Inventory: 12 Songs About Shopping

Inventory: 12 Songs About Shopping

1. 60 Ft Dolls, "Happy Shopper" (available on The Big 3)

The 1995 debut single by these former next-big-things stacks martial drums and towering riffs like so many wrapped packages, while bandleader Richard Parfitt shouts in his thick Welsh accent about a transsexual prostitute trapped in a suburban nightmare. "The working class can kiss my ass / If the price is right," Parfitt bellows, just before repeating "come on down" over and over, as both a double-entendre and an anti-consumerist taunt.

 

2. Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, "Rockin' Shopping Center" (available on Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers)

It isn't so bad when Richman wanders into a shopping mall where all the brands are different from what he's used to, because our man can sympathize with the mall itself, and its attempts to be hip and cool even while salesmen keep slapping dorky logos over every available surface. "If I were a shopping center I'd sure be embarrassed," Richman sings. "I know I'd never get a date with some cute little building, like from Paris."

 

3. The Clash, "Lost In The Supermarket" (available on London Calling)

Usually assumed to be Mick Jones' words, the lyrics to "Lost In The Supermarket" were written by Joe Strummer for Jones to sing—a testament to how well Strummer knew (and could mimic) his partner. Starting out from a childlike perspective, the song uses supermarkets as a metaphor for the shop of horrors that is society: full of echoes, silence, isolation, and helplessness. By the end of the song, Jones—now older, lonelier, and clutching at "coupons from packets of tea"—has come full circle, his misery recycled like so much plastic packaging. "Lost In The Supermarket" wasn't the only dissection of consumerism on London Calling (note the "I went to the market to realize my soul" line from "Rudie Can't Fail"), but it is the album's most poignant.

 

4. They Might Be Giants, "I Am A Grocery Bag" (available on NO!)

Yes, but how does it feel to be the object being used for shopping rather than the shopper? They Might Be Giants has the answer in this 30-second ditty about things you might find inside a paper sack at the supermarket. The complete list: Juices, muffins, pasta, cheese, milk, biscuits, cocktail sauce, salsa, pickles, organic grains, fresh coffee, bagels, pudding, soap, baby formula and ham. Thank you, and come again.

 

5. The Jam, "Shopping" (available on Gold)

Like "Lost In The Supermarket," "Shopping" drips with the guilt of lower-middle-class punk kids who suddenly have all the money in the world to waste—and nothing of substance to waste it on. Paul Weller deflates the Mod movement's fashion-fueled materialism with disillusioned verses like "As I flit from shop window to window / I'm trying to pick up a friendly bargain / but it's not like the adverts all make out / and there's no one to greet you as a friend"—backed by a sighing, minor-key waltz that predicts the jazzy soul of his work in The Style Council. (Yes, the band that named an album Our Favourite Shop.)

 

6. Fountains Of Wayne, "The Valley Of Malls" (available on Utopia Parkway)

Only Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood could see the caravan of RVs that frequently populate mall parking lots, and imagine what it's like to be behind the wheel of one of those behemoths, on the way from suburb to suburb, scoping out the sales, then getting back on the road for a never-ending stretch of chain restaurants and gas-station snack breaks.

 

7. Dolly Parton, "The Bargain Store" (available on The Essential Dolly Parton)

Here's shopping as metaphor, as Parton explains how her life is "like unto a bargain store," because she might have what you're looking for "if you don't mind the fact that all the merchandise is used." Among that merchandise? A broken heart and broken dreams, ready to trade for a future. Parton guarantees satisfaction, but frankly, she sounds like the kind of fixer-upper that will take a lot more work than she's worth.

 

8. Bruce Springsteen, "Used Cars" (available on Nebraska)

Over a muted acoustic guitar, Springsteen tells a wry, bitter first-person story about a boy who watches his father dickering over a used car, then driving his family home. Dad's stewing over the lousy deal he got, Mom's sitting quietly, his sister's obliviously blowing the horn, and the neighbors are coming out to check out (and quietly scoff at) the not-so-new set of wheels. The narrator is so embarrassed that he's already figured out his main goal in life: "I ain't ever going to ride in no used car again." Thus another American dream is born, cast in green and etched with dollar signs.

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9. Washington Social Club, "New Jersey Malls" (available on Catching Looks)

Can ritual shopping lead to a state of higher enlightenment? That's the theory forwarded by this snappy piece of underheard mid-'00s pop-punk, which describes how singer Martin Royle met God at the strip mall and received a vision of togetherness, to be effected by commercialism and powerhouse rock entertainment. "I can tell by your expression you don't believe me at all," Royle yelps. "But stranger things have happened in New Jersey malls."

 

10. Billy Bragg, "The Busy Girl Buys Beauty" (available on Between The Wars)

It's only to be expected that rock's most outspoken socialist would view shopping with a skeptical eye. In this song from Billy Bragg's fiery 1983 debut EP, he mocks the notion at the heart of the modern advertising industry—namely, that a person can simply buy happiness as long as she "buys what she's told to buy." But he isn't being a grinch: His proletarian anger isn't directed at the girls trying to buy their way into better lives, but the lies they're fed that try to get them to hand over cash for a chance at a mostly illusory "mail-order paradise."

 

11. The Handsome Family, "24-Hour Store" (available on Singing Bones)

Where Billy Bragg worries that the world of commerce damages people by making them see things that aren't real, Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family is troubled instead by lonely, isolated people who might be happy if only they could see the miraculous world that's hidden from them. "24-Hour Store" is a typically Sparks-esque combination of ghostly mysticism and detached observation of mundane life. It's easy to imagine Sparks off in a corner at her neighborhood Wal-Mart at midnight, watching the insomniacs pushing broken carts down the aisle in a mild, sad stupor, while invisible angels "fly through lights… in particles of light that fall from the sun." Whether she's talking about God, art, or some other spiritual lack is, well, immaterial.

 

12. Pet Shop Boys, "Shopping" (available on Actually)

In spite of the catchy chanted chorus—"We're S-H-O-PP-I-N-G, we're shopping"—Pet Shop Boys' 1987 techno-pop tune "Shopping" is more about political corruption than a day at the mall. Their not-so-veiled critique of Margaret Thatcher's regime implies that politics itself has become a series of commercial transactions, at least for those with enough money to afford their own politicians. Or, more baldly, "we're buying and selling your history," and "I heard it in the House Of Commons: Everything's for sale." Are the fat cats shopping for political support, or are the politicians out shopping for bribes and power? Answer: yes.