HYPER-ENTERTAINING OF AMERICA
12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996
Adisembodied voice with an impeccable English accent speaks. "We're talking with Natalie Merchant, whose new solo album Tigerlily is topping the charts and wowing the critics." It sounds like an MTV interview, or maybe a radio clip, but there is no commercial, no station ID, nothing to indicate the source of the broadcast. I look around for TV monitors, but there aren't any. I keep listening for some clue to its origin -- who's putting it out, who's paying for it, anything. But no, the voice just keeps droning on, punctuated by rock singer Natalie Merchant's recollections of growing up in Syracuse, dancing and singing barefoot in dank nightclubs when she was 17, making it big with 10,000 Maniacs (a rock band), leaving 10,000 Maniacs, her hopes, her dreams, her philosophies. And all the while no break, no pause, no ads, nothing but this suave Englishman and Natalie Merchant, chatting away. Then it hits me. This isn't a broadcast -- it's a pre-recorded set piece, canned and piped over a bunch of speakers like the "channels" airlines offer to crabby passengers through those miserably uncomfortable plastic headphones.
This revelation came to me at the Virgin Megastore, at Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. In this multimedia retail palace where the concept of the assault on the senses has been refined to the point of ritual, I was shopping for a CD or two as the horribly loud "interview" kept going on and on, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out the point. It was driving me crazy, but no one else in the store seemed to mind.
Then, another revelation: The Virgin people have canned and piped this infernal noise because they realize their customers don't just want to shop anymore. That's too dull. They want to be entertained, by a never-ending stream of music, commentary, images, whatever, while they search the shelves for a little piece of entertainment to take home and play on their home entertainment system. The Virgin execs know -- and the rest of the commercial world either knows too or is being forced by the market to learn -- that home entertainment is no longer enough for most Americans. They want, need, demand to be entertained away from home, too. And not just when they go to the movies or a concert or a ball game, or to some other such traditionally entertaining event, but when they go anywhere.
Tom Wolfe once said of the omnipresence of Muzak in Las Vegas that it was " as if there were a communal fear that someone, somewhere was going to be left with a totally vacant minute on his hands." Wolfe made this observation in 1964, and what was once true pretty much only of the neon-painted desert is now true of almost the entire country. This phenomenon -- the hyper- entertaining of America -- has spread with the tenacity and speed ofa souped- up Ebola virus. The heartland is affected no less than the coasts, little hamlets no less than the great metropolises.
Go anywhere and expect to be entertained: at the store, at a restaurant, at the laundromat. I remember in my college days washing my clothes at a dingy little coin-op place that had two TVs, one always tuned to a soap, the other to some lurid talk show. Back then (no more than 10 years ago) that was all the entertainment the average clothes-washer required. Not anymore. Now there are singles laundromats, designed as pickup joints for the Maytag-less unattached. What better way to keep the mind occupied during a mundane chore than an array of members of the opposite sex, all available and all scouring around for . . . someone? No need for the pretense of collecting the contents of a dryer you want to use, sidling up to some pretty lass and asking, "Are these yours?" to break the ice. Now you just charge right up and ask for a date. It's expected.