A Safeway supermarket on Webster Street in San Francisco has been keeping the neighbors awake with loud broadcasts of classical music.
Once again, the proprietors of public commercial spaces are looking for ways to keep loiterers — a euphemism for San Francisco’s growing unhoused population — from their doors. And once again, they’re using a familiar weapon: Tchaikovsky.
As The Chronicle reported, a Safeway supermarket on Webster Street has been loudly blasting classical music to deter folks from gathering in its parking lot after hours. According to a justifiably perturbed neighbor, the playlist includes “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.”
OK, I think I see the problem. How could they leave out “Eugene Onegin” and the “1812 Overture”? Someone’s not bringing their A game.
I’m kidding, of course. The real offense is that the Safeway has reportedly had its classical broadcast set on repeat and turned up to top volume. That’s going to create a problem no matter what kind of music is being channeled into the neighborhood. Play anything loud enough — be it Antonio Vivaldi, John Coltrane or Taylor Swift — and the results are more likely to get on people’s nerves than not. If you’re trying to get some shut-eye in the wee hours of a weekend night, there’s no kind of music you care to hear cranked up to 11.
Moreover, endless repetition is an irritant all on its own. Residents of a nearby apartment building claimed the Safeway has been playing the same handful of selections over and over.
Again, that’s a strategy that makes the actual choice of repertoire kind of irrelevant. I love Tchaikovsky’s music as much as the next person, if not more. But by the fourth or fifth “Swan Lake,” I too would be ready to bust some heads.
Or as the New Yorker humorist and cartoonist James Thurber once wrote, “I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.”
But even though these are accurate points, they dodge the central question: Why is it always classical music that serves as a cultural repellent? What is there about a Mozart concerto or a Brahms symphony that makes them so uniquely off-putting, at least in a public setting?
As Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshall put it, it’s “a common industry practice.”
The history of this tactic dates back to at least 1985, when the manager of a 7-Eleven store in British Columbia hatched the idea of playing classical music to keep teenagers from congregating outside his doors. But the roots almost certainly go back further, according to Bakersfield musicologist Lily E. Hirsch, who has made a specialty of keeping tabs on the practice. Each time it surfaces anew, she said, a journalist calls her for comment.
“There was one strain of rhetoric suggesting that playing classical music would elevate the listener, or reduce crime by appealing to people’s better nature,” she said of her research. “But I highly doubt that music of any kind makes people better. This is really just a way of marking territory, the way birds can mark their space with song.”
In Hirsch’s view, the choice of classical music has nothing to do with anything intrinsic to the sounds themselves. It’s all about the cultural associations the music brings with it, and the social hierarchies it reinforces.
“This is a way of telling some people they belong here, and others that they don’t,” she said. “It’s the same thing you might find in a fancy gourmet shop, where classical music is used to encourage the presence of moneyed shoppers.”
And that, ultimately, is one of the things that makes the Safeway ploy so maddening and so disheartening. Classical music makes its way into the headline, but in actuality it has nothing to do with the story at all.
If the goal is to use loud, repetitive noise to clear people off your property — and you don’t mind ticking off the neighborhood — then pretty much anything will do the trick. It could be Beyoncé or Hank Williams or Kenny G. It doesn’t even have to be music of any kind — abstract electronic sounds or a cable news report would serve just as well.
Just leave Tchaikovsky out of it.