Jukebox Justice

As long as internet jukeboxes abound, we open ourselves up to all kinds of sonic disasters.

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.