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Weekly Alibi Music to My Ears

By Harry Willson

MAY 24, 1999:  As I was writing the check at the supermarket, I realized that I would never be able to work there, even though many other people my age are doing so. I couldn't stand it because of the "music." It is blasting, wailing, thumping, lamenting, caterwauling, clanging and banging at all times throughout the entire work shift. It would quickly drive me nuts.

I wondered why that noise was being pumped into that large room, surely at considerable expense. I have learned that there is an answer to that question. It has been studied, tested and proven by marketing experts that such "background music" causes the customers to buy more. Studies show that the same results cannot be obtained with so-called "white noise," things like the sound of surf or babbling brooks, or baroque music, which is what I would personally prefer.

I was thinking, while groping for the mute on a non-existent remote control device which I could point at the ceiling speaker right above my head, that I'd buy more if we had complete silence. But the statistics indicate that the screaming lamentation "music" works best. So employees and a few "sensitive" customers either have to tolerate being driven crazy, or they must learn how to shut down those nerves that carry impulses from the ear to the brain.

A scene in the waiting room at Subaru Parts and Service came to mind. Seven of us were seated there. All seven were reading, or trying to. None of us was interested in the TV show that was blasting in that small room. I looked at it briefly, unavoidably, and found it stupid and offensive.

Other people in the waiting room, besides me, were bothered by the sound, I could tell. After studying all six of my companions for a while, I got up and turned the volume to zero. Several thanked me with words and smiles. One man didn't notice, but I learned later that he had turned his hearing-aid to zero earlier. I had my explanation ready, in case Subaru management came in: "Persons who buy Subarus and have them serviced by Subaru are readers, not watchers of daytime TV."

Back in the supermarket I wondered if there was some way customers could resist the manipulation which the "music" is intended to exert. I mean, by finding a way to turn it off. Probably not. They'd tell me that if I didn't like the way they ran their store, then I could just stay out of it.

My wife gets cross at such musings on my part, calling it a great flaw in me that I cannot "simply ignore it," as she claims to be able to do. But I am put off by that notion, even if it were possible for me to learn how to screen out signals that are designed to influence me subliminally. Why should I waste energy and brain power teaching my brain not to do what two billion years of evolution prepared it to be able to do--that is, pick up sounds and make sense of them?

A similar discussion occurred at a patio restaurant, when the fighter pilots of the Air National Guard flew over so low and so often that the three of us having lunch couldn't speak. I expressed resentment over the expense, the misguided ingenuity, the intimidation and terrorization of the native population, the real danger to people on the ground and the interruption of what we were doing. One companion tried to find the good in what they were doing--something about "freedom" or the price of freedom, but I didn't get it and remained totally unconvinced that any good could come of all that commotion. Precision flying in tight formation may indeed be impressive, but it does not justify, for me, the danger we and thousands of others are placed in by the pilots' antics.

Must we train our brains to pretend that dangerous machines are not really flying very near our heads? Or to forget that TV programs designed to make us stupid and insensitive and mean are being shoved in our faces? Or to ignore the fact that sounds we don't like are being used to urge us to buy what we don't need? I intend to resist such manipulation for as long as I can.

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