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Scream a Few Bars: It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Torture 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014
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"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" isn't the most apt holiday tune for San Francisco. Good luck finding, in this city, a "Five and Ten," let alone one "glistening once again." Anyone handing a youngster "a pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots" can expect a knock on the door from Child Protective Services. It hasn't significantly snowed here since the Bicentennial, so unless one is making a pained allusion to demographic trends and gentrification, you'll never see a White Christmas here.

But we know it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas because retail outlets begin playing "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Rather, it's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas. In fact, that's how San Francisco has sounded since Halloween.

As a retail consultant and a longtime conductor of a chorale, Bob "The Retail Doctor" Phibbs is in a unique position to opine on whether in-store Christmas music is the most annoying of in-store musics. His opinion: It sorta is, but not for the reasons you'd think. Christmas music, per Phibbs, isn't inherently more annoying than other sorts of music (though "Carol of the Bells" can sound alarmingly like the theme to Psycho — and should be played in neither a bathroom nor a Bed, Bath & Beyond).

Rather, the field of acceptable Christmas music standbys is surprisingly limited; play something that doesn't sound like "Christmas music" and you might as well be playing "real music." And what good would that do?

Just as Walt Disney put visitors to Main Street USA into a desired frame of mind with scented oils masquerading as fresh-baked cookies, shoppers besieged with Christmas music are put in the mindset of someone who needs to buy things: "Shit! Christmas already? Gotta buy things!"

For that, esoteric Christmas music often won't do. (Sorry, medievalists. Sorry, Vince Guaraldi). Luckily, every year a new crop of more or less classic songs comes along to drive us crazy before never being heard again. As such, the Madonna version of "Santa Baby" playing a bit too loud at the mall is, essentially, the same as Taylor Swift's version or Kylie Minogue's version or Eartha Kitt's original.

Shoppers who deign to leave behind the comforts of the couch and the laptop are greeted with elaborate, Broadwayesque light shows and sets and, of course, music. It's unclear, however, if anyone actually wants this. But that's what's expected, so that's what we're going to get.

Shoppers, however, are in a luxurious position: If "Santa Baby" gets on your nerves, you can leave.

Your humble narrator hasn't had too many jobs in the service industry. But one, at Berkeley's Greek Theatre, did impart the life-altering lesson that, when attending a concert venue, do not, ever, order the nachos. At another, a troupe of carpenters at a San Leandro strip mall saw fit to play John Prine's "Big Fat Love" for hours on end.

That was, essentially, the hazing of low-level employees (us) by slightly-less-low-level employees (them); they stuck around to watch our big, fat squirming. It wasn't a top-down policy enacted by a massive multinational corporation with little concern for the plight of a worker who hears the same Christmas song 30 times per shift. But that's what's happening in countless San Francisco stores.

Wandering through the mall on a recent Wednesday, an irate man's voice bellowing "ALVIIIIIN!" rises above the landscape of other irate bellowing voices. ("The Chipmunk Song" is hard to beat, in terms of raw frustration.) The trio of castrato rodents responsible for that frustration belt out the diabolical number as they have for 56 years. And then, not much later, they do it again. And again. A serene young server gazes off into space with a horrifying plastic smile. How many times had she heard this song today? "I don't even want to think about it," she replies, her expression unchanged.

Your humble narrator takes refuge from ALVIIIIIN in a nearby stationery shop. They are, mercifully, playing "Take on Me" by a-ha.

"Some people are okay with it," says a security guard regarding the incessant Christmas music blaring over the speakers. He pauses. "And some ain't."

In order to maintain his sanity while hearing the same Christmas songs, again and again, since October, the guard says he sings along with the ones he knows, thinks of songs he'd rather hear, or makes up his own lyrics to the cacophony in the background. But, every so often, he can't escape the fact that he's listening to The Chipmunks for the 24th time that day: "Believe me," he says, "I always hear it."

Playing unpleasant music for people against their will is more than just a mark of callousness with regard to your employees' well-being. It's a tried-and-true method of softening the brains of interrogation subjects and has been part of the CIA's manual since 1963, just a few years after "The Chipmunk Song" topped the charts.

It's hard not to laugh at some of the songs that have been blasted into the ears of detainees in an attempt to get them to spill: "The Barney Theme Song," "Saturday Night Fever," "We are the Champions," and even the Meow Mix jingle. We laugh and laugh and laugh.

It's the funniest torture ever.

In 2006, a former Navy man turned private Iraq contractor named Donald Vance blew the whistle on weapons trafficking by his new employer. No good deed goes unpunished, however, and he ended up incarcerated by his own government for 97 days at Baghdad's airport. There was music: "Goddamn blaring music seems like 24 hours a day," he later told New York University musicology professor Suzanne G. Cusick. "I can't remember how many times I heard 'We are the Champions.'"

Vance's reaction to the auditory barrage wasn't so different from a mall worker's: He sang along with the songs he knew, but that "began destroying me." Instead, not unlike the guard making up new lyrics, Vance kept his mind working, double-time, to blot out the music. But, let it drop for a moment and "boom, it hits you."

But Vance is now back stateside. Back home. And when he gets restless, he can go out. Maybe to the mall.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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