I was walking along the Main with a friend yesterday when he pointed out that music was being broadcast from loudspeakers attached to the street’s lampposts. “That’s so weird,” he said.
The fact that many of Montreal’s commercial streets broadcast music in December is one of those seasonal oddities I notice and then forget as soon as the snow melts. Usually, it’s schmaltzy holiday music that is being played, but yesterday on St. Laurent, a DJ was in charge of the programming, part of a daylong celebration of the street’s official “reopening” after more than a year of construction. My musical vocabulary is limited, so I’ll describe the sound as a variety of beeps, bloops, wails and franglais (“How I love it here / I love beaucoup”). You could listen to it without interruption from Sherbrooke St. right up to Mount Royal.
Yesterday’s music was enjoyable because it was so bizarre. It complemented the oddball performers who were making their way down the snowy street, like the man on stilts who shouted something across the street a guy riding a penny-farthing, or the bright yellow reindeer who was accompanied by people handing out flyers urging us to bank at Desjardins.
Now that I think of it, though, isn’t it strange to wander down Wellington St. in Verdun, or Mount Royal Avenue on the Plateau, or even Ste. Catherine St. downtown while listening to some tinny Bing Crosby or even, if whoever in charge of the music is lazy, a procession of Top 40 hits? I can’t think of any other major city that pipes in music to its commercial streets.
If I had to guess, the reasoning behind this music is that it helps create a unified atmosphere throughout a street’s shopping district, similar to that of an indoor mall. Urban commercial streets have been transformed in other ways to resemble malls — witness the Plaza Saint Hubert‘s awnings and “modernized” façades, installed in 1984 when Montreal’s high streets were at their nadir — but their success has generally been questionable.
Politically, this is another example of a double standard in Montreal’s official treatment of public space. It’s illegal for stores to play music outside (though this is mostly unenforced, so many do anyway) yet merchants’ associations have free reign to subject pedestrians to their music.