The shopping mall is a cultural and commercial phenomenon in America that most can relate to in some way or another.
City X tracks the history of the modern shopping mall through perspectives of people living in a real, yet unnamed, city. Through voices, sounds, observations, and ruminations all scored to Muzak, the universal mall experience comes to life, for better or for worse.
City X was commissioned by Hearing Voices with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It was first broadcast in a shortened form on NPR's Living on Earth in 2004. The version presented here is the full length version of the piece.
Jonathan Mitchell is the creator and producer of The Truth, a podcast that makes short films without pictures. He's contributed a wide range of pieces-documentaries, fictional stories, non-narrated sound collages, and original music- to all sorts of public radio programs, including Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life, The Next Big Thing, and The Story. He also made the music and sound design for two episodes of Nova on PBS. Mitchell studied music composition at University of Illinois and Mills College. He lives with his wife and big fluffy cat in New York City.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Jonathan Mitchell
What was the initial inspiration for City X? Were you a mall rat growing up yourself? (What was your favorite store?!!!)
I was born and raised in the city where I recorded the piece and the mall was a pretty central part of my life growing up. When I was very young, I would wander around a toy store called Circus World for hours while my mom shopped for clothes. When I was older, I went there with my friends on the weekends. We spent most of our time at Aladdin's Castle (a video arcade) or Spencer's (a tacky gift shop that sells lava lamps and sex toys). We'd see movies there, check out the record stores, that kind of stuff.
I hung out at the mall partly because there weren't that many other options available; our city was fairly isolated, and the mall had pretty much put the downtown stores out of business. But I also hung out there because it offered me a sense of freedom, especially in that period before I was old enough to drive. It was a place where I could walk around by myself, and my parents didn't seem to mind. Looking back on it, it was sort of like training wheels for the real world.
After I finished college, I moved to a large city on the west coast and lived in a neighborhood with all kinds of locally owned stores, coffee shops, a farmer's market, and a movie theater. There was a much stronger feeling of cultural vitality there. I had no real reason to ever go to a mall and no desire either.
But I would still go back to my hometown to visit my family for the holidays and often those trips would include a visit to the mall. Having been away from that environment, I found myself observing the mall from a more critical perspective than I had growing up, and I noticed a lot of things that I thought might make for a good radio piece.
We hear from such a diverse cast of characters throughout the piece. How did you find them?
A lot of the people in the piece are my friends and family members. My friend Rebecca Lee walked around the mall with me and we recorded our visit, stopping along the way to interview the people who were shopping and working there.
I also interviewed the owner of what was once the biggest department store in town, who was also very involved in getting the mall built. I interviewed the city historian, who has an office at the public library, and I talked with a woman who was working as a lobbyist for legislation that was intended to improve the downtown. I also interviewed the head of the city's chamber of commerce -- I just walked into his office one day and he gave me a 30-minute interview right then and there.
When you began producing City X, what were the most important aspects of the mall experience that you wanted to bring to listeners, and how did you figure out the best way to accomplish this?
I wanted to create a document of something that was familiar to me, in particular something that expressed what it was like to grow up in a mid-sized city in the midwest. The city where I lived was fairly isolated, surrounded by cornfields, and I remember feeling like all the really important stuff in the world was always happening someplace else. One of the things that often countered that feeling was when I saw a big chain store open up. In my mind, the chain stores gave our town a sense of legitimacy. Of course the irony is that the chain stores ended up eroding the city's sense of a unique identity.
I thought that an interesting way to approach this idea was to never name the city, to generalize the descriptions of the city to the point where the piece could be talking about any number of places. The piece intentionally leaves out certain details with the hope that people will fill in the gaps with their own experiences or expectations. It's an extension of the notion that people are creating the pictures in their head because it's radio; in this piece, people are also creating many of the narrative details, too. The intention was to create a more personalized experience for the listener, while also using that as a way to make this larger point about the homogenization of our culture.
There's a real playfulness to the piece, yet it explores very significant, even "serious" changes in our society. How did you think about balancing these two elements?
The balance came about very instinctually, based on what I thought was the most effective use of the tape I had. When I go through the tape I collect, I look for the bits that evoke a strong emotion in me. Sometimes I find what the person is saying to be funny, sometimes I find it profound, and sometimes the person is saying something that I totally disagree with. But the most important thing is that I have a strong emotional reaction to it.
I enjoy trying to look at subjects from many different angles, exploring how different perspectives can contradict one another, yet still be equally valid. My own attitude about the mall is actually quite complex, a mixture of humor, nostalgia, admiration, disgust, and melancholy. And I think the balance in this piece is a pretty good representation of how I feel.
There's also constant humor and easygoing feel throughout the piece. Are you hoping that to some degree, people simply have fun with City X, and enjoy the nostalgia of thinking back on their own mall experiences while listening?
I think humor is a really good way to draw people in, to help them care about what's being said. And I prefer to listen to work that has a nice feel to the way it's constructed, that has a compelling flow to the information being presented. I think of what I'm creating primarily as an aural experience.
I anticipated that there might be some people who have a very nostalgic reaction to the piece. But nostalgia for it's own sake isn't very interesting to me. I wanted to use the mall as a metaphor for larger ideas, such as how we think about the future in relation to the past, and how we choose the things we want. I was also interested in the idea of creating a piece that documented this experience for people who aren't very familiar with the modern shopping mall as it exists in mid-sized cities of the American midwest. These might be people living in big cities, or people living outside the United States, or people living 100 years from now. I was trying to document human behavior in this one specific context, observing that behavior in order to gain another perspective on what it means to be human.
What did you learn from making City X in terms of production techniques?
I feel that most of the production techniques I used in this piece are things I've done before. In formal terms, I think of this piece as a study in ways of sustaining a montage. I liked the form the piece took because it often allowed me to have some fun digressions, like the section when we're in the food court, or when we're at the Zoltar machine. I was really interested in the idea of using the same tape in several different places, developing themes through the use of repetition, like in a piece of music. I thought a lot about the rhythm and momentum of the piece, and creating musical phrases by editing the voices in a certain way. The voices are constantly changing. I think the longest any one person talks is 40 seconds, and that only happens once.
This piece explores some underlying notions that I have always been interested in. One is the idea of creating an opera with no singing, by exploring the musical setting of spoken text, treating natural conversation as music. Another is the idea of "cinematic music" -- using techniques generally associated with film in a quasi-musical context. I'm especially interested in applying these ideas to audio documentary, using interview material and recordings of natural speech as the source material.
I'm also interested in what one might call meta-narratives. I use that term loosely, to mean narratives that are generalized and could apply to many different sets of specific circumstances. I think documentary is a perfect place area to explore this idea, because the specificity of the source material (a particular person is actually saying what you hear) creates a nice tension with the generalized nature of the presentation.
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