Kmart, once one of America’s largest big-box retailers, has been dying a long, quiet death for decades. CNN reports that just sixteen locations remain, and the retailer closed its last store in California just this weekend. But its store soundtrack has been having a moment.
Since 2015, the Internet Archive has hosted hours of Kmart in-store soundtracks from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s— much of it overwhelmingly inoffensive elevator music that gently jolts recollections of popcorn smell, endless fluorescent ceilings, and glorious toy aisles. The audio is a fascinating glimpse into the recent past and a pinnacle of Musak, the trademarked brand of background music whose name has gone the way of Q-tips and Kleenex, becoming a generic term for all background music. Kmart may be all but dead, but retail nostalgia lives on.
Get in the spirit of a very Kmart Christmas with this holiday-themed tape from 1991 and notice the dated ads that play between the easy-listening soft rock tracks. Announcements, read in a soothingly smooth voice, remind shoppers that smoking is permitted in the cafe but not the shopping floor. The voice promotes obsolete technology with a tone of authoritative pride.
"High-tech doesn't have to be expensive,” says one tape from 1989. “Just ask Martha Stewart, our entertainment and lifestyle consultant. She recommends trying our Gemini cable, VCR and telephone accessories available in a wide assortment of styles. Gemini: just another of the great names that's at home with Martha Stewart and You."
Some of the soothing announcements are narrated by Cecil Rutherford, whose obituary describes him with an iconic title: “the voice of Kmart.”
Retail nostalgia — The audio ephemera has pleased the crowd of internet users who listen to elevator music willingly. The Kmart tracks were embraced by Vaporwave artists of the 2010s. Specifically, they added fuel to the microgenre dubbed Mallsoft that idealizes the ‘90s shopping mall A E S T H E T I C and the mundane beauty of Nowhere, USA (see also: Tumblr blogs of abandoned malls). The soft rock soundtracks see second lives on Soundcloud and Spotify as musicians remix, sample, and splice it into lo-fi beats. Texas musician Juicy the Emissary even created an album called “Attention Kmart Choppers” in 2017. As the pandemic continues, we return to the audio associated with idle moments in elevators and endless shopping aisles.
Who saved all these? Mark Davis started pocketing the soundtrack tapes soon after getting a job at Kmart when he was 16. The collection, which he admits is strange, was in the interest of future nostalgia. “You get to know the music. Whether you like it or not, it carries you throughout the day,” he said on the For Keeps podcast, adding that the pre-recorded cassettes were played about ten times a day and changed monthly or weekly. When Davis went to college, the service desk workers saved the cassettes to feed his collection.
After college, he returned to Kmart in a management position before eventually switching to a career in IT. In 2008, the at-home archivist began regularly uploading footage to Youtube. Davis’ penchant for nostalgia is clear from his channel’s content: clips of his 1991 high school assemblies, news broadcasts, and tours of his many, many collections (Atari 2600 Cartridges, Western Electric telephones, and Texas Instruments Speak & Spell-type toys, to name a few).
In 2013, his third most popular video reintroduced the world to old-school Kmart soundtracks. When the 10-minute description of his collection started gaining traction, Davis agreed to upload the collection to the Internet Archive. The trove of Kmart nostalgia started getting media attention, inspiring Kmart aficionados such as Florida man Tom Schwarzrock to contribute to the collection. “Attention Kmart Shoppers” grew from 56 original cassettes to 149 audio tracks.
Mark Davis says that he laughs along with the people that joke about his unusuual fondness for collections (an MTV headline reads “This guy saved five years worth of Kmart’s in-store music, for some reason”). One of his top Youtube comments reads “you care more about Kmart than their CEO.” Davis, who continues to document retail or tech-related curiosities to this day, puts it simply: “I’m a collections person.”
WFH tunes — So if you want to re-live Kmart’s heyday as you WFH — or get in the shopping spirit as you scroll Amazon — there’s no better soundtrack than “Hey Kmart Shoppers.” Davis says that the chain started piping in its tunes via satellite in the ‘90s, and moved away from ambient soft-rock in favor of pop hits. Who’s to say the retailer would have had a different fate if it had continued with the easy-listening.