Jukebox Justice

Talladega Nights has been on television a lot recently, and though I swore that I’d never put myself through that painful movie again, I did happen to catch one scene. It featured the introduction of Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a French “Formula Un” driver who would soon shake up Ricky Bobby’s (aka Will Ferrell’s) world. The local gang is notified of his arrival by the sudden screeching of jazz on the jukebox, which predictably sends them into convulsions, given how jarringly different it is from the usual honky-tonk tunes.

“Nobody plays jazz at the Pit Stop,” says the bartender.

“Then why is the song on the jukebox?” asks Girard.

“We use it for profiling purposes,” replies the bartender. “We’ve also got the Pet Shop Boys and Seal.”

I thought of this scene on a recent Friday evening, when I went to a local tavern for some beers in celebration of a friend quitting his job (with a new one already secured). The place was a fairly nondescript neighborhood bar serving a small crowd of older regulars along with a rotating group of younger neighborhood residents stopping in before heading out to the trendier spots in the area. As the imbibing went on, we got to talking about my friend’s brother’s band, which had recently completed a turn as a Huey Lewis & the News tribute band for a Halloween show in Wisconsin. This discussion of course led to a search on the jukebox for “The Power of Love”.

The classic hit was not available on the general catalog – a red flag that was summarily ignored, as the decision was made to pay an extra couple of credits to find it on the internet function. Soon Huey’s voice was streaming through the bar, to the general surprise but not necessarily disgust of the patrons.

If it had ended there, everything would’ve been fine, but one taste of Huey is never enough. Soon after, with only a few interruptions, came a marathon of ‘80s cheesiness: “If This Is It”, “I Want a New Drug” (aka the Ghostbusters theme), “Hip To Be Square”, “The Heart of Rock & Roll”, and “Jacob’s Ladder”. It can’t have been a complete coincidence that the bar began to empty out during this sonic barrage, but we rationalized this by saying we’d leave an extra-large tip to compensate for any lost business. Even so, I may never be able to go to that bar again.

Jukeboxes present an interesting social contract. While they exist to offer patrons a chance to play DJ, to hear the songs they want to hear, there’s an understanding that when you slip in your dollar, you’ll do your best not to disrupt the bar’s general atmosphere. That’s not to say you can’t switch up a genre every now and then, but you should have some general understanding of how choices are going to go over with your audience. This is why internet jukeboxes are so dangerous; where before, a bar could (and certainly, many still do) limit the extent to which a nostalgic drunk could ruin everyone else’s night, now any awful or annoying song is available for just an extra 50 cents – a small price to pay when you’ve just gotta hear Color Me Badd’s “All For Love”.

Still, even the worst selection will usually be over in a few minutes, and the proper atmosphere can typically be regained. However, that’s not always the case, and not just because of the ability to buy one’s DJ privileges. Probably the worst act of jukebox aggression I’ve ever heard of was a girl who decided to see how the patrons at her local bar would react to hearing Brian Eno’s “Thursday Afternoon” – all 61-minutes of it. According to her tale, the response to the ambient sounds was something akin to the five stages of grief as outlined in the famed Kubler-Ross model. There was denial (“This must be a mistake. A new song will come on soon.”); anger (“Seriously, is this song still on? What the hell is wrong with this bar??”); bargaining (“I will buy everyone in this bar a shot if you will turn this damn song off!”); depression (“I’m going to kill myself.”); and acceptance (“Screw it, I think we can dance to this. Where are those shots, anyway?”)

Obviously, this social experiment was an extreme example, but the problem remains real. As long as internet jukeboxes abound, we open ourselves up to all kinds of sonic disasters. People simply can’t be trusted. Or at least, they can’t be trusted past a certain point. In fact, when it comes to this issue, I subscribe to the Apple model of preferencing quality control over user choice and freedom. Like the many crappy Android apps I’ve downloaded and subsequently uninstalled, poor jukebox selections show that having an essentially unlimited pool of options doesn’t always produce the best outcomes. It’s a lesson I learned countless times when putting my old, 40GB iPod on ‘Shuffle’ mode during college gatherings — while the randomness offered some novelty, it also ensured that I’d have to get up to hit the ‘skip’ button every time some random downloaded song or comedy bit popped up. Now, I keep my Nano’s content pared down, knowing that nearly every song that comes on will be one I will actually want to listen to.

This is essentially what bar owners do with their jukeboxes (the good ones, anyway) and it seems to work out pretty well. At my favorite bars, it’s comforting to know that no matter who steps up to the jukebox, the resulting song will be halfway decent .

This is definitely not a plea for Steve Jobs to begin a DJ career, but since internet jukeboxes are likely here to stay – because the only ‘walled gardens’ bar patrons desire are the ones with plastic chairs and lots of beer – it couldn’t hurt to come up with a way to police them. I’m thinking of some kind of user rating system, in which your selections are ranked by others in the establishment; get a good score, and your subsequent selections will be preferenced (and maybe you’d get some free downloads, to boot). Disappoint, and your songs will be buried in the queue – or even cut off halfway, if the reaction is strong enough.

It’s not a perfect system; you could easily skew the ratings if you had enough drunk friends with a Huey Lewis fetish. But if it helps to prevent even one bar fight, it’ll be worth it.