Wal-Mart music, against the wind

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I spent my Black Friday at the Wal-Mart in Norton, Va. My mother-in-law lives in the Appalachians in Kentucky. She can’t drive, so we ferried her over the border for her shopping. After she stopped at the farm-supply store to pick up 300 pounds of feed for the deer that frequent her yard, we went to that place where everybody else out there was going.

The Wal-Mart in Whitesburg, Ky., closer to my mother-in-law’s, is quite big, but I think you could drop it into the Wal-Mart in Norton without causing too much of a disturbance. I half expected to see an “Abandon all hope …” sign as we passed the in-store McDonald’s and plunged into the disorienting, Stygian depths. The rest of the family party vanished noiselessly into the pit; I spun around aimlessly for a few vertiginous moments until a friendly staffer pointed me in the direction of the music section.

I say “music section,” but really it might be better to say “music niche.” The Wal-Mart had rafts of shelving devoted to George Foreman grills; it had shoals of cat litter; it had enough DVDs to build a small but not uncomfortable fort. But there were exactly three shelf displays of CDs.

I wasn’t exactly surprised. There was a time not so long ago when you still could pick up interesting music in odd brick-and-mortar locations - gas stations, Borders … even Coconuts. To be fair, I managed to get a shockingly good collection of merengue by Olga Tanon in a K-Mart on the north side of Chicago just a couple of months ago. But as the Internet has swallowed the music business, such serendipitous acquisitions have gotten rarer and rarer. For the most part now, I shop for music in stores out of sociological curiosity. And because it’s hard to look away from a train wreck.

In this regard, at least, the sad little NortonWal-Mart music section did not disappoint. The selection was not random so much as hapless, as if someone, somewhere, had had a plan but had suffered a series of financial setbacks and mild blows to the head. Label separators were scattered evenly throughout, for example, but it soon became clear that they were more aspirational than descriptive. In a juxtaposition that would please a mash-up artist, if not a Wal-Mart shopper, the Celtic Thunder label proudly marked Cee-lo Green’s “The Lady Killer.” The Britney Spears label sat atop Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The Janet Jackson label singled out Eric Church’s “Cathedral.” And, defying any categorization, a pack of Reeses Pieces sat placidly at the front of one of the shelves. Maybe some Wal-Mart employee or other figured he might as well put something back here that someone might want to buy. You can’t download candy from Amazon.

Even if the filing was dada, some of the stocking made sense. There were a bunch of Beatles albums and a bunch of Elvis albums, because even when seas have risen and the terrorists have won and the earth is a burned, charred cinder, you’ll still be able to sell Beatles and Elvis albums to the giant mutant roaches. There were the latest big acts, including Rihanna and Nickelback. And because we were in the middle of Appalachia, we also had a heaping helping of working-class white folk music, from hair metal (Def Leopard, Motley Crue) to country (Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert) to a Wal-Mart-only ultraspecial Bob Seger collection, shelved prominently up there on the top rack.

Other choices were less intuitive, but still suggestive. I was surprised that the store was stocking multiple Chrisette Michele albums, for example, along with a bunch of other neo-soul selections. It could just be an accident, certainly - but I prefer to think that the fusty-old-white-person demographic maybe has more of a place in its heart for new, fusty black music than I had thought. Similarly, I wouldn’t have guessed initially that the only section separated by genre (other than Christmas music) would be gospel/Christian music - but on second thought, it makes a lot of sense. The demographic for Christian/gospel has to skew old, which means the people buying that music probably are the ones least likely to download it. In the last days of the CD, the genre that was last (shoved back in the last inch of shelving in your neighborhood Coconuts) shall be first.

And then, of course, there were the choices that clearly were just accidents. How on earth did a two-CD collection of Robert Johnson end up there? Why did the store have multiple copies of Paul Simon’s solo “One Trick Pony”?

And why, tell me why, was the bin of bargain $5 CDs put halfway across the store in the fabric section? If the goal was to throw off pursuit, it was successful; I had the giant, circular, apparently bottomless tub of CD discards to myself. Classic albums like Van Halen’s “Fair Warning” and Aretha’s “Lady Soul” rose gamely to the surface, only to be buried by “Jerry Clower’s Greatest Hits” and the “Scariest Halloween Horror Movie Theme Songs.” I thought about buying Sara Evans’ “Restless” just because it seemed like Sara Evans’ “Restless” is the sort of thing you should buy in a Wal-Mart in Norton, Va. Then I thought about buying a Bad Company compilation because I don’t have any Bad Company … but in the end, I didn’t get anything. It would have felt wrong to take one of those CDs away, really, like disturbing an archaeological dig.

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