When I think about the height of lockdown in New York, there are a number of images that immediately come to mind. The printed-out sheets of paper announcing temporary closures haphazardly taped to storefronts, still up and falling apart weeks later. The glowing LinkNYC Kiosks on every street corner flashing dystopian messages about the need to keep your distance from strangers. The completely empty Brooklyn Bridge, glistening post-rain, that I’d cross on foot traveling between boroughs. (It was always raining then which seems a bit excessive looking back.) However, there is only one sound: the 1999 country-pop classic “Breathe” by Faith Hill blasting in the aisles of a grocery store.
For the most part, I associate March and April of last year with silence—there was an overall sense that the world was on pause with no one knowing what would come next. It was like watching a play that had gone off the rails, bringing the curtain crashing down and leaving the audience stunned and quietly waiting for something to happen. However, there was one exception to that rule. It wasn’t my empty apartment building, where many of the other residents had decamped for destinations unknown, or the barren streets where you could walk for blocks without seeing another person—it was the grocery store.
Many people have described the shock of encountering other humans again the first time they ventured out after lockdowns began. For me, the strangest thing was hearing music again. After days of near silence, the first time I made a trip to stock up on groceries, I was unexpectedly struck by being in a large indoor space with other people, hearing songs being played over a sound system. Almost certainly as a result of my previous deprivation, I quickly decided it was the best music I’d ever heard in my life.
Turns out, I was not alone. It’s not just any music that plays in grocery stores. It’s a very specific genre known as Grocery Store Music, a breed of easy listening that—through a complicated sonic process of bouncing off canned foods and echoing through frozen goods sections—takes on the timeless, chaotic neutral quality of a warm bath in limbo. It’s the soundtrack of long childhood car drives with your parents and endless waits on hold as you try to reach a representative. (It’s similar to Pharmacy Music, but the latter is slightly more menacing.) For a strong introduction to the genre, I’d recommend this Grocery Story Music Spotify playlist.
I rediscovered “Breathe” by Faith Hill in Aisle 4 of the East Village Key Food. A while later, I was a few feet over in the meat section, staring at a package of chicken breasts and having an existential crisis to “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams. On separate occasions, I walk-danced down the pasta aisle to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac and felt my eyes well up by the checkout thanks to the powerful lyrics of “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips.
The welcome experience of having an emotional connection to music in a public space soon had me volunteering to take a trip to the grocery store whenever we were short on pantry items. It wasn’t lost on me that these trips were filling some sort of emotional void that had been missing since the closure of bars and nightclubs. Saying “grocery stores became the new clubs” in 2020 may seem a bit flippant when these same spaces were also the scenes of mass panic, hoarding, clashes over safety precautions and incredible bravery by essential workers. But it also feels like there was a small manifestation in these spaces of something many of us experienced during that awful time: the comfort that music and a sense of shared humanity can provide in trying times. (On a more superficial level, they also had lines and bouncers then which didn’t hurt the parallel.)
Not surprisingly, grocery stores in cities around the world were declared the “new clubs” over the last year. In Los Angeles, celebrities were spotted at what Vanity Fair called the city’s newest “hot spot,” eschewing former paparazzi-favored locations for a health food destination. A grocery store in Missouri turned non-compliant salad hot bars into a festive tiki bar. On the flip side, a massive LGBTQ+ Peruvian nightclub reinvented itself as a grocery store.
Back in March, another quirk I developed was quietly murmuring a specific chant under my breath whenever a Grade A Bop came on while I was walking down the aisles, shopping for essentials during an out-of-control pandemic: “Club Grocery Store. Club Grocery Store. Club Grocery Store.” (You have to say it with the tone and syncopation you’d use while half-heartedly encouraging someone in the middle of a dance circle at a wedding.) Over the months that followed, and as the world continued to open up, I found myself quietly repeating similar chants every time I found myself in a new place with music: “Club Rooftop, Club Rooftop.” “Club Uber, Club Uber.” “Club City Health Department Covid Testing Center, Club City Health Department Covid Testing Center.”
What I really can’t wait for is the day I’ll be able to say just “Club Club” again. Until then, I’m grateful for all the songs I’ve been able to hear along the way.
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