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Mystery Bopping

Racket searches for the hoppingest grocery store in town

Music and food-gathering have always gone together. Cavemen sang and hammered bones off skulls on the eve of big mammoth hunts. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, peasants frolicked and puked away market days to the sound of little bands that would come to town to serenade the big gatherings. And for as long as we can remember, supermarkets have piped music in through overhead speakers.

For years, all you heard was Muzak, that copyrighted name brand/genre of classically reinterpreted, instrumental pop, rock, jazz and country standards. Muzak was mocked when it wasn't ignored -- according to its critics, it was schmaltzy, cheesy, soulless, manipulative, sentimental, cloying, you name it. On the other hand, many musicians loved the stuff. Having one of your songs get the Muzak treatment was the songwriter's equivalent of hitting the lottery -- your song would be played to captive audiences on hold, in dentist's offices and at supermarkets forever and ever, and the checks from BMI and ASCAP would roll in. (For a time, Townes Van Zandt was kept solvent by Muzak's remake of "Pancho and Lefty.") Muzak Inc., the company that pumped out the stuff by the boxcarload, also paid out pretty hefty session checks to the classical musicians it employed.

At some point in the last 15 years, this stuff began to disappear. The company that makes it has decided to get hipper. (When was the last time you heard real-deal Muzak?) These days, Muzak Inc. is into what it calls "audio architecture," wherein it essentially compiles mix tapes that are meant to make the customers of any given business want to come back again and again and spend lots of money when they do. "Its power lies within its subtlety," confides Muzak's Web site. "It bypasses the resistance of the mind and targets the receptiveness of the heart. When people are made to feel good in, say, a store, they feel good about that store. They like it. Remember it. Go back to it. Audio Architecture builds a bridge to loyalty. And loyalty is what keeps brands alive."

"So," the Web site does not continue, "buy your mix tapes from us or die."

At any rate, we decided to see which Houston grocery stores were trying to build bridges to our loyalty, bypassing the resistance of our minds and targeting the receptiveness of our hearts, and which seemed likely to do the same to others in their neighborhood. In one frenzied afternoon and evening, we loitered in the aisles of ten inner-city and southwest-side supermarkets, pushing an empty cart around, flipping through lame magazines and looking busy, while writing down the first three or four songs we heard and, later, grading the result. We braved a police shooting in the Montrose and an exploded tanker truck on the West Loop to gather this research; the process took more than eight hours. Why all the trouble? We wanted to build a bridge to your loyalty, that's why. And loyalty is what keeps music columns alive.

(Disclaimer: We are unsure if Muzak Inc. handles all of these accounts, but we do know that Kroger is one of theirs. Also, we hit Whole Foods, but the music was turned down so low we had to give them a grade of I for "inaudible.")

Spec's, 2410 Smith

Clientele: Downtown workers looking to work up a little postwork buzz.

Neighborhood: This part of Midtown consists of nothing but blight -- the urban kind (concertina wire-ringed defunct body shops, boring offices, parking lots) and the suburban kind (bland condos, bland strip malls and this bland grocery store).

What we heard: Smooth jazz pap. Modern-day Muzak-the-music, not the company. Ugh…

What we should have heard: C'mon, Spec's -- give us the keys to your sound system. We'll get on there with our collection of New Orleans music and increase your bottom line 10 percent an hour. We'll spin some Louis Armstrong, some Fats Domino, some Dr. John, some Rebirth Brass Band, some Dirty Dozen, some Professor Longhair, and every day will seem like Mardi Gras. The people will buy that extra fifth, and you'll hear the sweet music of a cash register symphony ringing double-time. It'll be Rummy Wonderland, even more so than it is already.

Grade: F

Midtown Randalls, 2225 Louisiana

Clientele:Adventurous yuppies/urban homesteader/empty-nester types.

Neighborhood:See above.

What we heard: Smooth jazz, Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler," some dreadful dollop of meandering, sentimental R&B tripe we took to be a James Ingram duet of a song penned by Diane Warren. On Googling some of the lyrics, it turned out to be "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," a James Ingram-Patti Austin duet penned by Alan Bergman. Rats!

What we should have heard:Come on, Randalls, this is Midtown! How about jamming some Moby, Jem, Tiësto or Oakenfold? Or even Brian Eno's Music for Airports? You don't have to get too adventurous with it, but c'mon, dawg, this ain't The Woodlands. The music you've got is as suburban-sounding as the new, "improved" Midtown looks. Man, we've heard edgier stuff at Kmarts in the Chattanooga suburbs.

Grade: F

Montrose Kroger, 3300 Montrose

Clientele: Young yuppie couples, old hard-bitten types, a transvestite or two and a couple of runaway teens. Probably more gays and lesbians shop here than anywhere else in Texas.

Neighborhood: The vortex of the Montrose, the eye of the never-ending storm.

What we heard: Simply Red, "Never Never Love," smooth jazz, Bob Seger's "Against the Wind," and Lord help us, Patrick Swayze's "She's Like the Wind."

What we should have heard: Not so long ago, this Kroger's mix of the Cure, Erasure and Depeche Mode earned it the nickname Disco Kroger. Sadly, those days are gone. Bring them back!

Grade: D-minus. Seger saves them the F.

West U/Greenway Kroger, 5130 Buffalo Speedway

Clientele: Families, lots of codgers from the nearby old folks' homes.

Neighborhood: A nether zone between Greenway Plaza and West University.

What we heard: Soporific Spanish guitar picking away at light classical stuff like "Greensleeves."

What we should have heard: Seems about right, but it ain't much fun at all. Maybe okay during the holidays.

Grade: C-minus

Highland Village Rice Epicurean, 3745 Westheimer

Clientele: Minimal

Neighborhood: Highland Village, Houston's palm-lined stab at Rodeo Drive, albeit one bordered by heavily trafficked Southern Pacific railroad crossing.

What we heard: Some dreck-alicious new country, a Fleetwood Mac B-side sung by Christine McVie and the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow."

What we should have heard: Rice is still in business? Located next to Central Market, this one wasn't faring so well. Almost no one was there -- agoraphobics and rich people with an aversion to standing in line must be keeping them afloat. At any rate, depressing, doomsday fare like the Specials' "Ghost Town," Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity," George Jones's "The Grand Tour."

Grade: C-plus

Gulfton Fiesta, 6200 Bellaire

Clientele: Overwhelmingly Hispanic, including Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. Also, some West Africans in native garb, and some Indo-Pakistanis. A sign over the door welcomes you in six languages.

Neighborhood: Gulfton, a teeming hive of multiethnic humanity west of Bellaire and east of Sharpstown. Bellaire football players just out of practice cross paths with Mexican vaqueros lugging ornate handmade harps in these streets, which are lined with pawnshops, taquerias and places where you can wire money all over the world.

What we heard: Ranchero. Kind of a disappointment, really. We love ranchero, but we were looking for something a little more exotic, something in the way of a Salvadoran cumbia, perhaps, or Puerto Rican reggaetón. But ranchero -- all trumpet fanfares, horsy milieu and naked emotion -- does sound like a cavalry charge, which is what it feels like in this carnival-like hypermarket, the nexus of 21st-century Houston.

What we should have heard: Something more exotic, dammit, not the stuff we've been hearing at Mexican restaurants since we can remember.

Grade: B

Central Market, 3815 Westheimer

Clientele: Extremely rich people. We were a little surprised to be allowed to park the Racketmobile -- a dirty, battered '93 Ford Escort -- amid all the pearl-colored Navigators, maroon neo-T-Birds, and menacing black Mercs.

Neighborhood: See above.

What we heard:Something by Morrissey we caught the end of, something we took to be the work of prefab girl band Tatu that turned out to be "Point of No Return" by prefab girl band Exposé, U2's "In the Name of Love" and M's "Pop Muzik."

What we should have heard: This place kept us hanging out for an extra song just to see what was coming next. Nice work.

Grade: A-minus

Third Ward Fiesta, 4200 San Jacinto

Clientele: Almost entirely black, with a few hipsters and Hispanics (and one fuchsia-haired Hispanic hipster) in the mix.

Neighborhood: Fringes of Midtown, the Museum District and Third Ward. Payless Shoe Source, an old-school Sears, a ramshackle barber's college/wig shop, numerous burger joints and the Mexican consulate are a few nearby establishments.

What we heard: Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone," something that sounded like soul-bluesman Tyrone Davis, and Sade's "Lovers Rock." In the past, we've heard some James Brown in here other than "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Feel Good," which is as rare as it is awesome. A woman here was swaying to the music and mouthing the words as she selected her lottery scratch card.

What we should have heard:Don't get any better than that, even though we wouldn't want our son to be alone with Michael Jackson.

Grade: A

Montrose Fiesta, 3803 Dunlavy

Clientele: Mexican immigrants, hipsters, old-guard Inner Loop Houstonians, some gays and lesbians.

Neighborhood: Fringes of Montrose and the Museum District.

What we heard: Dr. Hook's "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman," Heart's "Straight On," Poco's "Keep On Tryin'."

What we should have heard: This was a subpar night for this Fiesta, wherein we have heard everything from "Hey Bo Diddley" to Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" to the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog." We've seen people dancing and singing along here more than anywhere else, so we'll give them a mulligan; after all, none of those songs was offensive.

Grade: A-plus

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Hard to believe, but it's that time again, time to send in your application to South By Southwest and wait for your annual rejection. So click on over to www.sxsw.com and fill out the application. Then get yourself a big ol' envelope and enclose in it a CD of at least three songs of original material, a photo, a bio and a press kit. Mail the whole schmear to SXSW Music Festival, P.O. Box 4999, Austin, TX 78765. The early application deadline is October 8, 2004, (postmark date) with an application fee of $10 if you fill the form out online, or $20 if you print the application and mail it in with your packet. The late application deadline is November 8, 2004, and each of the fees doubles, so get it in by October 8. Austin/Dallas acts will be notified no later than February 7, 2005, that they are accepted; Houston acts will all be rejected by that same date. (Just kidding. All Austin bands have already been accepted. Just kidding again.) SXSW 2005 will take place March 16 to 20.

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