Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Consumer Echoes and Tom Waits

There are some songs that suit the usual lead up to Christmas that were not explicitly created to capitalise on that period; what these songs do instead is perfectly encapsulate the feel (and the noise) of that period, not so much what we like about that period, more so what it is about that period that can give us a stabbing headache.

There is precisely such a song on Tom Wait’s 1976 album, Small Change, called Step Right Up. It is a typical Waitsian song: exhuming the shoddy demure of a barfly; the horse vocal that sounds like the devil singing with an inflamed throat after a protracted drag on a dozen cigars at once; the stripped down backing musicians nonchalantly playing a repetitive jazz riff; the lyrics that swing from plausible to implausible, from rhyming to jarring, from humourous to downright surreal. But this song is doubly relevant not just because it captures the hustle and bustle noise of Christmas, it also encapsulates the effects the recession has had on the consumer environment.

The song does not have a narrative or a single character like many of Waits’ songs do, Step Right Up is more of a stream of consciousness, an arbitrary snatch of taglines, the voices of a dozen fraught market traders rolled into one. Imagine a verbal collage of all the businesses we see and hear during the Christmas period, targeting our consumer-selves, whether it is from a catalogue, the warbles of a market trader, the host of a TV shopping channel or an advertisement in all its many forms. It’s that sheer barrage of information about cut-price sales, weird products we are made to think we need, the general hard-sell and desperation, that this song has captured so well.

The lyrics are reminiscent of what it has been like to walk through Plymouth city centre over the last year: ‘Everything must go./ Going out of business./ Going out of business/ Going out of business sale./ Fifty percent off original retail price./ Skip the middle man./ Don’t settle for less/ …We need your business. / We’re going out of business./ We’ll give you the business./ Get on the business end of our going-out-of-business sale.’ Bring images to mind of all the shops closing down, their slashed prices and the strident advertising frantically attempting to entice the consumers as they pass by.

Later in the song there is a bombardment of absurd but dream perfect products: ‘It mows your lawn and picks up the kids from school./ It gets rid of facial hair./ It gets rid of embarrassing age spots./ It delivers a pizza/ And it lengthens and it strengthens / And it finds that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks.’ This, I imagine, is how the subconscious feels, where the sheer scale of adverts, street hawkers and bartered products begin to blur into one and another, creating one heaving mass unit; a single product that can do everything and anything all at once.

So as Christmas looms ahead I will inevitably find myself shopping in the city, or online; and when I read and hear those sales people hollering I’m going to give the ruckus a jazz riff back beat and enjoy, rather than get annoyed, by this desperate and festive time. I’m going to try and hear the music amidst the grating hustle and bustle, and hear the rocking in the hocking.

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