right next to the main Zabar’s store. If café suggests a Parisian-style venue, think again. The place is small and purely functional. Fluorescent lights and formica counters. (The pictures here are from New York Magazine.)

Last week, once again the audio system was piping out the Beethoven Violin Concerto –Zabar’s has twelve different kinds of lox but apparently only one CD – and it prompted Claude to inaugurate his own blog with a post about brands and background music.

I guess you’re not supposed to be aware of the music. In some stores, mostly those for the younger crowd, the music is so loud you can’t help but notice. But usually the music provides an innocuous subliminal background. Like in the Macy’s in Sarasota, where I was returning some stuff a couple of days after Christmas. I listened, actually listened, for a minute, and I recognized what was coming out of the speakers: Horace Silver’s 1953 recording of “Opus de Funk.”

When that Blue Note album (with Art Blakey on drums) came out, it was for hip folks only (or were they still “hep” in the early 50s?*). I couldn’t imagine Macy’s shoppers in the era of Patti Page and Mantovani tolerating hard bop piano, even at a very low volume. But in 2007, nobody noticed.

Things change. The concertgoers of one era react with incomprehension or revulsion to avante-garde music, but those same sounds – dissonant, polyrhythmic, minimalist, or whatever – become, after a generation or two, the stuff of barely noticed movie soundtracks.

John Lennon dreaded that when he got old, he might need money and wind up having to play Las Vegas, like some latter day version of Wayne Newton or Andy Williams. Hard to Imagine. But what was once edgy becomes mainstream – so far from the edge that you can play it for South Florida shoppers at three in the afternoon and not ruffle a feather.

It was no accident either. Yesterday, I called Macy’s here in New York about my bill, and what was the music playing while I was on hold? Horace Silver’s trio recording of “Que Pasa.” How long will it be till it’s Mötley Crüe?

*Dave Frishberg’s song “I’m Hip,” contains the line which should certainly be in Bartlett’s some day – “When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”

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