Bach at the Burger King

By Theodore GioiaMay 17, 2018

Bach at the Burger King
AT THE CORNER of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.

Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.

This tactic was suggested by a cryptic organization called the Central Market Community Benefit District, a nonprofit collective of neighborhood property owners whose mission statement strikes an Orwellian note: “The CMCBD makes the Central Market area a safer, more attractive, more desirable place to work, live, shop, locate a business and own property by delivering services beyond those the City of San Francisco can provide.” These supra-civic services seem to consist primarily of finding tasteful ways to displace the destitute.

The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

Experts trace the practice’s origins back to a drowsy 7-Eleven in British Columbia in 1985, where some clever Canadian manager played Mozart outside the store to repel parking-lot loiterers. Mozart-in-the-Parking-Lot was so successful at discouraging teenage reprobates that 7-Eleven implemented the program at over 150 stores, becoming the first company to battle vandalism with the viola. Then the idea spread to West Palm Beach, Florida, where in 2001 the police confronted a drug-ridden street corner by installing a loudspeaker booming Beethoven and Mozart. “The officers were amazed when at 10 o’clock at night there was not a soul on the corner,” remarked Detective Dena Kimberlin. Soon other police departments “started calling.” From that point, the tactic — now codified as an official maneuver in the Polite Policeman’s Handbook — exploded in popularity for both private companies and public institutions. Over the last decade, symphonic security has swept across the globe as a standard procedure from Australia to Alaska.

Today, deterrence through classical music is de rigueur for American transit systems. Transportation hubs from coast to coast play classical music for protective purposes. Brahms bounces through bus stops and baggage claims. Travelers buy Amtrak tickets to Baroque Muzak at Penn Station; Schubert scherzos grace the Greyhound waiting area in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal; Handel’s Water Music willows over the platforms of Atlanta’s MARTA subway system. Beyond big cities, the tactic extends to small towns and suburbs across the continent. In Duncan, British Columbia, Pavarotti’s tenor tones patrol the public park dispersing late-night hooligans, while the Lynchburg Library in Virginia clears its parking lot with a playlist highlighted by such scintillating soundtracks as Mozart for Monday Mornings and A Baroque Diet. In the most dramatic account of concerto crime-fighting, the Columbus, Ohio, YMCA reportedly dissolved a sidewalk brawl between two drug dealers simply by flipping on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Baroque music seems to make the most potent repellant. “[D]espite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff,” notes critic Scott Timberg, “the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.” Public administrators seldom speculate on the underlying reasons why the music is so effective but often tout the results with a certain pugnacious pride. As a Cleveland official explained, “There’s something about Baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate.” The police chief of Tacoma, Washington, echoed the same logic (and the same phrasing): “By playing classical music, we hope to create an unpleasant environment for criminals and gangster-wannabes.” One London subway observer voiced the punitive mindset behind the strategy in bluntest terms: “These juvenile delinquents are saying ‘Well, we can either stand here and listen to what we regard as this absolute rubbish, or our alternative — we can, you know, take our delinquency elsewhere.’”


Take your delinquency elsewhere could be the subtext under every tune in the classical crime-fighting movement. It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

Thus music returns to its oldest evolutionary function: claiming territory. Zoological research suggests that the original function of birdsong was not only attracting mates (as Darwin argued) but also asserting territorial rights. Experiments have demonstrated that birds usually refrain from entering regions where they hear recorded birdsong playing. These aggressive aspects of avian song extended to early humans. Primatologist Thomas Geissman speculates: “[E]arly hominid music may also have served functions resembling those of ape loud calls […] including territorial advertisement; intergroup intimidation and spacing.” The songs have changed, but the melody is the same — Warning: Private Property. Music carves public space into private territory, signaling certain areas are off limits to certain groups through orchestral “intimidation.” And no genre carries more intimidating upper-class associations than classical music.

The triumph of this symphonic segregation, however, suggests a larger defeat for classical music. We all know that music affects people below the level of active thought, whispering, if you will, to our unconscious mind. Marshaling the inhospitable associations of classical music as a gentrifying force risks further souring the public’s default attitude toward the art form from indifference to avoidance. In all likelihood, the orchestral intimidation strategy succeeds in driving away not only crowds of potential vagrants but also generations of potential audiences. Classical music may now discourage juvenile delinquents and juvenile devotees alike. It deters both loitering and listening.

Perhaps we once heard the strains of eternity in the symphonic classics. “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” E. M. Forster beamed, “is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” But when one hears Beethoven by loudspeaker on the Burger King sidewalk, the melody feels less like a summons to the sublime than an ugly reminder to “move along.”


Weaponized classical music is just the next step in the commodification of the genre. Today, most young people encounter classical music not as a popular art form but as a class signifier, a set of tropes in a larger system of encoded communication that commercial enterprises have exploited to remap our societal associations with orchestral sound. Decades of cultural conditioning have trained the public to identify the symphony as sonic shorthand for social status — and, by extension, exclusion from that status. The average American does not recognize the opening chords of The Four Seasons as the sound of spring but the sound of snobbery. On screen, Baroque is the background music for Old Money, High Society, and condescension. In essence, its music is not meant to be appreciated, but associated — and those associations are overwhelmingly elitist.

Once classical music was a welcome part of popular culture, famous enough to be parodied. Bugs Bunny spoofed The Barber of Seville; the defining trait of Peanuts pianist Schroeder was his admiration for Beethoven. By 2014, however, NBC’s Hannibal Lecter was butchering cadavers to Symphony No. 9 on primetime while preparing his signature recipe for osso buco. For contemporary Hollywood, classical music is the troubled calling of eccentric geniuses, precocious nine-year-olds, and registered psychopaths. Practicing the violin is a character quirk for bipolar detectives and criminal masterminds — but not a healthy habit for normal human beings. From cartoons to cannibals, our culture’s official representatives of classical music have taken a disturbing demographic shift.

In the mass-media era, the general public primarily experiences classical music through detached snippets of larger pieces extracted to lend their symbolic power to a commercial agenda. Artists and advertisers dissect classical works into short melodies — quotable passages severed from their original context — assembling a menu of musical leitmotifs to bolster their message with a desired tone, mood, or association. Like artificial flavoring for the ear, these symphonic excerpts infuse scenes with the synthetic emotion of choice. Need a touch of European elegance? Mozart will make that minivan commercial suddenly suave. Concerned a slow sequence leaves your audience snoozing? Wake them up with the “William Tell Overture” for instant adrenaline. Does your pancake promo lack punch? Reroute Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Valhalla to the International House of Pancakes.

The artistic consequences of such practices are devastating. Conscripting Wagner’s Valkyries as pancake saleswomen necessarily lowers their impact at the opera house. Some pieces are quoted so often that their secondary associations overtake and cheapen the original music. Carmina Burana exists as a permanent musical cliché. Orff’s “O Fortuna” evokes only kitsch; under which circumstances can a listener now have an authentic encounter with that choral-chanting calamity?

Such a sound-bite culture negates the definitive value of classical composition: the extended development of complex musical themes. Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

A prime example of classical music’s conflicted position in our capitalist culture is Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Dubbed the “Things Just Got Classy Song” by one columnist, the two-minute composition has been deployed for an astounding array of causes. IMDB lists 73 credits, with a résumé featuring primetime mainstays Smallville and ER, ad campaigns for Healthy Choice frozen broccoli and Pedigree dog food, and big-screen flicks ranging from Elysium and The Hangover Part II to a brief cameo in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. In a strange contrast, creative filmmakers and corporate advertisers exploit the prelude’s associations as a symbol of class status to conjure two contradictory emotions. On the one hand, movies deploy the prelude to underline the snobbish hypocrisy of the wealthy, emphasizing how the likable everyman is out of place in high society; conversely, commercials quote it to instill the shallow sales pitch with an elegant air, implicitly linking the product with the public’s inarticulate yearning for a better life. The prelude, in other words, is used simultaneously to skewer the hypocrisy of the upper class and stoke the public’s aspirations to join it.

A recent Cadillac CTS commercial even identifies Bach’s prelude by name. In the spot, a stylish couple drives down a swank street and turns on the radio. “Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major,” declares the enlightened driver — and the camera swivels to the vehicle’s interior, showing the piece’s title electronically illuminated on the dashboard. The implication, of course, is that you’re not just buying a car, but acquiring membership to an elite social class. It is an invitation to join an exclusive club, to become the type of person who recognizes Bach suites by name and number. With a few strokes of the cello, an inane car promo rises into a grand vision of a happier future: a promise of personal transformation through the power of personal shopping.


Where does this leave the prelude — and, by extension, classical music? From awakening Megasharks to selling Cadillacs, Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1 has been drafted to support many causes. But one cause it seldom supports is itself. After being pressed into the service of so many outside agendas — advertising, film, and police work — the prelude loses its identity as an independent work of art, demanding to be taken on its own terms. It is difficult for the prelude to provide any modern audience with a genuinely “pure” listening experience. This erosion is a now-common fate for popular art. Secondary associations gradually smother primary experiences. No matter how strong an individual piece, over time, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Market Street threaten to drain the vitality of even the greatest music until there’s nothing left. The coroner’s report: Death by quotation. After all, there are only so many times a melody can be used to harass the homeless, embellish a cannibal’s cookery, or promote the dignity of dog food before we forget it could also glorify the dignity of humanity.


Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is currently writing a book on California’s changing food culture.

LARB Contributor

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is currently writing a book on California’s changing food culture.


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