Mystery Bopping

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.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax