The Emperor’s Summer Clothes

A song was playing in the grocery store, and I couldn’t make out what it was. They play the music at a volume that seems precisely engineered for non-listening, loud enough to recognize the familiar hits but not so loud you have to pay attention.

This one was not familiar to me, except that I’d already not-quite-heard it in that grocery store before, and it had raised a weird suspicion in me. The grocery-store music is conservative and chart-certified, as it would be; the most distracting song I could remember was Diana Ross’ ” Last Time I Saw Him ,” which caught my attention because it might have been 30 years since the previous time I’d heard it, on AM radio.

Usually, the drugstore is where I hear the AM hits I last heard in the ‘70s.

But this song in the Giant was not an oldie. There was a lot of reverb in it, a wobbly excess of reverb, to go with a big crashing melody that was also too much, and there was a singer with a deep stentorian voice singing words that seemed to be stock pop phrases, in the overwrought persona of a romantic loser—and I suddenly thought that maybe what I was hearing was Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields.

The Magnetic Fields are like three standard deviations away from the center of the Giant store-music bell curve, success- and audience-wise. But they did slip one of Merritt’s sour bonbons to the general public once, via Peter Gabriel—in a Jennifer Lopez movie , no less. Had they gone and made a hit while I wasn’t looking? I had been out of the country. Stranger things happen. I heard the Jesus and Mary Chain in Macy’s once, in the ‘80s, thanks to John Hughes .

Was it the Magnetic Fields? I was pretty sure this maybe-Stephin Merritt person was singing something in there about how something “cuts me like a knife,” which would be D-plus Magnetic Fields material. But obviously the singer wasn’t singing this at face value—the rhymes were too rhyme-y, the moodiness too moody, the whole thing an obvious sendup of the form. Who else would write an insincere pop anthem and sell it that hard? I wrote down a few fragments of the lyrics on the bottom of the shopping list, to check.

Later on, I found the crumpled list in my pocket and got on the Internet. “The girls…” “…cool of the evening light…”

Huh. Bruce Springsteen . Insincerity is as insincerity does.