Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music
One-Click Ecstasy by Terry Sawyer - The debut of Amazon.com was, for me, an event that unleashed my inner capitalist whore with a frightening, binging fury.
The debut of Amazon.com was, for me, an event that unleashed my inner capitalist whore with a frightening, binging fury. I had always hated shopping, particularly at Christmas time when one must negotiate the dense and boorish clots of your fellow humans, enduring the tense friction of long lines, thinking about the moments stolen from your life in pursuit of that next purchase, which feels so crucial until you try using it to spackle the hole in your soul that makes you want to consume in the first place. Then, like a fairy dot com mother, someone handed me an efficient and carefree way to exercise my nationalist vacuity.
I'm not an architectural snob or aesthetic fascist, but I've always loathed shopping malls with a passion that has led me to countless fantasies of well-intentioned aliens with huge wrecking balls for arms who do for us what we don't have the sense to do for ourselves. I resent the audacity of mall structure, a bold blandness that has been transferred to the single store conglomerates which eschew the mass hives for an imposing wall of Tonka block warehouses that still mar the landscape like a pimple that sucks all the greenery and replaces it with miles of morgue slab concrete. Malls exude a hollow grandiosity, where hugeness substitutes for beauty; the inside looks like a layered roach trap designed to suffocate your senses and kill you a little each time you drift mindlessly from shiny bauble to bleeping video game. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead the protagonists seek shelter in the imposing fortress of a local mall only to discover that the zombies seem peculiarly drawn, even severed from consciousness, to its sickly catacombs of bad light, sugar food, and countless objects which bluntly approximate things you might actually want. Absent their humanity, it's the only place still hardwired into their rotting flesh.
It isn't just the hideous buildings and slaughter gate crowding that I hate. Since my addiction of choice is music buying, I also resent the snobbery gauntlet of the independent record store clerk. As I get older, I grow increasingly skeptical that people can create meaningful moral difference by rebellious consumption. The indie record store is the temple of shopping judgment and scorn, where the high priests are forced into anointing your feet through clenched teeth, muttering about the power that should surely be theirs. Founts of musical history and knowledge, they use information like truncheons on puppies, blasting you for not having heard of this or that band, recoiling in gag reflex horror as you combine some sacred artist with an infidel purchase. They're usually frustrated musicians, and the customer becomes the receptacle of their unfulfilled dream shards. They're like stage moms who've realized that their progeny's success is still their failure. That is, assuming you're cool enough to warrant abuse. I've spent many a shopping stint in an indie record shop trying to wedge my way into a conversation to pay my money and leave, watching as the clerk and their blessed apostle turn further and further away from me as if they're doing me the favor of not acknowledging my shameful need to pretend that I walked into an actual business. If all record store employees had the open contempt and choice one-liners of Jack Black in High Fidelity, it might be worth weathering, but it's far more often just simmering passive aggression without the catharsis of actual insult.
Amazon.com is a one-stop shop of media gluttony: books, movies, music and, if I were so inclined, mezzaluna knives, boxers, and digital tape measures. No more driving from store to store or wandering through coliseum-sized aisles trying to figure out the logic of product grouping, hoping to accost some stray employee for a folding map to the light fixtures. I quickly took to Amazon's interactive consumer features, like silent sales assistants, who unobtrusively follow you around and divulge the secrets of other shoppers. "Terry, people who bought that item, also tended to like this one over here." There was something titillating about the kind of statistical voyeurism that went both ways. After all, as you troll, scroll, and breathe over someone else's shoulder, you're also creating a map of your own desire phases that someone else might one day trace with their mouse clicks. These infinitely tumbling stitches to other people's purchases have led me to Laverne Baker, Karen Dalton, and Sister Wynona Carr, discoveries that would have otherwise remained in the hands of the fickle and stingy fates.
But it's more than just plugging into a rigged system of recommendations; it's also that Amazon fosters this effusively chattering culture of critique. When I'm bored, I browse through the book reviews section, which frequently degenerates into intellectual catfights where the cloak of anonymity encourages the most beautifully bilious honestly. About Ann Coulter's new book, one review says, "I don't see how people can read it, unless they are desperately in need of stimulation in their lives, in which case I recommend light snaps of a rubber band to the wrist." Whatever corporate evils they propagate (and I'm sure there are many), I have to give them props for allowing people to eviscerate in writing any product they chose. It some ways it upends the traditional sales model of "everything is equally wonderful" like a parent asked to rank their love for their progeny.
When Amazon customers aren't bitch slapping each other over the latest tome of pundit discharge, they're frequently building glowing monuments to their own sense of taste. As a music critic, I'm naturally drawn to others' aesthetic rankings, even if I consider the entire project of drawing objective lines on the beach sand of subjectivity a gloriously futile exercise. El2king lists "The Twenty Greatest Singles Ever" and unabashedly includes P.Diddy and Limp Bizkit. So not every list is a goldmine, but it's worth browsing the idiosyncratic and sometimes impassioned defenses of the conversion experience that is creating that list of desert island discs.
Like all technological innovations there are unintended costs, that each person may or may not be willing to pay. Such lists lead one into the temptation of dishonesty. Where did you hear about Wynonnie Harris, a friend might ask? Do you tell the truth, that some computer generated a probability or do you play it off like some grizzled soul man having coffee next to you in a diner one day was humming a song and you decided to ask him what it was and from then on you had this wonderful friendship that ended abruptly when he died of heart failure while trying to teach you, Karate Kid style, the blues? Isn't their something a bit more sincere and rewarding about the lie?
There's a certain lack of agency involved in surrendering to the rhythms of a website's breadcrumb trail. A trip to the record store always leaves breathing room for chance, that odd moment when a sleeve catches your eye or you brush hands with some hipster with a nice ass as you grab for the same CD at the same time and lock eyes like the Lady and the Tramp kissing at the midpoint of the same piece of spaghetti.
And you know what, there's a place in this world for the surly record store employee, a kind of iconic discourtesy, one of the few ways that misanthropic people can earn a living wage. Many of my favorite crushes were on these stony gargoyle tastemakers, as I tried to impress, hoping for alms of approval or a phone number scrawled on the receipt. In some ways, I certainly prefer the aloof asshole to the sales person who lodges themselves in my barker, huffing and puffing out sunshine for the debasing sliver called commission. Truth be told, even though my first love is Amazon.com, Waterloo Records is still my satisfying but infrequent mistress.
When it comes down to it, online shopping simply provides a way for those of us hobbled by neurosis or as I prefer, poorly reviewed sanity, to participate in the national obsession that is integral to American identity. For those of you braving the cardiac bloodstream of Holiday shoppers, I salute your bravery and wish you well in the dog-eat-dog soccer riot of the Christmas rush. For those of you who, like me, will be doing most of your shopping from the comfort of your own moated home, I ask only that you choose wisely, because I might be peeking over your shoulder for ideas.