I’m going to warn you right now, the title of this post implies a level of seriousness that the body just won’t live up to. This is not a post of social stigmas or the trials and tribulations of being different in a world of conformists. This is a post about buying music.
Many people today may not understand the idea of buying music at a store. That’s fine, I too have embraced newer technologies to provide for my music addiction. But it was not always the case. For a long time, the best way to acquire new music was to go to a store and buy a tape or CD. Now, at the time, your best bet for finding the music you wanted was either a dedicated music store, usually located in a mall, or a big-box media or electronics store, like a Best Buy or a Barnes & Noble or a Borders (oh, Borders, I still kind of miss you). Times have of course evolved. Now, to get new music, I either go to my local record store (if I’m looking for it on vinyl), I buy it online from an Amazon, Barnes & Nobles or some other non-local record store (if I’m looking for it on CD) or, if I have no concern for liner notes or if I’m just “trying out” a new band, it is downloaded from one of many legitimate or less-so sources. I don’t condone pirating, but it is a solid “try before you buy” method. In the end, I would rather support the artist and push the label to give me more like it, so I’ll shell out the money for genuine ownership. I love downloading and I love e-commerce, but when I get a vinyl album I love having it my hands when I buy it, not clicking “add to cart.” I still get giddy about it. Less so with CDs and MP3s. But, back in the day, my preferred vendor for my music needs was my local Media Play.
I have great memories of that Media Play. It was my Mecca for all of my music needs. There were two of them in my town. One was in a mall, and I liked it less. The other had taken over a giant space that used to be a Burlington Coat Factory. For a lot of years, I bought almost all of my books, movies (VHS and later DVD), games (Sega Genesis, Playstation and PC) and music there. They had the best selection out of anywhere in my town, including harder to find music when I started to explore past what I heard on the radio. Their prices were also good, so I didn’t mind buying just about everything there. It’s where I bought Fiona Apple’s first album, Tidal.
I had heard the leading single, Criminal, off of the album and fell in love with her voice. So, in the summer of 1996, I rode my bicycle down to Media Play to pick up the album. I found it pretty easily, and wasn’t particularly in the mood for anything else that day (and also couldn’t afford anything else, but that was less important). So I brought my prospective purchase up to the register, ready to go. I plunked down the album and the teenage girl behind the counter picked it up, ready to scan it. It looked like she was about to say something about it. She was a couple of years younger than me, had short-ish brown hair teased to give it maximum volume in all directions, but mostly up. She smiled as she was about to speak, the looked at me and abruptly stopped.
It’s important that you have the right picture of me in your mind at this point. I was just over six feet tall, and rail thin. I can’t remember exactly what I was wearing, but I can make an accurate guess at most of the pieces. They included some jeans that were frayed and ripped on the knees (done through over-wear, not bought that way), Airwalk skate shoes, a black t-shirt that was either for a band or said something clever, possibly even had a pop-culture character on it, a flannel over that with the sleeves rolled up (even in the summertime), a dog’s chain choker collar converted into a wallet chain (which would have been obvious, since I would be holding my wallet at this point), and a mop of thick, curly, shoulder length hair shoved under a backwards Nine Inch Nails hat. In many ways, not the person she expected to be buying the bluesy, sultry sounds of Fiona Apple.
She told me my total, I paid her, got my change, got my CD in a small Media Play bag and left the store. I didn’t think too much of it. I would have never given it another thought in my life, but it happened again.
A couple years later, in 1998, I had returned to my home town after my failed stint at college. I was living with my parents, and I was still using that same Media Play to service all of my various media purchasing needs. They still had the best selection, and they still had reasonable prices. By this point, I had a job. It didn’t pay a lot, but it gave me some spending money on a weekly basis. I had developed a ritual. I would get my check on Thursday night/Friday morning (I worked third shift). I would bring it home and go to sleep. I would wake up in the afternoon on Friday, then go to the bank and cash my check. Some of it went into my savings account, some of it was for various bills, and the rest was mine. Next, I would drive down to Media Play and spend a little of that leftover cash.
It’s May of 1998, and I had been going through this ritual for a few months at this point. On this particular occasion, I was finally going to give Tori Amos a try. I really liked the song, Spark, that they had been playing on the radio, and I was going to buy the album it came off of, From the Choirgirl Hotel. Having at this point been kind of an “Alternative Music” junkie, I felt a little guilty not getting into Tori before this. But this would be my first foray, and if I liked this album, maybe I would explore the back catalogue a little. So I find the CD, bring it up to the counter, ready to check out. Now, in those two years, here are the changes to my outfit:
- I have replaced the Airwalk sneakers with steel-toe boots. I have to wear them for work, but had taken to wearing them out and about as well. I thought they made me look a little more badass.
- I no longer have a wallet chain. My first one got stolen, and I gave up the replacement once it became clear that no concert venue was going to let me bring it in. This becomes an inconvenient walk back to a car to drop it off, and a lonely walk back to the venue where my friends are already having fun.
Those are the only changes, the rest is pretty much the same. There is a different girl behind the counter. This one has peroxide blonde hair with pink highlights. She has three eyebrow piercings and a nose ring. There’s a plethora of leather and cloth bracelets on one arm. She looks like someone who has either been to or wanted to go to Lilith Fair more than once. I had seen her here many times. She usually worked Fridays. She had rung me out on more than one occasion, usually without a second glance. But here I was with a Tori Amos CD, and now she’s sizing me up. Not in a flirtatious, “maybe this guys into the same music as me” kind of way. It’s more of a “why is he buying a Tori Amos CD” vibe. She doesn’t actually say anything, but she seems very confused by the whole situation as she rings up my purchase and I pay her. I take my now-bagged CD and go on my way. But I’m slightly offended by the situation. I mean, I’m allowed to listen to Tori Amos, same as anybody. Maybe I’m not the target demographic, or maybe I just don’t look like the target demographic, but I really liked that one song, and wanted to see if that went any further. It turns out it did. I ended up getting her previous albums Under the Pink, Little Earthquakes and Boys for Pele, some time later, and keeping up with her work as far as Night of Hunters. After that album I had no more desire to keep up. But the fact remains that I was and still am to some degree a Tori Amos fan. What right does pink hair girl have to decide if I should listen to Tori Amos. But I let it go.
The year went on, and my habits didn’t change. Almost every week (depending on bills), I would head to Media Play and buy a couple of CDs or a movie or a PC game. Pink hair girl still worked there, but never reacted to me any differently when I ended up in her line. We had both forgotten the incident from earlier. But then October rolled around. I was really smitten with the new PJ Harvey track on the radio, A Perfect Day Elise. Like Tori Amos before her, PJ Harvey was one of those indie queens that every good “alternative” music listener should be in to, but that I had never seriously explored. So I felt it was time. I grabbed that album, and an older CD by Pigface (Gub if I remember correctly) that I was trying to get in to. I brought my albums up to registers, and ended up with pink hair girl again. She slid my Pigface CD across the security plate and scanned it without a second thought, but hesitated on PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? album. She looked at me, and I could tell she was remembering the same moment from earlier in the year that I now was.
This time, she decided to say something. A smirking “for your girlfriend?” came out as she held up the CD before putting it in the bag. I told her no, I really liked the new single and wanted to hear the rest of the album. Her expression fell and she just responded with a slightly dismissive “oh.” I gave her my money, took my bag and left. In fairness, I did not find the same love for PJ Harvey that I did for Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, but that’s hardly the point. I was offended. Pink hair girl actually sounded disappointed and disapproving. It was okay in her mind if I was buying this CD for my girlfriend, but not okay if I was buying it for myself. Who is she to decided what I should or shouldn’t listen to?
There is a lot of music I listen to that I am absolutely the target demographic for. “Middle-class white guy who sometimes gets frustrated with the world” is a big bunch of artists and genres. But there is just as much music I listen to that was, according to advertisers and record executives, not made for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s not for me, I’m just an outlier on a spreadsheet at that point, over here enjoying my angry girl rock or New York City hip-hop without you having to tell me that I should buy it. Music shouldn’t be targeted, even though it is. So much music can speak to you, regardless of where you are in the societal chart of focus groups and surveys. You don’t have to be from the right area or have the right life story or the right gender or the right skin tone to enjoy music from all peoples. It helps, no doubt about it, when it comes to identifying with the lyrics and the themes, but it’s not a prerequisite. Unfortunately, pink hair girl probably never realized that.