I Miss the Muzak
When the Curmudgeon was in his youth (this, mind you, was in the olden days, before the invention of so many of the life-improving advancements we now enjoy like Candy Crush, avatars, sexting, Bitcoin, autotune, vaping, face-changing apps, virtual reality, fidget spinners, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey), there was a company called Muzak. It provided a constant stream of the blandest music ever created, designed specifically for corporate offices, department stores, restaurants, hotels, and especially elevators. In fact, it was mockingly called “elevator music.” The idea was to create an undemanding, unchallenging musical soundscape that would facilitate a calm, professional atmosphere.
Back then, those of us who were music lovers made constant fun of this anemic wash of sound. The music had no bite, no meat, no statement, and no surprises. Each song was familiar, each arrangement nondescript, and you could barely tell when one track ended and another began. When there were vocals, they were executed by a perfectly blended group of undistinguished singers with perfect diction and no discernable accents, singing a series of words and notes without embellishment. It was clean. It was soft. It was very white. And it was everywhere.
And, as it is with so many things we fail to appreciate while we have them, I find myself strangely missing Muzak these days. Or, at least, I miss the concept of Muzak—the idea that people who are dining, or shopping, or checking into a hotel room don’t need to be agitated or charged up so much as they need to feel that they’re in a peaceful place where they’d like to stay for a while. It’s true, the content was musically indefensible. But it was easy on one’s nerves.
Today, the musical cotton candy has been replaced by a variety of jarring, intrusive soundtracks.
In the new hipster hotels you’ll likely be subjected to a steady flow of trance music. Trance is pretty easy to compose. First, come up with a hypnotic rhythm. Repeat it eleven million times. Then pair it with a chord progression: first chord, second chord, back to the first chord, back to the second chord, back to the first chord, back to the second chord, and if you’ve tuned out at this point in this article, you’ve experienced the general sensation of trance music. Except that it’s really loud.
If you’d like to get away from the hustle and bustle of the day by stepping into a quaint little bistro, be prepared for the calming, centering sounds of reggae or hip hop, with their blends of yelled vocals and incessant thudding beats that the patrons seem to hate but the employees seem to love. Your local clothing store is likely to provide a nonstop medley of dance music to enhance your shopping experience, blasted at a dance-club volume. So much for “background music.”
I’ve even heard high-energy pop pervading the atmosphere at airports, grocery stores, and could-have-been-nice restaurants. How are we to digest our food with some over-produced teen singer howling through a ditty detailing a white-hot sexual encounter?
The Muzak company shut its doors years ago. So, sadly, there’s no going back. But for nostalgia’s sake, I’ve tracked down some of the kinds of recordings that used to annoy me but that I now crave (see below). For a bit of a time-travel experience, try listening to this stuff while shopping, eating, or riding an elevator, and you’ll see what it was like when blissful musical blandness pervaded the air. Your ears might be offended . . . but your blood pressure will thank you.