I seem to find a reason to go to CVS several times a week. Sometimes these reasons are medical, but much of the time, I am tracking down some household item or another—especially when I need something faster than it can be delivered, or I don’t want to be party to the low-level violence of same-day delivery, and I don’t feel like subjecting myself to the psychic keelhauling of a Target run. There is a unique air of desperation to most CVS locations. This is probably because CVS, as a health-care company stapled to a convenience store chain, blends the special emotional terroirs of the hospital and the gas station snack aisle. It could also be because the stores are often seriously understaffed, presumably in part due to the corporation’s recent move to slash pharmacy hours at thousands of locations. The decor is what you might call austerity-core. It is both corporate-loud (garish displays of next season’s decorations) and minimalist-clinical (pilled gray carpeting, fluorescent lights). People in pain and in search of relief, people picking up the prescriptions they need to live, and people who really want a soda all stalk the aisles.
The one unalloyed delight of CVS, though, is the soundtrack. One of the first things you notice once you start paying attention to the in-store music is how much whoever is in charge of programming loves Rod Stewart. “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy, come on, sugar, tell me so,” Rod demands as you ponder the locked cases of flu medicine. “Young hearts, be free tonight,” Rod bellows while you compare the prices of soap. Sometimes he hides behind an additional layer of mediation, as in Sheryl Crow’s version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” a song also notably covered by Rod. These are not the sexiest Rod songs. In fact, they are the songs where he sings from a place of impotence or regret. His lover threatens to crush him; she is too impossible to talk to; love will tear them apart. Like the shoppers whose attention the in-store loudspeaker announcements periodically try to seize, she is to be guilted, cajoled.
Big feelings reign on the CVS soundtrack. Sometimes they are overheated. Other times they are gushy, like the Sixpence None the Richer cover of “There She Goes,” the heroin anthem by the La’s, jacked up a treacly minor third from the original. (There are lots of covers on the playlist.) The emoting has a tendency to ambush you. Earlier this week I was picking up trash bags when, all of a sudden, I heard the distinctive plunk-plink-plunk-plink-plunk-plink-plunk-plink of the sad-sack opening guitar riff to “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol. The song depicts a couple, secure, or maybe trapped, in a bubble of self-sufficiency: “We don’t need anything or anyone.” While Rod sometimes sounds like he is delivering his come-ons with a campy wink, “Chasing Cars” contains no prophylactic against its own sentimental excess. It is an almost unbearable song to hear in CVS, regardless of the circumstances that bring you into the store. “If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lay with me and just forget the world?” the chorus goes. Here?
The basic experience of shopping at CVS is one of doing something desperate at worst and banally unpleasant at best while swimming in a warm bath of muted musical intensity. No other retail chain is so committed to the power ballad as a musical form. A Spotify playlist of “CVS BANGERS,” apparently sourced from hard-won knowledge, features a stacked lineup: Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”; Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight”; the Cars’ “Drive”; Toto’s still-inescapable “Africa.” One song on that playlist that I absolutely have heard in my local store is Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”—the nineties adult-alternative equivalent of a power ballad, a spoken/sung tale of a marriage crumbling under the weight of too much gender. Some philosophers claim that the emotions artworks evoke are really “pseudo emotions”; we feel them at one degree of remove. I can think of no better support for this thesis than the experience of listening to Paula Cole in CVS. The hopes of young love, the disappointments of middle age, the curdling resentment that ensues: I feel some inkling of it all. But mostly I’m just tapping my foot as I wait to pick up my prescription.
If you spend enough time shopping at CVS and listening to CVS-inspired playlists, you may begin to wonder if some rogue programmer is introducing subversive material into the mix. One Kinks song in the rotation tells of local cultural institutions being turned into supermarkets, and then parking lots. Domestic frustrations figure prominently. On the subreddit dedicated to the store, where overworked employees compare notes, one of the most discussed and most reviled songs is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s very nineties cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses.” It’s a song about wanting more than the basic necessities—in other words, more than convenience store stuff. The chorus is a question: “Shouldn’t I have all of this, and passionate kisses from you?” Desperation creeps in as the song lopes along. The last verse finds the singer shouting, “Give me what I deserve, ‘cause it’s my right.” The consensus among CVS veterans seems to be that all this is “vapid and irritating,” if unintentionally funny at times. One employee reports that a coworker with an unrequited crush on her manager stares wistfully at the object of her affection for the duration of the song whenever it comes on. Another shares a vignette: “I vividly remember being violently hungover on a cold winter morning in New England, passionate kisses playing loudly in the background as someone’s grandma slowly searched her purse for coupons, fluorescent lights inescapable as I prayed for a swift end to my existence. Hell is real and I’ve lived it.”
Hell is other people’s music. But whose music is the CVS soundtrack? The store’s music vendor is Mood Media, formerly Muzak. While that company made its name with what we’d today call original content—light instrumentals composed for background listening—it eventually pivoted into the playlist business, curating “channels” of already-existing vocal pop music for their clients. It’s easy to imagine each major chain laying claim to its own channel to create its distinct emotional climate, whether they use Mood or one of its few competitors. Trader Joe’s is peppy and lightly eclectic: Motown, tasteful eighties hits. H&M is corporate hipster: late-period Jens Lekman. Ditto Urban Outfitters, which used to put out a yearly mixtape: “Halloween Head” by Ryan Adams, “Slow Me Down” by Emmy Rossum. Breezy yacht rock diffuses through the faux-Egyptian catacombs of the Cheesecake Factory. Whole Foods is largely silent.
CVS’s musical identity is harder to pin down. It is not subcultural-aspirational like Hot Topic or Starbucks back when it sold CDs. Functionally, it comes closer to the genre-agnostic mishmash of feel-good tunes that play in most supermarkets. And yet the feel-good tunes resonate differently in CVS. The anonymous employee on the subreddit is surely right that the store’s music produces its effects by way of contrast: earnest voices singing about tenderness lost or gained over sparkly guitars, piped into an impersonal, overlit, understocked place where absolutely nobody wants to be. The whole situation is a perverse joke.
CVS is the negative image of the club or the theater. There is no coordinated pulse of the crowd, just individual people shuffling around. The music is inflicted on you against your will rather than offered up as a kind of gift or “experience.” But the existential emptiness of this setting allows the music to sound with a special liveliness. In the wasteland, you can better hear what the pop song wants from you. The pop song demands your investment—positive, negative, ambivalent, it doesn’t care. It refuses to be ignored, and it won’t settle for a minor role as a manipulator of moods. In the harsh fluorescent light, we can hear the pop song say, “Give me what I deserve, cause it’s my right.” Who are we to refuse?
Mitch Therieau is a writer in California.