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When I was a youth, I thought “muzak” was a generic term of contempt, invented for the airy, tranquilizing, impersonal sounds that wafted from tinny speakers in the elevators and grocery stores. Imagine my surprise: It was a company that beamed mood music to its clients, who wanted to create a content and anesthetized climate. It didn’t take long before a movie could tell you everything you needed to know about a place or its inhabitants by using the soft wash of “easy listening,” playing in the background just above the threshold of perception. Do not trust these people! They are part of the Establishment! The do-not-fold-spindle-mutilate punch-card war machine with its plastic poisons! They are frightened by rock and roll, although the daughter of the uptight dentist is probably cool!
They had a point. Muzak could be awful, but it revealed the flaws of the source material. I remember hearing “A Horse With No Name” in Muzak arrangement, and it was hilarious; I could imagine the studio violinists sawing away at those two notes and thinking this is what I went to Julliard for.
No study of postwar culture is complete without examining the easy-listening genre, because it was the soundtrack for many of the Greatest Generation. Swing and big band were spent forces. Rock and roll had some appeal, depending on the tune. Country was too hick. Jazz had become angular and weird. On the other hand, the hi-fi sets had a new sound, and a fella could style himself as an audiophile, although they didn’t use the word. They were “into” hi-fi like people were “into” computers in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a way to signal technical know-how and up-to-date interests. Just as you brought a friend over to look at your new graphics card, they’d call over the neighbor to listen to this Admiral stereo demonstration record. Listen to that separation! You can hear the violas where they actually sit!
But what did they listen to? Lush grown-up swank romantic instrumentals. Studio orchestras doing show tunes or old standards. The stentorian choruses of Mitch Miller or Robert Shaw, or Les Baxter sci-fi wordless oohing and aahing over swooping strings. Sophisticated Nelson Riddle style, ingenious Mancini. For manly moments, a story song by Marty Robbins or Johnny Horton.
And, of course, Gleason.
Jackie Gleason lent his name to a long series of lush mood-music albums, the best of which are anchored by Bobby Hackett, an extraordinary trumpet player. They’re all soaked in melancholic rue and boozy reminiscence. I discovered these disks many years ago and have found that they have a strange power over people who’ve never heard them: The songs are like an incantation that summons up an era, a spirit, an attitude, acceptance of the difficult conclusions reached by the human heart. It’s utterly commercial, of course, manipulated, manufactured. Muzak, I suppose. But it’s the best of a long-derided genre, and makes you think: Rock is for children. This is for grown-ups.
I mention this because they restarted the gas fire in the lobby of my office building today. There were a few people sitting around the fire, a few having a confab at a table. Nothing like the old busy days, but better. The lobby speakers, long silent, now played old swank easy listening. I’ve no idea why, or who programs this. Could’ve been actual Muzak. But it was a wonderful comfort, a respite from the angry boasts and synthetic constructions of modern pop. If you knew the genre, you could peg the recording to the style of the guitar and its placement in the mix, the dryness of the bass, the precise amount of reverb in the strings. Probably 1968. Late-period mood music. Doomed to diminish to a niche audience that had to settle for Mantovani compilations.
For a while, though, it was the Culture. It’s the counterculture now.Published in