The Beguiling Banana Republic Soundtrack
The couple walks in, the guy pulling his girlfriend behind him like a wagon. I nod and greet them, get a tight-lipped response. I’m folding some summer-weight V-necks at the front, which had been ravaged just minutes earlier by a woman with a stroller. I watch them out of the corner of my eye as they mill about for a few minutes.
“You like polos?” I say to the man when he and his hard-looking girl rove back within earshot.
“I’m gonna show you the polo.”
I grab it off a shelf and drop it on a table near them and go back to folding ten feet away. The shirt is a vivid orange; you hear sunny washes of synth when you look at it. It is like an ecstasy-laced tangerine being squeezed into your eyes. It’s a great shirt. I don’t have the skin tone to pull it off. It has a medium-weight stripe around the edge of the collar that matches the ivory elephant embroidered on the chest, with a second, smaller tan stripe. I don’t look at them as I speak.
“You’re gonna dream about that shirt. Twice.”
“Then you’re gonna sneak back in here and buy it when I’m not on shift just to avoid telling me I was right.” They both laugh out loud.
I don’t give a fuck if he buys the polo or not. The store is slow. I’ve had to ratchet up my patter over the last few months to keep myself entertained. I tell people not to touch the clothes. I tell them that dressing rooms cost money. I tell them that we set up a waffle bar in petites. After 17 or 18 shifts of mentally pairing all my favorites from the summer and vestigial spring offerings, there’s not a lot else to do.
Oh, and there’s the music; the officially-approved music employed to tell you exactly how it’s supposed to feel to stand at the clean-smelling, walnut-and-citrus center of the Banana Republic brand. Lightweight though it is, it’s surprisingly tolerable: lots of stuff with warm textures and snappy beats, bright little pieces of global flotsam, housey pop, poppy house, acid-jazzy departures with lots of vocals. Electro bops and what-nots. There are a few pieces of cloying, felching disco crap that make me feel like hurting myself and others, but it could be worse.
And for the most part, I don’t have a clue what any of it is. I used to be able to pick out artists and tracks. I can’t anymore.
Two years ago, exalting in a nitrous oxide lift during the many-clawed, consensual mouth-fucking that some refer to as dentistry, I envisioned a chart that showed music’s epicenter on a linear timeline of your life. Linear units were marked in years. There was a glowing bolus marking the period of maximum absorption, when you consumed almost everything that was being recorded just as a function of being alive. You saw all the shows, traded the CDs with your friends, watched it on TV, and sang along at the bars. This was when you could identify every contemporary single played on the radio.
In this chart, which appeared to me on a fizzing field of white, there were concentric circles radiating out from the crater that were spaced farther and farther out. It was my insight that as you moved farther down the timeline, the intersections of the timeline and the spreading circles represented the diminishing number of songs you can recognize while listening to radio or digital music channels in a public place for a given period of time. At the center, you recognize all of them, but as you age, it’s fewer and fewer, until the spreading rings dissolve into meaninglessness, or you realize you’ve become what you used to laugh at — the guy for whom music ceased to exist after Lynrd Skynyrd, except in your case, it’s Pixies and Public Enemy.
During the cavity filling, I was able to recognize only three songs of the many that played over the office speakers during my session.
Now, nothing. I can’t name a single track being played at my workplace. I did peg a Sarah MacLachlan song once. I also noted, to no small measure of delight, a really nice Latin cover of The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve Fallen in Love With)?” But who recorded it?
I asked one of my managers whether our retail soundtrack was a digital subscription channel or a proprietary mix handed down by the corporate brand shepherds. As it turns out, Banana Republic is a Muzak subscriber. The folks who designed elevator music decades ago figured out a way to stay relevant, apparently.
There was one track in the rotation that continually excited me: a hip-hop beat skipping along, an airy voice, and an economical little plink-plink-plink melody on the chorus. It was the best kind of candy, similar in spirit to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” When unobserved I would roll my shoulders to it and do a little head snap. One night I asked a manager who she thought recorded it. She flatly said that all I had to do was look at the box in the closet behind the front registers. All this time! To know the artists and titles!
I strode briskly to the closet behind the registers. It was the Squeak E. Clean and Koool G. Murder remix of “Tiny Paintings” by Architecture in Helsinki, which I have since purchased from iTunes. And I could look up whatever song I wanted from then on. Access to this trivia was liberating, a new toehold on relevance.
Days later, I’m watching two doughy teenage boys take a tour around the store, moving too fast from garment to garment. They don’t seem entirely comfortable appraising the displays together. I’m not sure what is happening here, but it doesn’t look like shopping. I have already proffered my initial greeting and have let them mook around for awhile before I approach them with my palms pressed together.
“Gentlemen: is this a socks-and-underwear night or are we actually looking for something interesting tonight? What are we getting into? Talk to me.”
He starts to blush and stammer. Whatever process I interrupted, it is apparent that I’m not helping. I can hear that Mylo’s “Drop the Pressure” is playing. I just stare at the kid with my eyebrows raised, waiting for him to finish some kind of sentence. There’s not much else to do.