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Thank you For The Muzak


nordstrompngThe abrupt and unnatural change in temperature caught me by surprise—it’s near impossible, I think, to jump from 50 to 90 just like that and take it in stride—and in my state of confusion, I decided that my wardrobe was part of the problem. Perhaps, even, my wardrobe was the whole of the problem, or at least the only element of the problem I could control.

“What I need,” I thought to myself, “is a decent pair of shorts.”

As something of a rule, I don’t wear shorts, because they’re not acceptable in offices or restaurants or concert venues or public places other than gyms, but, again, 90 in April does weird things to the brain, so I hightailed it to Nordstrom Rack, to see if I could find some variety of shortpants that didn’t seem entirely humiliating.


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I don’t know if you know Nordstrom Rack, but if you don’t: It’s a big, sterile department-y clearance store that sells brand-name clothing at reasonable prices. (I’m not shilling for the place, just making a case for my own relative frugality here, as well as my own attempts at stylishness.) It’s like a slightly more upscale version of Marshall’s, or a slightly more downscale version of Century 21, and if none of these descriptions helps you to understand the place, then I don’t know what else I can say at this point, except that you have an admirable aversion to retail and probably a healthier savings account than I.

So anyway! Saturday afternoon, there I was, aimlessly and cluelessly wandering beneath the fluorescent lights of Nordstrom Rack, surrounded by thousands of Ed Hardy T-shirts and True Religion jeans, trying to stave off a panic attack, when I picked up what appeared to be the strains of a familiar and beloved song coming through the PA.

“Can’t be,” I said to myself. “It’s just a simple, heat-induced hallucination is all.”

But it was: Elliott Smith’s “Happiness,” from his 2000 LP, Figure 8.

Now, hearing Elliott Smith in a coffee joint or a hipster bar or an iPhone ad seems pretty reasonable—his sad, lovely indie folk is commonplace in such milieus—but over the PA at Nordstrom Rack? There’s just something counterintuitive there; it’s a juxtaposition that plays heck with my senses. I’ve been an Elliott Smith fan since 1996, when I heard his self-titled sophomore LP while interning at the publicity agency promoting that LP, and over the years his songs—filled with junkies and disease and death and loneliness and bleak attempts at hope—have meant a great, great deal to me. Which is not to say that Nordsrom Rack shouldn’t play his music, just that it is weird for me, personally, to hear it there.

Then it got weirder.

Over the next 45 minutes, the PA at Nordstrom Rack played such a personally satisfying and exciting selection of music that I was actually creeped out: The Verve’s “Lucky Man” (from 1997’s Urban Hymns), Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” (from 2001’s Amnesiac); Travis’ “Driftwood” from 1999’s The Man Who)…

Perhaps these artists, songs and album titles mean nothing to you—or perhaps, you, like me, worked in an Anglophile-friendly West Village record store for three years in the late ’90s, read NME every week, and wore Fred Perry exclusively, because Blur’s Damon Albarn wore Fred Perry exclusively. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between these two extremes. Regardless, you need to understand that this is my music. Or, if you are like me, this is our music. This is the music we collected and cared about obsessively, the import CD singles and the concerts that felt like family reunions. This is the music that no one listened to but us. It was special, it was important, it was art, it was ours.

And it faded in time, because that’s what happens to music—it fades, and other music comes along, and it exists in the shadows of memory and occasionally makes its way to an iPod playlist called, like, “Songs from when you lived in Sunset Park and drank every night and played guitar and dreamed of world-altering greatness.” And now it’s back…at Nordstrom Rack?

But it makes sense, too: I imagine that some young mother was caught by surprise when she first heard Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” in the produce aisle at Gristede’s in 1982, and some 34-year-old grad student was taken aback when Steely Dan’s “Peg” started playing while he was shopping for a new pair of Levis at Gimbels in ’83. And these people were puzzled, because at one point, those songs meant a lot to them, too—those were songs of pain and mystery; songs that touched young hearts, changed young lives.

Then, all of a sudden, they were songs played in malls and supermarkets—because these people were the new mall and supermarket demographic; their music was the new easy listening.

And now, my music, our music, I, we have become that, too.

The evidence is ugly and it doesn’t lie.

But don’t mind me: I’m just a guy in shorts bitching about the heat, wondering what happened to the music of his youth, wondering when and how he got here, where the time goes, where it went.

More articles filed under Columns,Music,Sonic Boom

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