Compilation creep

If Starbucks doesn't have a soundtrack to suit your lifestyle, maybe the Postal Service will.

By Sarah Vowell

Published July 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i'm a very musical girl, and when I go shopping for underwear, I don't want
to buy just a new brassiere, I'd like to be able to pick up a little Schubert
on the side. And guess what? This is my decade! I can walk into any
Victoria's Secret and pick up compact discs like "Passion and Pleasures:
Schubert" or "Two Hundred Years of Romance: Mozart" along with a new
bath robe or whatever. One-stop shopping! Apparently, lingerie customers
worldwide are so anxious to get home to try out their slinky new purchases
that they're too hot and bothered to mess with record stores.

Have you noticed this trend -- that you can't buy sheets or a new big knife or
even a cup of coffee lately without being offered a compilation CD with the
retailer's name on it? Stores seem so interested in curating your
life -- picking the food you eat, the chair you sit on, the alarm clock you get
up to -- I'm surprised they've stopped at music. Next thing you know, Urban
Outfitters will be telling you not only how to dress, or that Sebadoh's a good
band, but who to vote for, too. My knee-jerk reaction upon seeing
these compilation CDs was a music snob's disdain. How dare Starbucks soil
the purity of Billie Holiday by sticking her on "Hot Java Jazz"? What
business does Pottery Barn have in dabbling in the who-cares genre of acid
jazz? Should Williams-Sonoma be using Bing Crosby to sell picnic baskets
with that smooth old song "Watermelon Weather"?

Then I calmed down. I've gotten kind of used to capitalism by now, haven't
you? For one thing, I've always secretly adored compilations. Let's face
it, most musicians only record two or three truly great songs in their careers, and I'd rather sit
through an hour of various greatness than an hour of pointless filler by
someone who never had any business seeing the words "long play" next to their
name. I have never liked the Jam, for instance, but I love their single "In
the City," so its appearance on Rhino's "Anarchy in the U.K.: U.K. Punk I"
is plenty 'nuff Jam for me.

Why is respectable Capitol Records' lounge compilation "The Crime Scene"
(purchased at respectable Tower Records) necessarily superior to, or any less
money-grubbing than, Pottery Barn's "Martini Lounge"? Both albums contain
Vicki Carr's "The Silencers," but can you guess which one includes drink
recipes for the cocktail nation? Wrong. It's Capitol who tells you how to
make a Screwdriver, Bloody Mary and a Side Car, not the store that
sells shakers and glassware and such. And if you avant-gardists are turning
up your noses at buying something as holy as music at a furniture store, then
recall avant-phre Erik Satie's dream of "furniture music": "You know there's
a need to create furniture music, that is to say, music that would be a part
of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as
melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it
completely, without imposing itself. It would fill up the awkward silences
that occasionally descend on guests. It would spare them the usual

While I imagine these retailers see the music they sell as
background-friendly, none of them to my knowledge have delved into Brian
Eno-type ambience. Starbucks, for example, chooses real songs by take-notice
performers like Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters (ha ha) on
its current offering, "Blending the Blues." I had it on as background
music, and believe me, when Big Mama started yelping on "Hound Dog," I dropped
everything and listened hard. So what if they've stuck her onto the musical
equivalent of a business card? Maybe Starbucks ain't never caught a rabbit,
but that doesn't mean she ain't no friend of mine -- whether it's here or on a purist's Peacock Records set.

I think other organizations could learn something from these crass, commercial
CDs. For years, conservative pundits have been suggesting that the American
government should ape the practices of private enterprise in order to become
more efficient, ambitious and lucrative. Personally, I hold fast to the
old-fashioned notion that governing should be a nonprofit endeavor. But I'm
willing to experiment: If retail outfits have successfully marketed
themselves through the sale of compilation CDs, then why not the feds? If
any organization could use a little more PR perk, it's the U.S. of A. And
what better way to accomplish this than by using the entertainment industry
(our export product second only to the mighty, mighty soybean).

The Washington, D.C., tourist can visit FBI Headquarters, where the gift shop
will offer "Unintelligible at Any Speed: How We Embarrassed Ourselves By
Getting All Worked Up Over Figuring Out the Garbled Lyrics of Louie Louie,"
as well as a series of albums called "Musicians We Keep Files On, Vol. I: That Pain in the Ass John Lennon."

Other federal departments will get make-overs for the '90s. The Postal
Service, in a move to spit-shine the fact that it doesn't give a damn whether
you get your mail or not, will adopt a bad-boy, slacker image, providing
letter carriers with little buttons that say "Whatever" and selling a grunge
sampler called "I'm So Tired, Tired of Waiting" in which bands like
Alice in Chains do noisy covers of "Que Sera, Sera," "You Can't Always Get
What You Want" and "I'm Waiting for the (Mail) Man."

If this idea takes off, the government could hire Tower or like-minded record
conglomerates as contractors and set up little music counters in federal
buildings nationwide. They'll undertake an ambitious CD singles program,
inspiring the Census Bureau to put out the Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody
Else," the National Archives/Negativland joint effort, "Nixon On Tape," the
Health and Human Services collectors edition of Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm
Sick" and even -- behind the counter -- hard-to-find bootlegs of Janet Reno
doing "Great Balls of Fire," a Hillary Clinton spoken word original called "Excuse Me For Living" and Al Gore's rap version of "Rockin' in the Free World."

But any record label's success depends on star power, and lucky for us, the
lead singer of the American government not only has got the right to sing
the blues, he can carry a tune! That is why the crown glory of the
compilation program will be "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out: A
Presidential Plea," a soulful, Southern-flavored collection including Hank
Williams' "Alone and Forsaken" and a Forrest Gumpified duet between the
Prez and the King singing "Baby, What You Want Me to Do." Who knows?
This could work wonders for the commander-in-chief's approval ratings -- if not now, then almost certainly later on. After all, presidencies may come and go, but -- like capitalism -- an album is forever.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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