Attention K‑Mart Shoppers: Hear 90 Hours of Background Music & Ads from the Retail Giant’s 1980s and 90s Heyday

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?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

As Benev­o­lent Dic­ta­tor, Vladimir Nabokov Would Abol­ish Muzak & Bidets: What Would Make Your List?

Why We Love Rep­e­ti­tion in Music: Explained in a New TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Woody Allen Lives the “Deli­cious Life” in Ear­ly-80s Japan­ese Com­mer­cials

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.

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