Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Manilow Effect

You may have seen this story: a mall in New Zealand, tired of having its business driven away by misbehaving teens, plans to fight back with a unique weapon:
It'll be Barry Manilow versus the mall rats. The New Zealand city of Christchurch hopes that putting the American crooner's smooth and gentle tones into the mix of music to be broadcast through the central mall district can pacify unruly teens who congregate there_ or at least convince them to go elsewhere.

The intention is to change the environment in a positive way ... so nobody feels threatened or intimidated," Central City Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale told The Associated Press. "I did not say Barry Manilow is a weapon of mass destruction."

A group of several dozen young people regularly spread rubbish, spray graffiti, get intoxicated, use drugs, swear and intimidate patrons at the outdoor mall, he said.

It's a funny story in many ways, the sort of news blip that ends up being a late-night comic's "gimme" of the evening. But in addition to the humor, there's fodder for cultural reflection.

Marketers know well that many things create a mood that influences the behavior they most want to produce: the behavior of shopping, and especially of buying things we don't necessarily need. Music is a part of that, as is lighting, store design, placement of various goods, scents, etc.; and within the last century the creation of places that specialized in manufacturing the sort of ambiance that leads to impulsive spending has risen to a near-art form.

At the same time, our culture has become saturated with messages appealing to self-indulgence. Whether we're talking about sex, food, money, or behavior, the message is: do what feels good. Don't accept limits. You can have whatever you want.

The marketers and merchants were happy with those cultural voices; they helped create them. And so long as the behavior it drove was the sort that led overindulged adults to congregate at their stores and spend large amounts of money on things that have little actual value, all for the perceived status of ownership, they were glad to encourage the cultural message, to augment it, to amplify it, and to provide an outlet for its quenchless hedonism.

But now, apparently, the message has begun to backfire. When "do what feels good" equals "hang out at an outdoor mall and harass the shoppers," when "you can have whatever you want" means you can have the ability to gather in small hordes to drink, use drugs, curse, and otherwise display antisocial behavior, when "don't accept limits" was your parents' philosophy, and now means that you have no respect for other people's property or authority, then suddenly we have a problem. These teens aren't coming to the mall to spend money (preferable) nor even to work at minimum wage jobs (less preferable, but necessary) but only to disrupt the consumer process, to show the marketers and mall-designers what the evolutionary outcome of their principles really is.

Sadly, the options of those dealing with the problem are limited. Since these places are open to the public, the teens can't be driven off unless they commit some crime--and shoppers will be driven off by the teens' very presence. Adding the music of Barry Manilow to the mix probably seems like a pretty good idea, but I think the people behind that decision may be underestimating the degree to which the teens have assimilated society's message of self-absorption.

One thing that might drive off the marauding teens is classical music, of course. But any mall that tried this tactic would be taking the risk that music of such transcendence might drive off the shoppers as well as the teen troublemakers, reminding both of the existence of the sort of beauty and goodness that doesn't rely on slick marketing campaigns or overpriced designer gewgaws. Oh, not really, of course; though one can always dream.

UPDATE: See Mike Licht's illustration which captures the mall's tactic.


Dawn said...

Thank you for leading me to look up the word 'gewgaws'. I'm classical music illiterate. I have a boxed set I received through the mail. A while ago. That's all I do with it, too, is have it. How did you become a lover of classical music? Did you grow up hearing it?

Red Cardigan said...

I used to inflict classical music on my family. I'm probably the only person in America who was told as a teenager to turn down Mozart's Requiem.

Actually, I have fond memories of the first year of homeschooling, when I was a sophomore. I would put on a record (no, really) of "Swan Lake" while reading Silas Marner. I think I've always just enjoyed classical music more than any other sort.

Rebecca said...

No Red, there are at least two of us. Mozart's Requiem was my very favorite in high school. I felt pretty dark and stormy sometimes during my teens--not that you have to, but I went to public schools--so I listened to a lot of Beethoven and a lot of the Requiem. I wasn't Catholic, and I totally didn't even know what a Mass was, but it spoke to me. I still love it especially when it is sung by a boy's choir. The only thing I can say Dawn for developing a love of classical is don't get CDs that are called something like "lite Classical" or "classical favorites" or "classical Lullabies". Get a few excellent recordings of things like baroque guitar, Vivaldi concertos or the four seasons, Mozart concertos or operas (my kids can't get enough of the Magic Flute), and Bach cello suites; don't start with symphonies but more chamber music.

Mike Licht said...

It's even worse when seen in perspective.



Red Cardigan said...

Mike, that's wonderful! I'm putting your link in a post update. :)

Irenaeus said...

Hey! I'm a Fanilow!

freddy said...

Halfway through reading your post I was thinking, "Brahms!" Manilow always makes me want to spraypaint something. (Just kidding: I hear he's a very gracious performer.)

Anyway, here in the U.S., malls are considered the private property of the owner(s), open to the public. As such, malls can enforce curfews, dress codes and behaviour standards. One, I believe, even required minors (anyone under 18) to be accompanied by a responsible adult. Sadly, many places put up with nasty behaviour because these teens do, indeed, have money to burn.

Anonymous said...

Not all 'classical' stuff is that great, or might even be considered 'high-quality'...but, some of it is wonderful, just as some of the other stuff in which talented musicians pour their heart and soul.

As suggested by previous bloggers, I've come to the realization that a love for classics starts with finding something beautiful which entices and opens one's heart to that stuff one might not ordinarily investigate--classical music is not readily available to most people, unless they know where to look for it.

I remember in high school band, one of the few favorite times was when we worked on parts of Moussgorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but much of the rest of the music was rather utilitarian. Later in life after immersion in NPR classics programming, and promoting early stringed instrument learning for a child (in the Suzuki Method, parents 'learn' right along with their child), my family 'caught' the classics bug, and discovered other classical gems, that we'd listen to over and over. My all-time favorite is Lark Ascending.

My guess is that if malls introduced Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Violin Concerto, Schubert's Winterreise (or Trout), Erik Satie's Gymnopedi.., or some truly memorable tunes as played by different musicians, periodically in and among the Manilow, that not only would the mall-cruisers tone down their bedlam, but the shops might get more older folks hanging out past their bedtimes. Of course, the expense to play these tunes in a public place might be discouraging.

On the other hand, the psychology of mall music might be encouraging for the cacaphony heard at certain times of the day? (I don't know for sure, but I sometimes think that the bustle and racket was designed to get shoppers to spend money without adequate consideration.) When I go to the mall, it's with a vaguely determinate plan, to buy something that I can inspect that is modern and fashionable, as opposed to the fear of an unknown online purchase. If I go from shop in the mall searching for an elusive item, after several hours of overhead pandemonium and intensive price-, quality-comparisons, there is a tendency to purchase the next item (especially if it's on the bargain rack) and get out. Then, when I get home, oh dear, I failed to notice that it wouldn't match in color, or is missing a belt, or constructed of a fabric which must be handwashed, and then have to return the item.