Back in high school, I worked part-time at the Gap, a job that, for all its discomforts — the late-night restocking, the Sisyphean folding and re-folding, those headsets — really only left a bitter memory because of the music. Each month, the store received a new disc of background shopping soundtrack, but only an hour-long soundtrack, to be played on loop over over and over again, and so to be heard by me six or seven times per shift. Needless to say, the start of a new month, and, with this, the arrival of a new mix of bland pop hits, felt like a salvation.
This sort of programmatic musical engineering already had plenty of precedent by that point, as thoroughly documented by Mark Davis, who spent the late 1980s and early 1990s working at K-Mart's customer service desk and — perhaps foreseeing both the future ease of sharing audiovisual materials over the internet and the waves of nostalgia for the recent past that ease would enable — pocketed all the shoppping-soundtrack cassette tapes that passed through his hands, building the impressive collection you can see in the video above.
“Until around 1992, the cassettes were rotated monthly,” writes Davis. “Then, they were replaced weekly. Finally sometime around 1993, satellite programming was introduced which eliminated the need for these tapes altogether. The older tapes contain canned elevator music with instrumental renditions of songs. Then, the songs became completely mainstream around 1991. All of them have advertisements every few songs. The monthly tapes are very, very, worn and rippled. That's because they ran for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week on auto-reverse.”
The highly deliberate, near-frictionless mildness; the interspersed spoken-word advertisements and their hypnotically repetitive emphasis on low, low prices; the wobble and hiss of the battered recording media; all of it adds up to a listening experience historically and aesthetically like no other. (If you enjoy this sort of thing and haven't yet heard of the movement called “vaporwave,” hie thee to Google, look it up, and prepare for astonishment.) You can hear over 90 hours of it at Attention K-Mart Shoppers, Davis' digitized repository of his cassettes at the Internet Archive.
If you have any memories of shopping at K-Mart twenty to thirty years ago, these tapes may bring on a rush of Proustian recollection. But not all of them scored the average shopping day. One, for example, came just for play on March 1st, 1992, K-Mart's 30th anniversary. “This was a special day at the store where employees spent all night setting up for special promotions and extra excitement. It was a real fun day, the store was packed wall to wall, and I recall that the stores were asked to play the music at a much higher volume,” a program which included “oldies and all sorts of fun facts from 1962.” Finally, a way to feel nostalgia for one era's nostalgia of another era. How's that for a 21st-century experience?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.