Like a surprise party or a mortar attack, a night of Christmas shopping begins with noise.
On Wednesday night outside Bloomingdale's, it's supplied by the Salvation Army sentinel who uses one hand to ash his Newport and the other to ring his bell.
JinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingleDoIhaveanythingsmallerthanatwenty?jinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingleNeedtosaveafewbucksforAuntieAnne'sjinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingle . . .
The sound registers at 83 decibels. But Christmas gets even louder inside Tysons Corner Center's decked halls in McLean, Va., which makes it hard to think clearly, which makes it hard to shop sensibly, which is exactly the point.
Studies show that noisy retail environments help trigger impulse purchases, and this year, retailers have the volume cranked accordingly. To measure the ceremonial dissonance, you'll need a decibel counter and a little context. A hair dryer huffs at 80 decibels. A lawn mower roars around 90. And in that gap, you have the Gap, where strident in-store music contributes to the bustling sales floor's 81 decibels.
It's disorienting, it's annoying, it's manipulative and it's kinda magical. At the mall, hundreds of melodies spill from hundreds of stores, softening into one great, big, sloppy, endless everysong. Bing, Mariah, Run D.M.C. — love you guys. But the great American Christmas carol is noise.
It rings through the corridors of Tysons, where Brad Pitt, coiffed and goateed like Jesus, stares you down from a dozen glowing billboards advertising Chanel No. 5. You can hear him in your mind's ear, reciting the Dada-Hallmark poetry made famous in a television ad you've endured a kerbillion times since Thanksgiving.
It's not a journey. Every journey ends but we go on . . .
Yes, Bradley of Nazareth. We go on. To the MAC Cosmetics counter in the middle of Bloomie's, where two sound systems are doing battle at 76 decibels. The department store has holiday carols softly flurrying from ceiling speakers, but the cosmetics counter has its own stereo, which means Lady Gaga is sassing eight maids a-milking because she was born this way.
"It's louder when it's busier," says MAC makeup artist Sarah Weinhardt of her counter's stereo. "Or when we like a song."
Weinhardt has the power to turn it up. So does Hami Kandi, a stubbly 19-year-old who spends his days at Sunglass Hut helping other teens pick out the right pair of Wayfarers. On Black Friday, Kandi invited his buddy Fardin — a.k.a. DJ Velocity — to bring in a set of speakers and spin dance records.
"The mall management came, like, two or three times," Kandi says. "But as soon as they left, we turned it back up again."
A representative at Tysons says retailers are asked to make sure their music is audible only inside the store, but no shopping mall in America could ever hope to enforce that rule. Cacophony is too good for business.
"In that state of disorientation and accelerated heartbeat, that overstimulatedness, there's often an urge to just break out and act," says George Prochnik, author of "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise." "It triggers our whole network of impulsive responses."
But instead of reflexively snatching that YOLO beanie at Spencer's, try closing your eyes and thinking of the mall as a gallery of sonic information. What happens when you try to navigate it by listening? (Just be careful not to stumble into the ladies being threaded at the Perfect Eyebrows kiosk — a few hours of Christmas shopping brings us all a little closer to hearing loss, but nobody should go home blinded.)
And no peeking. You'll notice the hushed stores stand out as much as the raucous ones. The Apple Store hums along at a practical, upbeat 69 decibels. Nordstrom keeps it classy at 68 — until the anti-theft sensor by the exit beeps in rhythm with the Sinatra tune piped in from above.
At 54 decibels, furrier Rosendorf/Evans boasts the most tranquil showroom at Tysons, its racks of mink and carpeted floors eating up noise from outside. Brenda Davis says she prefers working in the back, where the mall's clamor doesn't bleed in. Sitting at the store's front desk, "I feel like I should be in a disco with a drink in my hand," she says.
The vestibule of Garage, a boutique for teens, feels like a nightclub, with music pumping at 83 decibels. Manager Sarah Booker explains that she and her employees "have headsets that allow us to talk to each other so we don't need to yell over each other or the music."
Outside, similar devices prove useless. "WHAT!?" a tween shouts into her cell. "Dad! What? DAD! Text me! I can't hear you! TEXT ME I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"
George He and Sharon Seun stroll past in a daze. They've just exited Abercrombie & Fitch, the most ear-bruising store at this mall and countless others. "It's too loud," says He, clutching his Abercrombie purchases. "We can't hear each other in there," Seun says.
House music throbs inside Abercrombie & Fitch at 86 decibels, plus the entire place reeks of Fierce, the store's signature cologne, which is poured into little vaporizing machines and puffed out onto the sales floor.
Somewhere between courtesy and zen, manager Steve Ruehl says he's grown numb to the smells, the noise, the endless complaints about the smells and the noise. There's nothing he can do. Corporate dictates the music's volume — a volume that's maintained at every Abercrombie & Fitch, coast to coast, open to close, all year round.
"It's actually supposed to be louder than this," Ruehl says in a regular speaking voice, which here, qualifies as under his breath.
The beat won't stop until 11 p.m. when Ruehl closes two sets of double doors and counts out his registers, bringing the night a little bit closer to silent.