Classical music has had a hard time of it recently, or rather, in recent centuries. The medium is in terminal decline. Culture has grown away from it, in favour of the more accessible pop, rock, R&B and rap. However, some have found ulterior motives for the epics of Mozart, Chopin and Debussy.
In 1985, a 7-Eleven store in Vancouver had a problem with loitering. Teens from the surrounding areas were congregating in the car park. 7-Eleven didn’t like it, and began piping classical music into their lot. The method quickly yielded results. The music proved discouraging. The young people exposed to it found it to be off-putting and left.
It soon spread to over one hundred and fifty 7-Eleven stores, and is now a method used the world over. It’s been used in train stations, shopping arcades and any place where the proprietor is minded to discourage crowds.
Just the other week I heard classical music used this way in a McDonalds. It was quite a spectacle. The 2 AM chaos of drunken revellers queuing for Big Macs, defeated hen parties inhaling chips, burger boxes and ketchup pots trampled under foot, and all of it choreographed to ‘Invention in G Minor’.
Priming classical compositions to be used in this manner is a peculiar phenomenon. There is some oblique aggression in it. Colin Eatock has noted it’s use as “musical bug spray“.
How and why is Classical music used in this way?
It has a lot to do with social context. Classical music has a pretty clear demographic: old, white and usually dead. To play this music in public areas frequented by young people, and particularly young people of colour, is an attempt make a particular place unpleasant to occupy.
After all, this style is so closely tied to the old world, and with it elitism, stuffiness, and the upper class. The subtext is obvious: “You do not belong here, move along.”
This is an off-shoot of what is known as ‘crime prevention through environmental design’, or CPTED. A more extreme manifestation of this is the Mosquito. This is a small electronic advice, affixed to public buildings in much the same way as a fire or smoke alarm. The Mosquito emits a short, uncomfortable rhythmic pulse, which discourages loitering in the vicinity of the box. It’s designed specifically to affect those under 25.
Playing Classical music in these public spaces is a less severe method of public control, but that is ultimately what it is. It has been hailed a success on the Metro in the North East, as well as by Transport for London.
However there are two moral questions it raises.
Firstly, does this not cheapen and diminish classical music for those who do enjoy it? Given how little classical music enters the public consciousness, this may be of no concern to most of us.
But surely utilising a work of art as a public utility, rendering the works of Mozart as a civic amenity no more glamorous than a drain cover, is inherently wrong. How can classical music ever be renewed and built upon if it is being consigned to such a grubby role in public life?
Secondly, is this ethical? A dog-whistle for yobs? I do not consider the appreciation or disregard for classical music as definitive of who is a ‘respectable’ or ‘undesirable’ member of society.
Furthermore is this not just a cheap and blunt tactic that would be better served by further investment in public infrastructure?
Much of classical music is anathema to me, but I do find it relaxing, and generally feel more at ease when I hear it waiting for the train or in a fast food chain. It’s the insidiousness of it that bothers me. The intent to determine behaviour and deny entry. It’s a prod in the small of your back, a voice asking you to move along, however slight and intangible.
At a time when Britain has chronic public spending cuts it may well be an appropriately sly exertion of power.