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  (April 6, 2005)

I know that things are not always what they appear to be, and not everyone can think clearly all the time. Why, some people are handicapped and cannot think clearly at any time.
            I once knew a woman with mild brain damage who could not differentiate between beef and chicken. “Chicken’s beef,” she observed.
           Perhaps that explains it. Perhaps the people at Hear Music in Santa Monica think that chicken is beef. Or, to be fair, one of their clerks. Or to be more fair, whoever trained one of their clerks.
           For it was at Hear Music in Santa Monica, on that Portal to Corporate Hell known as the Third Street Promenade, that I learned the remarkable news that music is not music. It is real estate.
           Not since Alice’s croquet mallets turned into flamingoes have I been so startled.
           I guess I should have seen it coming. Hear Music is a CD boutique that recently grafted a Starbucks to its entrance, which is sort of like inviting Kenny Lay to date your daughter. And it means that Hear employees are probably deranged with caffeine, liable to say anything.
           But there is more to all this than freedom of espresso.
           Lend me your ears, children, and I will tell you a tale of corporate brainwashing so insidious, so tragic, that you might never listen to real estate again. I mean, music.
           It begins with Hear Music’s offer to build your own chicken---I mean CD. That’s correct, you may select from Hear’s database of many thousands of songs and assemble your very own CD at one of about a half-dozen computer screens embedded in a smooth, ergonomically lighted wood counter. $6.99 for the first six tunes, and a dollar each after that.     
           Nice, huh?
           I thought so. A clerk spent about ten minutes affably---just a couple teeth shy of unctuously---explaining the process to me. Ten minutes! Never mind that it was self explanatory on the computer screen, and is essentially accomplished with a magic wand on a touch-screen, as is all modern human experience, including sex.

 It’s part of a sanitized, mass-marketed sort of pseudo-beat trendiness (the diametrical opposite, by the way, of whatever actual beats ever represented.)

But I understood that Clerk had his pre-fab spiel to spew, and it did explain just about everything except String Theory and gene-splicing, so I didn’t mind. I was affable, too. Well, maybe a couple of teeth shy. And my ears perked up when he said this (reconstructed from memory):
          “If you don’t find what you want in our database, you can pull pretty much any CD in the store, scan it here, and the songs will pop up for you to select what you want.”
           Why, it was almost subversive! I couldn’t resist. I had in mind a great, jumping New Orleans record culled from many sources. I really needed a great, jumping New Orleans record.
           So the next day, I returned to Hear Music to accomplish this very task. As I was about to begin, I thought I would double-check that bit about scanning CDs from the racks, as it seemed too good to be true. A different clerk was on duty, assisting a man from Germany.    
           “Zo,” said the German fellow, “you only carry what iss trendy?"
           “No, sir,” said the clerk. “We carry what sells the most.”
           “Jah, dat iss vat I said. You carry vhatever iss trendy.”
           “No, sir, we carry whatever sells the most.”
            The German customer stared back in lengthy silence, apparently trying to figure out if he should further engage the American Capitalist Robot, then gave up and moved on. My turn.
            “Hi, I’d like to double check something. If I don’t find on your database what I am seeking, I can just pull a CD off the shelf, scan it, and work from there, correct?”
            Capitalist Robot was in his mid-to-late 20s, with greasy black-ish hair combed forward in a fashion doubtlessly considered “cool.” (Of  course, what isn’t considered cool?) To my frame of reference, the haircut was a modified Moe Howard, a dippy ‘do that ‘40s goofball comic Ish Kabibble would envy. Clerk spoke (also reconstructed from memory):
           “Sir,” he said, “Music is real estate. This is a business and an industry. We have thousands and thousands of songs available. Michael Jackson owns The Beatles’ catalogue, and. . .”
            He went on.
           And on.
           He spoke rapidly and with a rehearsed cadence and tone that suggested Pentagon mind-control, or at least lots of practice in front of a mirror. He had launched into nothing less than an oral dissertation on the music industry, and he showed no sign of stopping.
           Because I had already spent ten minutes of my life listening to Clerk Number One explain how to make my own CD, I figured I had done my Hear Music sentence. So I interrupted.
           “Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just want to know if. . .(I repeated the question.)”
           Kabibble would not be deterred.
           “Sir,” he said, “music is real estate, and in this industry---“
           “Wait, wait a second, please,” I said, putting up my hands, and smiling. “I realize you have to go through a prepared speech, but I really don’t have time to hear it. And please stop telling me that music is real estate---”
            “Sir,” said Kabibble, “Music is real estate, and---“
            My mind fleetingly, reluctantly grappled with this notion. Music is real estate? Was he referring coyly to Mahler’s “Song of the Earth?” Earth, Wind and Fire? The great latino band, Tierra? Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move?”
           “Hey, hey, please,” I smiled. “Stop telling me that music is real estate. Okay? Stop it. Cease. Music is not real estate. Real estate is real estate. Music is a beautiful art form.”
           “Sir, I’m a musician and I agree with you,” Kabibble ka-babbled. “Unfortunately, in today’s world, music is real es---“
            I put my hands up again.

He works in an emporium of cool, controlled by the merchants of cool, targeting the moneyed young consumers of cool, who drink cool corporate coffee.

“Whoah! Look, I’m sure you are a nice fellow doing your job, but I don’t want to hear your lecture about music being real estate. I asked you a simple question, and I want an answer. Can you please answer that question? I’ll repeat it: if I take a CD off the rack and scan it, I can then access those songs for my make-your-own CD, correct?”
           “That is not correct.”
           I swear that Kabibble’s voice had begun to tremble. Starbucks!
          “But that is what a clerk told me in here yesterday.”
           “Sir, I’m sorry there was a misunderstanding, but---“
           “No. No. There was no misunderstanding. That’s what I was told. He spoke the words, and I understood them.”
           Kabibble ka-bobbled, ka-boogied. His body joined his quavering voice. The gent was jiggling, head to foot, as if on sudden double-latte overdrive. Parkinson's? No. Get this: I had apparently offended him, and he was shaking with barely restrained rage! And here I had said not a single word about his hair.
           “Well, I’m s-sorry there was a miscommunication,” he managed, summoning “difficult customer response # 12.”
           Misunderstanding, miscommunication. . .Could “misspoke” be far off?
            “No. There was no miscommunication. That is what the clerk explained to me.”
           “Well then he was wrong!”
           “Well, why would he say that?”
           Kabibble’s eyes flashed. The whites showed all around them for a split second. And then---
           “Well he lied!”
           “He lied? He lied? What are you saying? How do you know he lied? You are accusing a fellow employee of lying to customers? Look, pal, this is ridiculous. I just asked you a simple question, and it has turned into madness. I’ll tell you what: I’m never going to do business with Hear Music again because of this experience.”
           Kabibble kept his kool, lapsing as programmed into angry customer control all-purpose response, good for any occasion:
            “I agree with you sir, and I understand.”
            That was it.
            A later follow-up phone call to a female clerk---apparently yet unbrainwashed, or at least decaffeinated--- got my answer: yes, you can scan any CD, and if the tracks are licensed for purchase, they’re yours. Yet Kabibble could not explain this. He was programmed. He did not understand the concept of conversation, or explanation. He was deeply impressed with himself for reciting what he imagined to be a pithy, sophisticated grasp of the music business, but what was actually soulless, venal prattle.
           A fluke encounter with a flake? No. The point of all this is that Kabibble is everywhere. He has become the archetypal cool young American. He works in an emporium of cool, controlled by the merchants of cool, targeting the moneyed young consumers of cool, who drink cool corporate coffee. He doesn’t even realize that he is a corporate stooge. A cool jerk.
           A place like Hear Music is rigorously---it’s not too much to say scientifically---designed to market cool, from the soft wood to the Starbucks to the implicitly subversive burn-your-own-CDs offer. It’s part of a sanitized, mass-marketed sort of pseudo-beat trendiness (the diametrical opposite, by the way, of whatever actual beats ever represented.)
           To the Kabibbles, music is most certainly real estate, and thanks to their getting with the corporate program, it will become even more so. It’s product. Listening product. Just as books have become reading product. And don’t you dare disagree with them.
           These people are full of Starbucks.

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