Virgin had an in-store D.J., private listening booths and plenty of room to mingle with records while also flirting with cute, lanky boys in eyeliner. Alongside the diversity of music, the megastore stocked a selection of culty and esoteric books, adding to the sense that Virgin offered a magical combination of mall-like consumer convenience and independent-minded cool.Nothing could seem further from my experience. It seemed to take the stuff my peers had painstakingly discovered in quirky corners of the retail world, or had passed to one other in shoddy photocopies or beat-up, well thumbed editions, and made it all too easy, invalidated it. The store inevitably seemed full of teenagers who'd wandered in from Hot Topic, who were either sulky, giggly, or vaguely menacing. (Fittingly, the Times Square megastore is becoming a Forever 21.) The idea that anyone would flirt or hang out amidst the cacophony never would have occurred to me. The place revolted me viscerally.
I was born too early for the Virgin Megastore, perhaps. When I think of chain music stores, I think of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Tower Records and HMV. These were alienating places, too, but I shopped in them. They were a step up from Listening Booth and Wall to Wall Sound, the only record stores I knew while growing up in the suburbs and going to the mall. They had a wider selection, but were still fairly homogeneous. At college, I eventually discovered well-curated indie record stores, but I was always a little put off by the coolness tests you seemed to have to pass to hang out in them. One day, I finally somehow managed to pass the test, which in retrospect meant far too much to me and contributed somewhat to my general antisocial orientation.
The problem with record stores generally was that they embodied the idea that you could buy integrity or superiority by getting the right albums and knowing the right musical references. The poster-heavy, shit-pile aesthetic in the stores -- mirrored in the teenagers' rooms depicted in 1980s movies -- emblemized a certain dream of abundance, one which seems extremely juvenile to me now. If you could have access to it all, it seemed as though you could pass as if you knew it all -- and for some reason I thought that this was a good thing, trying to be a know-it-all. Records stores made it seem as though that smug posture was the height of accomplishment, that nothing could be more justified, nothing was a better use of erudition, than to insult the ignorance of others about niche pop culture. So having a pile of records -- owning more stuff -- seemed like material proof that you were smarter and better than others when it came to music, and music was a metonym for our entire identities. The music you could reference was an index to how you wanted to be regarded, who you wanted to impress. (Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style details this phenomenon well. Allegedly this is not the case anymore, and music doesn't loom so large as the basis of subcultures. Is that right?)
In truth, the stores encouraged the formation of a specifically consumerist self-concept that was especially insidious, because it left those of us prone to the stores' allure believing we were cooler than ordinary consumers, and perhaps not even consumers at all but refined aesthetes. The irony that we spent hours and hours each day in a record store managed to escape us. We thought we had found a place to escape the system.
No one in Virgin Megastore felt like they escaped the system, of course. Though it was always a distortion, the huge chains symbolized for indie- record-store denizens a homogeneous mainstream taste; the megastores were necessary in order to believe it was distinctive and important to listen to alternative music. It's tempting to argue now that those who did their record shopping at Virgin were the true escapees, the ones who better avoided pegging their identity to a particular mode of consumerism, but that seems too facile. I wish I took music less seriously in my 20s, but I don't wish that I was in Virgin Megastore lackadaisically buying into the zeitgeist. I wish only I had made my vocation then something other than having a encyclopedic knowledge of what in the end is just a species of consumer goods. I wish I would have actually been doing something instead of listening and categorizing and posturing.