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We all hanker for convenience, and this yen occasionally leads to a temporary suspension of preference. There's what-we'd-rather-do (in my case, flip through the bins at a small new-and-used record store) and what-we-can-do-in-10-minutes-and-not-go-too-far-out-of-our-way. Under the latter circumstances, I recently found myself in the downtown Virgin Megastore (at Market and Stockton), in search of some cheap headphones. I thought I'd take a spin around the main floor, grab the headphones -- conveniently stocked by the registers -- and get on with the day. I'm not a record-store elitist, or a home entertainment snob. I don't necessarily shun a place where the employees have to wear special shirts. But I've always avoided the Virgin Megastore, in part because I'm uneasy about having my money help prop up the Big Corporate Monolith, but more importantly because of the ubiquity and colorlessness of all things "mega."
Literally, the prefix "mega" means "big," or "mighty." But in the case of the Virgin Megastore, and the whole consumer culture of mega, it means much more. (Megamore?) Considering the vast international web under the Virgin name -- which, besides including stores and an airline and a record company, also encompasses a software company and a new beverage line -- Virgin's mega is global: a homogenized cultural landmark peddling homogenized culture. It's an all-devouring mega, and, worse yet, an all-excreting mega.
And, yes, that includes the underground. At the Megastore, a display that features a Kathy Acker novel alongside a quickie biography of the Spice Girls isn't meant to be subversive; it's meant to sell books. There will always be people who turn their noses up at whatever the masses are consuming -- whether it's MTV or Oprah's latest book pick -- and Virgin knows it. Yet the store's selection also suggests an inescapable reality, which is that every alternative to mass culture -- rave culture, punk culture, goth culture -- depends on the mass culture's existence for its own. Mega becomes the idea that no one thing is better than the other.
Ultimately, this opportunistic egalitarianism isn't about how the Man has gotten hold of your beloved Jet Li movie/Screeching Weasel CD/Jim Goad book and made it palatable to the same people who purchase Forrest Gump on DVD. It's about Virgin's apparently boundless pop-cultural generosity. Sure, the company's seeking to commodify your lifestyle. But big deal; who isn't? You've got the money, so it's got your lifestyle covered, home entertainment-wise. But still, somewhere back in the Megastore's digestive tract, something gets ... lost. There's an amusing/horrifying earnestness to the floor displays that attempt to conceptualize and appeal to a specific subset of consumers. For example, the Gay Display -- an island of CDs shelved under a rainbow-striped placard reading "One Human Race...Infinite Possibilities." It's obviously meant to showcase music with a gay interest, but the possibilities offered by the display are rather finite. Erasure, Jill Sobule, a collection of show tunes featuring two buffed gym boys cuddling on the sleeve, and the compulsory assortment of club mixes. Add a smidge of Judy Garland or Holly Near, and the stereotyping would be complete.
Similar sharpshooting can be found in Virgin's unctuous "Voice of a Woman" series. The display's sign trumpets: "The Voice of a Woman is her strength, her gift, and her passion. Listen and be heard." Underneath are strictly Lilith Fair options like Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman. And as for the listening stations in the cafe upstairs, let's just say that after paying $1.75 for a glass of iced coffee -- a gouge that embarrasses even the servers -- the latte-music tie-ins, which include a CD called Late Night Boulevard: Chilled Out Tunes for a Cafe Culture, seem like the very definition of adding insult to injury.
Though he obviously wasn't talking about megastores, Robert Rauschenberg once said, "I feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable." He meant that there's really no point in condemning something whose ubiquity is more or less beyond our control. Which isn't to say that entities like Virgin Megastores -- which are more active, not to mention more economically and socially relevant, than soap dishes -- are entirely benevolent elements of our surroundings. But they're there -- and by "there" I mean everywhere. Thus far, Virgin has 60 locations in 14 different countries, and it's growing. Anyone who's miserable about it now has a truly agonizing future to look forward to.
But, oh, the convenience. By the time I got in line with my headphones, I had surpassed my intended 10-minute stay by more than an hour. I listened as the two women waiting in front of me -- a basket of CDs between them -- compared their impending purchases. "I can't believe I'm buying all this stuff!" one of them groaned happily.
"Well, think of it this way," reasoned the other. "You won't have to go anywhere else for a long time." Mega is, after all, not only everything, but every-where.
By Andi Zeisler
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