A trip to Kmart in 2015 is a trip to an American purgatory. If your town still has one, it probably seems cramped, ragged, poorly lit, and maybe a little bit dirty. Best case scenario, you're walking into what feels, more than anything else, like a counterfeit Walmart.
My town still has one somehow. Its Yelp reviews are sad like trying to stick up for an estranged alcoholic relative is sad. Even the lone positive review, penned by Rebecca T., goes out of its way to mention the place is "disorganized" and "a little dirty." The last time I went there, dream logic took over. I felt like I had fallen out of 2015 and into a place where 1995 never ended. Maybe if I rounded the wrong corner, I would walk into an entertainment section prominently advertising the Star Wars trilogy on VHS, or pass by the ghost of my grandmother buying Tupperware. Nineties nostalgia by way of Ambrose Bierce. It seemed like the lights might go off at any minute and a manager's voice would come over the PA to coldly say, "We regret to inform you that this store does not exist."
The whole chain is fading to black now, its best days behind it even before the 13-year death march that began when they declared bankruptcy in 2002. Last year, Business Insider ran a piece called "21 Sad Photos of Dead and Dying Kmart Stores." There was no hyperbole in its headline.
K-Mart is a retailer of ruin. Abandonment is its present, demolition is its future. But now there is a soundtrack for its relatively prosperous past. This is thanks to Mark Davis, 42, who worked for Kmart in Naperville, Illinois. He has digitized his 56-cassette collection of the store's background music from 1989 to 1993.
By doing so, he has made public a collection of totally ephemeral muzak, designed by a corporation for Kmart specifically, that was created decades ago to keep shoppers from ever accidentally confronting silence. It is soullessness in bulk, created with machined efficiency, anonymous by design. One of the tapes is icily credited to a "MUSIC TECHNOLOGIES INTERNATIONAL," which sounds like a dystopian robotics firm that might have engineered Jandek, the Representative from Corwood Industries. Most of the material sounds like somebody said, "You know, 'To All the Girls I've Loved Before' is way too edgy for us."
Ripped from its proper time and place, consumed actively rather than absorbed passively, given a new narrative, the music becomes as haunting as an abandoned Kmart itself. Suddenly it's an artistically significant time capsule, a window into the past we weren't supposed to have. And at 2 A.M., it scares the hell out of me. So I emailed Mr. Davis to find out the story behind it.
"I was 16 years old and Kmart was my first job, which lasted for ten years," he writes. "When working in a retail store with a looping program, you hear the same songs over and over. And then you hear the same songs when you stop in to get your paycheck. And you hear them when you go to the store to visit friends when off the clock. Whether you initially like a song, artist, or genre or not, it really grows on you after hearing it over and over. That's what happened to me at the store, and I started liking the songs as they were predictable and helped the day along. [...]I loved Kmart as a company and they were good to me and I met so many good friends."
So this is no ironic New York art project designed to subversively impugn American capitalism. It is no meta-commentary on our currently bottomless appetite for '90s nostalgia. This is a guy who has fond memories of his first job and a company that will soon be gone from this planet, doomed to be immortalized as a case study of mismanagement and failure to adapt in economics textbooks. This is 1989-1993 without any tastemaker grooming or pop historian filter, and fortunately for Mr. Davis, "in a few weeks this has blown up everywhere and it's very exciting." Indeed, the collection made it to Digg, as good a functional barometer of virality as anything else out there. VICE's music blog Noisey wrote of the collection, "a fascinating look back at the recent past," also noting that it was "pure flames."
"I'm astounded (by) the interest out there," Davis says. Some of the interest in the strange, wholly unique tapes may be from fans of vaporwave, an entirely online-created music genre that—to perilously generalize—takes '90s digital art, muzak, and godawful '80s adult-contemporary to create an anti-capitalist, dystopian yuppie nightmare. Think Patrick Bateman watching the Dancing Baby .gif in hell. To vaporwave fans, this thing is a potential remix goldmine.
Davis started his collection on Thanksgiving of 1989, a month after he started work on the sales floor. He got paid time and a half to work that day, he says. "Those were the days when the store was closed on Thanksgiving and Easter. So I decided to go behind the service desk and look at the store's sound system. I saw the October 1989 tape sitting next to the cassette deck [and] a reel-to-reel deck, which was decommissioned but still present. I thought to myself—why not take this tape as a keepsake for the first month at my first job?" Then he just kept doing it.
"I always collected things in an organized manner and never threw things out. An example is MTV's Headbangers Ball episodes—I have a dozen of them, and I always thought that it would great to watch them someday, and sure enough, they are rare and incredible recordings that bring you back to 1990 since the music, commercials, and VJs are no longer around. And that's what I thought when I kept those tapes. I thought that some day they would be interesting to listen to, and I knew that nobody else would be doing it. Nobody."
As for his ambitions following the sudden publicity? "I would love to see a documentary [about Kmart]. There's a wealth of other Kmart information outside of these tapes that is worth documenting and talking about. I worked for Kmart on their last days of a 'ma and pa' organization, then Walmart and the big retailers stepped in and the climate completely changed. Prior to 1992 employees were paid in cash, had time and a half pay on Sundays, the store closed on Sunday at 6 P.M. and we were not open on Thanksgiving or Easter. Then it all changed."
So in the wreckage of a corporation with numbered days, Mr. Davis has inadvertently created an extremely valuable time capsule—one that suggests a bygone culture's subconscious. Where most cultural time capsules focus on the highlight reel of an era, or the blooper reel, here lies something almost never documented: the unspeakably mundane.
These tapes are not the soundtrack of a Saturday night in Los Angeles or New York. They are not signifiers of the approaching internet revolution and they are not pictures from the Viper Room. They are the soundtrack of somebody's Wednesday afternoon in the Midwest. They are the soundtrack of people running errands. They allow us to viscerally imagine somebody's boring, forgotten day. And that opportunity doesn't come along often, because it's subjecting ourselves to a slice of period-specific mundanity that allows us to understand the rhythms of lives that would otherwise be forgotten.
Header image via Flickr user fanofretail.
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