The Shallowing of American Taste
May 17, 2003 8:29 PM   Subscribe

The Shallowing of American Taste First tastebuds and palates fall to McDonalds, now the eyes, ears, and minds fall to Wal-Mart, according to this NY Times article (free registration required)...
"The growing clout of Wal-Mart and the other big discount chains ? they now often account for more than 50 percent of the sales of a best-selling album, more than 40 percent for a best-selling book, and more than 60 percent for a best-selling DVD -- has bent American popular culture toward the tastes of their relatively traditionalist customers...But with the chains' power has come criticism from authors, musicians and civil liberties groups who argue that the stores are in effect censoring and homogenizing popular culture. The discounters and price clubs typically carry an assortment of fewer than a thousand books, videos and albums, and they are far more ruthless than specialized stores about returning goods if they fail to meet a minimum threshold of weekly sales."
Add in Clear Channel Radio and sanitized text books, and all I can say is that the internet has come along at the time it's needed. With the fingers of big commerce all over our culture, the web can serve to reverse an old mega-trend to "high-touch, high-tech." With Wal-Mart, et al, touching our minds, we need to resort to tech to add some depth and breath to their narrow and shallow offerings.
posted by fpatrick (45 comments total)
target is pretty nice these days.
posted by delmoi at 9:38 PM on May 17, 2003

I say, feh.

We have sought a homogenization of culture for a long time. What frightens me is that the homogenization being approached is a conservative, white-driven Puritan culture instead of the true melange that already exists. Wal-Mart is capitalizing on that "ideal of culture." But, you should see what the Internet is doing; it's not exactly the "anti-Wal-Mart" in and of itself.

The Internet is increasingly becoming a privatized, advertising-driven mechanism - it's becoming television, folks. It used to be a medium whereby information, not drivel, was disseminated. Now, a select few organizations (MSN, AOL, etc.) are vying for the "hearts and minds" of users logging into the Internet through their portal sites. Advertising is no longer the realm of banner ads and spam; it drives the very content you see. Media companies realize that the Internet, like radio, television, magazines, and newspapers, is just another media delivery mechanism, and they're stepping in to control it.

Question is, what will we do about it?
posted by FormlessOne at 9:41 PM on May 17, 2003

FormlessOne beat me to the punch.

posted by infowar at 9:56 PM on May 17, 2003

From the article: Wal-Mart has banned everything from the rapper Eminem's albums to the best-selling diaries of the rock star Kurt Cobain.
Best-selling (!) diaries of Kurt Cobain.

"Eminem's latest album has become the biggest seller of [2002] in the US with more than 7.4 million sales", outselling Walmart sell-out Nelly by almost 2.5 million units.

Anyone else notice the redundancy of "homogenizing popular culture"? While many people find comfort in the sanitized offerings of Walmart's entertainment section, many others flee from it in fear of its vapidity.

I don't know which is worse: Chicken Little stories like this one, or those who fall for it.
posted by mischief at 9:59 PM on May 17, 2003

And things were better when? When local book and record stores adhered to whatever they considered to be community standards, and there was no Amazon to make an end-run around them? When non-"sanitized" textbooks glossed over slavery and showed women only in supporting roles?

And of course, this is in the news right now because Wal-Mart stopped carrying Maxim and Stuff. Whether or not that represents a "shallowing of American taste" is arguable.
posted by transona5 at 10:05 PM on May 17, 2003

We have sought a homogenization of culture for a long time. What frightens me is that the homogenization being approached is a conservative, white-driven Puritan culture instead of the true melange that already exists.

Conservative, white-driven, Puritan, corporate, social engineering. Pretty scary stuff if you extrapolate exponential growth among the ranks of those who have fallen for the contrived homogeneity of the monochrome American Bigbox retailer, out to a ten year trend, say. For instance check out this article nofundy linked to over at warfilter.
posted by crasspastor at 10:14 PM on May 17, 2003

Why would one presume "exponential growth"?
posted by mischief at 10:45 PM on May 17, 2003

FormlessOne, your take on the corporatization of the internet is completely wrong.

Walmart may eventually steamroll all their competitors. They could buy entire runs of product and keep other retailers from creating competition.

The internet cannot be cornered. The unfettered expansion of "MSN, AOL, etc." does not make any information you or I wish to publish any less available.

The proportions may change in ways you dislike, but that does not diminish the absolute amount of other information available.
posted by NortonDC at 11:26 PM on May 17, 2003

Well said, NortonDC - I was gong to say the exact same thing. Sure, if you set MSNBC as your homepage and take things from there, you'll see a fairly narrow slice of the internet, but there's nothing stopping you from setting your homepage here, here or here...or indeed here. The internet is full of people publishing things that will never make it into the magazine section at Walmart, and selling tunes that will never make it into the music section. Industries have sprung up to prop up this behaviour. And everyone can access them with equal ease. That's the idea of the internet, and I've yet to see any proof that this is really changing.
posted by Jimbob at 11:47 PM on May 17, 2003

Hmmm.... Wall-mart is a mass merchandiser. I would expect it to sell stuff that would appeal to the um... masses?

The fact that Wal-mart sells the plainest vanilla of books, movies and music is not due to its ulterior motive to sanitize America. It is because it knows it can sell it. It knows Mr. & Mrs. small town America isn't likely to buy Eminem's CDs.

By definition one would expect to find only best sellers at a mass merchandiser. And Wal-mart goes out of its way to portray itself as a company that is steeped in conservative values. Therefore I wouldn't expect Wal-mart to have a section of hard-to-find books or girlie mags.

I have gone to Wal-mart maybe twice in my life --the last time about 7 years ago at 3 am because it was the only place that was open and sold inkjet cartridges. Wal-mart has never appealed to me as a place to shop -- it connotes out of control, bare foot, snot nosed kids screaming down the aisles while dad is looking at guns and mom is shopping for pork rinds.

America is shallow already. Wal-mart didn't make us that way, it is just capitalizing on our shallowness. Did anyone see American Idol last week? Christ, I wish I could blame Wal-mart for that blight on society.

Oh, and nice work fpatrick. Linking to your blog as the source of where you found the story was a clever way to self-link on a FPP.
posted by birdherder at 11:55 PM on May 17, 2003

They aren't shaping taste. Taste isn't shallowing.
They are reflecting taste. Taste is shallow.
posted by RichLyon at 12:00 AM on May 18, 2003

I wonder where the Asia Times got that animated gif (I acquired it from another weblogger three years ago... somebody alert the copyright gestapo!) But I digress...

I do make clandestine excusions into the Killing Fields of Retail Capitalism (Wal-Mart) a few times a year, and the last time there I skulked into the DVD aisle, looking for "The Schoolhouse Rock 30th Anniversary Edition", which they did not have. Instead, I was tickled to see a budget-priced two-pack consisting of Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" and "Monty Python's Life of Brian". I felt like such a culture jammer buying a classic piece of film blasphemy from the ultimate Bible Belt Store...
posted by wendell at 12:19 AM on May 18, 2003

What is amusing is that we have created a world in which culture is more accessible than ever before. I can without too much trouble find any piece of music, any book, any movie in the world.

I can feed any arcane interest down to atomic levels of the picayune.

How disappointing and painful it is for some people to learn that most people don't want that.

They want a few options. They want to connect with a general society through common cultural reference points (which isn't possible when we each go out and find that perfect niche item that only 1,000 other people in the world know about). They want to be able to say "hey, did you see Survivor last night and know that someone in the area will say yes." Or ask "have you read the latest Grisham?" and know that they'll share that with someone in the area.

As RichLyon says above, Wal-Mart isn't shallowing culture. At worst, Wal-Mart is exposing the shallow nature of culture.

20, 40, 50, 100 years ago, you also had cultural hegemonization. It was just more local. The kid in the one bookstore town was mostly at the mercy of the choices of that store owner, whether they wanted to participate in the hegemony or not.

Today, similar kids on opposite coasts may experience the same Barnes & Noble hegemony of culture, but there are many options for opting out.
posted by obfusciatrist at 1:25 AM on May 18, 2003

I don't see this as a new phenomenon...just a bigger store exercising it. I think it's been years since I bought anything in a mall, for this very reason.

And I think RichLyon has it right. I used to think that if that music store at the mall would just offer some really cool non-top-40 stuff, people would eat it up. (Just as I once thought that if you provided a non-biased, non-entertainment TV news program/channel, people would surely tune in.) Then I got out and met people.

You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think. Dorothy Parker.
posted by troybob at 1:31 AM on May 18, 2003

I grew up in Butte, MT, and knew the best place to get books in town was the Safeway on Harrison Avenue. The Safeway on Montana Street wasn't quite as good, and Bernie's Drug store was a distant third. I dreamed about book departments as big as Walmart's and I could have lived for months in a Barnes and Noble. As a matter of fact, even though I live in a bigger town now, I can still spend a happy couple hours in the Barnes n Noble. While I wish the coffee shop wasn't a Starbuck's, well, you can't always get what you want.

These stores may be seen as a culteral blight in the larger cities, some of us here in the red states love them.
posted by faceonmars at 2:44 AM on May 18, 2003

not everyone can afford dsl, not everyone has a public library that is decent, not everyone can or will buy books from amazon. the internet is not the solution for everyone yet.

yeah maybe there was no golden age of libraries and bookstores that didn't silence things outside the mainstream, however there is a qualitative difference between a town with a odd old used record or book store and a town where the closest equivalent is sam goody or walmart.
posted by jann at 3:08 AM on May 18, 2003

This seems a lot like complaining that the supermarket doesn't carry the latest Thomas Pynchon novel. The breadth of selection at the average Borders or B&N is pretty astounding when you think about it -- remember about a decade ago, when those stores weren't widespread?
posted by ph00dz at 5:04 AM on May 18, 2003

The internet cannot be cornered. The unfettered expansion of "MSN, AOL, etc." does not make any information you or I wish to publish any less available.

There are people in NANOG ( North American Network Operators' Group ) who have a different point of view.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:04 AM on May 18, 2003

Doesn't being part of a culture mean that most of us adhere to or cater to the lowest common denominator? In this case, big box stores are simply a part of that lowest common denominator but it's no stretch of the imagination to lump in the latest internet meme, the latest water cooler chatter, or even a-list bloggers with LOTR, the Olsen twins, Nelly, etc.

As the French say, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Oh, and nice work fpatrick. Linking to your blog as the source of where you found the story was a clever way to self-link on a FPP.

fpatrick, you should know better. Being sneaky and underhanded about self-linking does not impress anyone.
posted by ashbury at 7:13 AM on May 18, 2003

And everyone can access them with equal ease. That's the idea of the internet, and I've yet to see any proof that this is really changing.

and there is the huge achilles heel of your theory. no, formlessone WAS right. show me the public access points! you see, access is the key, and corporate entities (a very few of them) own the fat pipes that carry all that presently diverse data. someone up there doesn't like what you are publishing - foom. you are gone. even netzero, or your local good ole boy ISP, buy access from the big boys. access, not hosting, not servers, not content censorship - access is the choke point. your attractive little fantasy of a diverse internet being the last bastion of non-homogenous non-corporatized 'culture' is hooey. if corpodork inc doesn't want your commie bytes flowing over it's networks, there isn't much you can do about it. if you can't get access, then what? got your own fat pipes running everywhere? (yeah, right.) who'll peer them? the 'nobody owns the internet' and 'the internet routes around failure' urban legends are nice, but they're still hooey. all routes are 0wnz0r3d!
posted by quonsar at 7:13 AM on May 18, 2003

however there is a qualitative difference between a town with a odd old used record or book store and a town where the closest equivalent is sam goody or walmart.

Not when the owner of that odd used record or book store has completely different tastes than you.

I spent a summer working a fish cannery in Alaska. The town had ONE new bookstore, and ZERO used bookstores. It was small (that's fine), but at that time I was mostly reading science fiction, a genre the owner didn't care for and only had a couple titles (the most common, already read by me).

So, in this pre-World Wide Web town, there was a whole generation of children who would grow up with no exposure to science fiction. And could only be exposed even with difficulty if they sought it out (most people who read, did their own book buying through mail order catalogs).

(Admittedly, no science fiction isn't the worst thing that could happen to a kid.)

At least in the current age, even if that small bookstore has been replaced by a Wal-Mart, there is a greater ability to find alternative sources of culture.
posted by obfusciatrist at 7:14 AM on May 18, 2003

Wal-Mart is a reflection of our blandness, not the cause.

Besides, I laugh at the notion that anyone who really loves to read (and loves books) would even give Wal-Mart the time of day...
posted by drstrangelove at 7:38 AM on May 18, 2003

I'd like to support the local bookstores, and I always try. Then I end up getting into a war with at least one of them and I don't feel too guilty about going off to Chapters and picking up exactly what I want from them.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:09 AM on May 18, 2003

You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think. Dorothy Parker.

OT - can I just mention the best part of this quip? That it was her answer in a word game to provide a new definition for "horticulture"? I just love Dotty. /OT
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:12 AM on May 18, 2003

Actually, "Horticulture" is what those red-hot bean-bag creatures on that one episode of Star Trek have.

Rocks are yummy! NO KILL I
posted by straight at 9:14 AM on May 18, 2003

quonsar, you're wrong, not because of your characterization of the internet, but because of your characterization of formlessone's post. His post is about an imaginary recent shift in the nature of the internet, when the truth is that non-institutional access to the internet has always been commercial, and that's a good thing for culture. It was the legitimization of private and commercial participation with the introduction of the com TLD that allowed the flowering of culture on the net.

And .com activity has always been dependent on commerce, oddly enough, so it has always been beholden to commercial interests, and therefore this is no change.

Luckily for variety, commercial interests include collecting hosting fees from the tinfoil hat crowd.
posted by NortonDC at 9:33 AM on May 18, 2003

I'm not convinced that Walmart is entirely a mirror of our cultural vapidity. Their tatic of creating a monopoly in a market by initially operating in the red has done a lot to kill local businesses. Likewise, the consolidation of radio has resulted in a major reduction of local programming.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:49 AM on May 18, 2003

KirkJobSluder - Their tatic of creating a monopoly in a market by initially operating in the red

I've heard that allegation many times, but never have I seen any documentary evidence. Please share whatever evidence makes you confident enough to publicly declare that.
posted by NortonDC at 10:09 AM on May 18, 2003

I think this has less to do with culture but who determines it: The Masses.

And this offends the "Educated Individual". It is nothing more than snobbery.
posted by Mick at 10:50 AM on May 18, 2003


I'm looking for a satisfactory link, but can offer the following (perfectly useless, in the big picture) anecdote:

Wal-Mart now dominates the town I grew up in. I will give one tiny example. My mother, back in the day, owned a little craft shop. They sold Altoids. At the time, a tin of mints wholesaled for $1.85, and Wal Mart sold them for $1.15. Same story for everyhting else she sold, but ALtoids were the most dramatic, because a number of merchants in town were freaking out (it was just after Altoids got big on the US market). They cost $.99 at Wal Mart by the time my mom's shop went under.

Multiply that one little incident by every product category: hardware (local hardware shop gone); car parts (local garage gone); clothing; even food. I can't stand Wal Mart, but what really irks me is that the people in these small towns can't stand together or think about the future for half a goddamn second.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:50 AM on May 18, 2003

Start here. This pdf references a number of articles from the mainstream press about this situation.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:55 AM on May 18, 2003

Ignatius, well said, but harsh on the shoppers. A good friend of ours is a military wife and as such has lived in a succession of the sort of small towns which can be economically engulfed by a Wal-Mart. She is well aware of what happens to towns when Wal-Mart comes along but says "I know I shouldn't shop there, and I hate it, but I simply can't afford not to." They have four children on a non-com's salary. If she looked hard she could still find alternatives to WalMart, but they'd be more costly in all sorts of ways than she could possibly handle.

I live in a city with incredible amounts of choice, and I can afford to pay more for the pleasure of supporting local businesses, and I do. I have set foot in a Wal-Mart exactly once in my life.

But life (as I'm sure you know at least as well as I do) is pretty hard for most people in small-town America -- yes, rents and mortages are cheaper but almost everything else is more expensive, the industries are largely gone (thanks also in no small part to Wal-Mart and the like) and where there are jobs at all the pay is usually pitiful. They don't have the luxury of voting with their dollar.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2003

They don't have the luxury of voting with their dollar.

i'm stunned. you are implying a flaw in the free enterprise system. you must be one of them bush bashin' war protestin' tree fuckin' eco-terrist sumbitches, huh?
posted by quonsar at 1:25 PM on May 18, 2003

Ignatius, you know that Wal-mart gets its its Altoids at a much lower price than your mother could. It probably was making money on those Altoids.

The PDF you linked to does show a lot of Wal-mart's secret to its success -- do everything possible to make money. That means undercutting its competitors, busting unions and paying low wages, putting the squeeze on its suppliers, and so forth.

It is a heartless and cruel company. It doesn't advertise itself that way. It tries to portray itself as homespun Americana but it would sell its own mother for the money. I think Wal-mart makes Microsoft look altruistic.
posted by birdherder at 2:55 PM on May 18, 2003

Maybe, Birdherder... but unlike Microsoft, the consumer benefits from WalMart in terms of lower prices and vast selection. It's true -- they drive the heck out of the margins through tight control of the supply chain, but they aggressively pass those savings onto the people who shop there.
posted by ph00dz at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2003

I don't think the problem is that Walmart is out to mold the world in a vanilla culture. And don't get me wrong I don't like Walmart at all. But there is have always been alternative music, books and lines of thinking that haven't been mainstream. I think the problem is more with the American public that is too lazy to make the effort to go out and look for alternatives so they go with what's convenient.
posted by whirlwind29 at 3:21 PM on May 18, 2003

From Ignatius J. Reilly's link:
It cripples local small businesses––hardware stores, pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gas stations. Then, once the competition disappears, Wal-Mart often jacks up its prices.

That doesn't say it sells below cost.

"Wal-Mart Stores wants to know what the costs of its suppliers are," believes consultant James A. Champy, chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting business. The end result, according to Business Week: "It will put greater pressure on companies to clean up their management processes and become more efficient, and it will cause yet another re-examination of less-profitable businesses."

That suggests they don't have to sell at a loss to lower prices.

The Capitol Times, (Madison, Wis.), February 2, 2001, reports that, “Wal-Mart has claimed two more victims in Wisconsin. Since 1998, when a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in Racine,

No, it doesn't. Go look at the archive for that day. There is a Wal*Mart story there, but it's dramatically different. It covers the fact Wal*Mart filed many similar predatory pricing complaints against it's Wisconsin competition in an effort to have the law uniformly applied. The "quotes" in the article you cited simply do not exist in that story.

I suggest looking for other support for that position, Ignatius J. Reilly.
posted by NortonDC at 6:35 PM on May 18, 2003

I wouldn't mind Walmart so much, if they were built underground, but their featureless presence cast a shadow of despair around everything near them. I can't look at one of them without my heart growing a little heavier.

Something the size of a city park dedicated to selling people junk they don't really need, most of which was made in China, probably under working conditions that would be illegal in the US and Europe.

Go into a Walmart and try to find someone smiling. It's not possible.
posted by Beholder at 6:54 PM on May 18, 2003

While your heart may grow heavier, your horseshit grows deeper. ;-P
posted by mischief at 8:02 PM on May 18, 2003

Go into a Walmart and try to find someone smiling. It's not possible.

Luckily they have that little yellow smiley face plastered everywhere!
posted by kindall at 11:29 PM on May 18, 2003

Go into a Walmart and try to find someone smiling.

You'll find me! I bought some great shoes for seven bucks!

Now on to the sporting goods section.
posted by hama7 at 4:02 AM on May 19, 2003

Increase in shallowness? Not obvious. You'd have to go back a number of decades to find a "before" v. today's "after," and even then, I think you'd find little more than a more ignorant shallowness. Also, whih stores would have sold quasi playboy mags and obscenity-ridden albums in 1970, or even 1980? And is selling such items really any less shallow?

Moreover, for every Walmart, there's a This American Life, a funky boutique, and odd Web site. And there's Metafilter. And is today's tv fare more shallow than, e.g., the Beverly Hillbillies?

The loss of one Bradlees, one Caldor and a Pergament to one Walmart may be odious, but it's not "shallowing." Most people are shallow. Most culture is shallow.

If you're not, that's great. But is it possible, you're just getting older and discovering people are (as opposed to are becoming more) shallow? I sympathize with your enlightenment, and welcome your depressing realization.

Also, check out the shopping and strip malls a few miles from the Louvre!
posted by ParisParamus at 4:32 AM on May 19, 2003

I have to say, I don't particularly miss Caldor. If Wal-Mart played a role in its demise, I can't say I am really going to shed a tear, there. :)

Wal-Mart's strategy has been to dominate retail in places that don't have good access to retail. I haven't shopped at Wal-Mart in years because it's more inconvenient to go there than it is to shop locally (I live in a city), or even to shop at plenty of other nearby big-box stores. It's a shame that this union-busting, small-business-destroying, sweatshop-labor-product-buying company exists, but the low prices do make it easier for people to get the things they need. The problem is that Wal-Mart is a patronizing private version of the "nanny-state" that believes its customers aren't capable of handling themselves in the presence of Maxim magazine and parental advisory albums. I, for one, prefer not to be babied.

Furthermore, what people are complaining about is not a general shallowing of American tastes (I'm shallow. I admit it!), but rather that the shallowness Wal-Mart is pandering to is a specific kind of middle-america southern shallowness that the rest of the country doesn't share. Do the customers at Wal-Mart's New York City branch complain baout the presence of Maxim Magazine? No. However, because a bunch of people in Kansas raise complaints, Wal-Mart's policy in foisted upon their NY customers, too.
posted by deanc at 7:10 AM on May 19, 2003

I lived in a small town in rural Georgia for three years. Sure, there was an independent bookstore, but it was Christian-themed, which was great if you wanted a bible-story book or the latest in the Left Behind series, but not much good for anything else--no sci-fi, but also no cookbooks, either. Wal-Mart was the only--the only--place in town for such things. Electronics? You could go to Belk, a slightly-less mostrous corporation, but not much better. There was a small hardware store in town, but it closed at 5, at noon on Saturday, and wasn't open at all on Sunday, so if you wanted a gallon of paint, you had to get it on your lunch break. Wal-Mart improved life in that shitty little place. Now that I live in a big city, I hardly ever go there. But if I went back to Carrollton, I'd be there every week, at least.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:30 AM on May 19, 2003

I smile at Wallmart! Who wouldn't after getting <$10 dollar velcro shoes?

Really, I see a few people that don't mind working there.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:07 AM on May 19, 2003

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