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.