Last Friday evening, I was shopping for food at the packed Trader Joe’s on Sixth Avenue in New York. I like shopping there. The prices are pretty good, the employees friendly, the store inviting.
As I was standing in line, I heard the jaunty marimba of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 smash hit, “Under My Thumb.” We’ve all heard the song 1,000 times — it’s a very catchy tune, from a talented, superstar band. But it also features lyrics that are not exactly friendly toward women. As I listened, I thought about how the song plays in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s killing spree, fueled, as the killer explained in a lengthy manifesto, by his rage against women and desire to control them.
We’ve been wringing our hands, asking how young men can become so hostile and eager to dominate to women. Well, isn’t it because our culture feeds them the message at every turn, even in the most mundane settings? What does it mean that degradation of half the population is considered appropriate background noise to everyday life?
In “Under My Thumb,” the singer boasts about how he’s gained control of his girl, comparing her to, among other things, a squirming dog. A sample:
Under my thumb
The squirmin' dog who's just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways
It's down to me
The way she talks when she's spoken to
Down to me, the change has come,
She's under my thumb
Ah, take it easy babe, yeah
And so on. My problem is not so much with Sir Mick, who penned the lyrics with Keith Richards when both were 23 years old in a bygone era, before I was even born. The young rockers had found that copping a swaggering sexual posture was money in the bank. Truthfully, “Under My Thumb” is not even their most aggressively misogynistic song: that prize goes to “Brown Sugar,” which celebrates slave owners raping black women: “Scarred old slaver knows he's doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight /Brown sugar how come you taste so good?”
“Under My Thumb” is nevertheless considered by many to be one of the most misogynistic rock songs of all time. In a grim twist of fate, it was actually the song the Stones were playing when an African American male fan named Meridith Hunter was stabbed to death by members of the Hell's Angels hired as security guards at the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969 when he tried to climb on stage (film shows that he brandished what appears to be a gun). The concert is famous for the outbreaks of violence that happened among the crowd and between the concert-goers and the Hell's Angels. As many as 850 injuries occurred, including a pregnant woman, Denise Jewkes, suffering a skull fracture caused by a thrown beer bottle.
History aside, what I wanted to know is, have our attitudes about women changed much in half a century? What kinds of messages do we think are OK today in 2014? Why should I have to hear about a guy comparing his girlfriend to a dog while I’m buying vegetables?
I decided to ask Trader Joe's this question. Just so they would know I wasn’t making things up, I printed out the lyrics to “Under My Thumb” and brought them into the store with me. I was directed to a young man named Kyle Morrison at the manager's station, to whom I explained in friendly terms that I was a frequent shopper and that I had heard a song playing over the sound system which, in the wake of the Elliot Rodger killing spree, made me feel uncomfortable. I told him the name of the song, and offered him the paper with the lyrics.
Without looking at the page, Morrison’s first response was to tell me rather smugly that art was a matter of interpretation. I asked him to read the lyrics, and let me know how he interpreted them. He said he didn’t have time, so I read off a few for him.
“Do you think those lyrics are offensive to women?” I asked.
He looked uncomfortable. “It’s just like the radio in your car,” he argued. “There are all kinds of songs playing on different stations.”
“But it’s not like the radio in my car. I can turn that off.”
Morrison hemmed and hawed, explaining that Trader Joe’s playlists were “edited for appropriateness.” Yet he also admitted that probably a lot of the songs were “racist, sexist, and misogynistic.”
“So why are you playing them?”
Flustered, Morrison said he had no control. The music was up to “corporate.” If I was in the store and the song was playing, I could ask him to turn it down. That was all he could do.
When I asked how to get in touch with “corporate,” Morrison gave me a card printed with the name of the store “Captain,” Justin Matthews, two phone numbers, and an uplifting message that Trader Joe’s had a mission to provide “the highest quality of customer satisfaction delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride and company spirit.”
I went home and called both numbers, and was told that Captain Justin Matthews could not be reached at either. I did manage to reach Trader Joe’s customer service department and spoke to someone named “Nicki” (she refused to give her last name), who told me robotically that the music lists were set and Trader Joe’s would not change them.
“Even if they are offensive to women shopping in your stores?” I asked. “No one ever complains,” she said curtly. “I’m complaining,” I replied. She thanked me for my feedback and promised to pass it on. “To whom?” I asked. “To the store manager,” she said. The one who could not be reached.
I returned to Trader Joe’s to speak to a harried Morrison, who insisted that the numbers he had given me were the right ones. Finally a colleague said that Captain Justin Matthews could only be reached at one of the numbers when he was in, and he wasn’t in. I would have to come back another day.
Morrison told me he would write down the name of the two satellite companies that compile the music lists, Mood and Muzak (actually they are one company: Mood bought Muzak in 2011). “Maybe you could call them,” he offered.
“But Trader Joe’s is the company that makes the contracts. Doesn’t Trader Joe’s have any responsibility?”
“I’m sorry,” Morrison said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Yeah, me, too.
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