Adventures in “Christian” Retail: Part II

by Charity R. Carney

As DEG mentioned in a comment on my last post "Adventures in 'Christian' Retail, Part I," he’s going to be providing some expert commentary as I continue with my installments from my experiences this summer working for a Christian-run retail chain. So look for Darren Grem’s follow-up!

Update: Part III, the finale of Charity's series, is here. Extended responses informed from his own academic work on capitalism and American Christianity, from Darren Grem, are here and here.

Muzak. Bad muzak, but also an excellent indicator of the spiritual/secular influences on (what I’m teasingly calling) “Christian Chain” (CC). One of the things that customers constantly complement store management on is the “acoustic” music that streams incessantly over the speakers in the store. They say that it is soothing and that its Christian message is something that keeps them in the store and also keeps them coming back. It’s a very clever marketing gimmick, ultimately. But there are a few surprises that I encountered when I listened a bit more closely to what consumers were actually ingesting on their visits to CC.

Most obviously, the store pipes in the now-common coinciding traditional hymn and praise music combo that many churches have incorporated into their repertoire. Contemporary praise and worship has become so commonplace that many song melodies are as recognizable as Wesley’s hymns. While “Amazing Grace” is a muzak mainstay, so are songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Our God is an Awesome God,” “Father I Adore You,” “Tear Down the Walls.” Hillsong United, Integrity Music, and other major praise and worship companies have obviously cooperated with CC to provide some of their more widely used songs in instrumental versions. They are pumped through a station at some headquarters whereby shoppers and employees at all of CC stores will have a uniform muzakal experience. It’s a strange collective experience, especially as the hours in your 12-16 hour shift wear on and “Above All” is ringing in your ears for the seventeenth time (no bitterness here, no sir--and more on the shifts and work schedules as well as my current dealings with OSHA in the next post).

What strikes me as interesting is that by making the music muzak, instrumental by nature, CC is relying on the customers’ knowledge of Christian music and the familiarity of the melodies to the general public (or at least the public that they are serving). They are also probably avoiding a ton of royalty fees, but Darren will certainly be able to better speak to that issue. But what they also do is reveal the secular nature of CC’s commercialism. In addition to Christian-themed music, the stores also have an odd array of non-Christian songs (in fact, some songs used are by nature not conservative or Christian at all). This fact first struck me as I was stocking merchandise and immediately recognized the butchered version of “Imagine” that suddenly began playing over the loudspeakers. “Imagine”? “Imagine no religion”? When I finished my task and returned to my department I asked another employee about the song--how could this store be playing that song (as happy as I was to hear it and for the respite from “Awesome God”)? I was confronted by a very defensive fellow worker who explained to me that “Imagine” is a Christian song and that John Lennon and the Beatles were all Christians. I tried to throw down some pop culture knowledge but eventually gave up and logged the event as singular. Maybe the higher-ups are under the same impression and honestly believe that “Imagine” is a Christian tune. Whatever. But it did make me listen a little more carefully to the muzak from then on and I discovered that the instrumentals that the customers so loved because of the Christian inspiration they received while shopping (no irony, none at all) did not adhere to any real ideology or logic whatsoever. Rod Stewart, Sting, John Mayer (“Your Body is a Wonderland”), all showed up in their repertoire. The Beatles are a favorite.

My sense is that as long as the tune is registered by the typical consumer’s ear as something that they know, that’s how it made the cut. So praise and worship and traditional hymns are recognizable, just like “Imagine” and “Broken Arrow.” In other words, commerce is king in the CC muzak department.


Paul Harvey said…
Charity: I know you are addressing serious issues of workplace abuse here, but for some reason the phrase about being happy to hear "Imagine" "for the respite from 'Awesome God'" just made me crack up. Randall is writing about those who saw the Beatles et al as AntiChrist, guess things have come a long way since then. I've noticed our local grocery stores have ditched Muzak in favor of contemporary pop favorites, Taylor Swift et al. I think I just want a moment of silence.
Charity Carney said…
Paul: I thought it was interesting, too (re: the Beatles). Apart from the Christian "classics" ("Awesome God" now included), the Beatles' songs were the most-repeated on the CC station. I should talk to Randall more about this... And per your comment about "Awesome God" and "Imagine," I'm glad I could provide an lol moment. I mean, over and over and over again with that chorus. The problem with Muzak-ing p&w music? There's not much to it. I got pulled into this weird hallucinogenic state after a while and when songs like "Awesome God" would end, I would strangely snap out of it--like the p&w drug had worn off. Maybe there's something to that....
Unknown said…
Greetings, Charity,

I can relate to most of your feelings about Christian retail, and I also agree with your perspective on the music piped through at the bookstore in which you work.

Still, I am confused. I have read both of your installments, and I am wondering--is this a critique of popular evangelical culture in America, or do you intend to bring some historical perspective to what you are doing in the Christian bookstore?

I want to be fair, and I also do not want to misunderstand you. But I must have missed something in your second installment, namely, some historical perspective you are aiming to bring to this experience of yours. Again--I do not want to misunderstand what you are doing--but it seems a bit disingenuous to be working at a Christian bookstore ostensibly to write about the experience from an historical perspective, when all you really seem to be doing is criticizing them. Do they deserve the criticism? Probably so.

I just hope you are being fair to those folks. Yes, they need correction on many things, without a doubt. But what exactly is your purpose here? If it is simply to lambast them behind their backs on your blog, I do not think that is appropriate.

Best to you in your endeavors. Please correct my blindspots.
bullet said…
Concern Troll is concerned

Popular Posts