In Praise of Muzak

 

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. 

But.

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. 

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  1. Hugh Member
    Hugh
    @Hugh

    The way you write is a lot like Muzak. Soft, tranquilizing, etc etc.

    Don’t stop.

    • #1
  2. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Until I read the relevant chapter in The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, I did not know that Muzak came from a company of that name, was indeed beamed to other companies that actually paid for it, or that these wanted it for the verified reason that Muzak works. It does what it is supposed to do. 

    Now I want to go back to that book – which I have had for at least two decades and which had been, quite unintentionally, a splendid warm-up for visiting the ex-U.S.S.R. – and see what else might now or soon be the counterculture. Certainly not “tattoos.” Probably not “white lipstick,” although don’t count it out! “Pepper mills (huge)”? Nope. “Muscle cars”? I’m optimistic.

    • #2
  3. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Hugh (View Comment):

    The way you write is a lot like Muzak. Soft, tranquilizing, etc etc.

    Don’t stop.

    Thanks! I won’t. 

    • #3
  4. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    “Late-period mood music. Doomed to diminish to a niche audience that had to settle for Mantovani compilations.”

    Mr. Lileks, your writing is always inspirational, even if the muzak is…not.

    “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.”

    A return to life pre-hysteria in any way is comforting in countless ways.

    Thank you for another wonderful post.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Just as I hit the word Muzak in the article, Gleason’s “You’re My Greatest Love” started playing on the stereo in my head. ( 8-track. No equalizer control. I gotta spring for an upgrade.) Otherwise known as the theme song for “The Honeymooners.”

    • #5
  6. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    My wife tells me she dances up and down the aisles now that the oldies they play at the supermarket are from our era, 80’s and 90’s.

    The other day at the diner my daughter made a face and complained about the music. I strained to hear over the clanking of dishes and said, “Black Sabbath, War Pigs.” And it was the original Ozzy version, not some Muzak remake . . . although that would have been fun too.

    • #6
  7. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Funny that a riff on Muzak would only get to Mantovani in the last sentence.

    Mantovani in an elevator makes me realize that as sane and happy as I think myself to be, there is still that small dark corner that yearns for Götterdämmerung, Ragnorak, the return of disco or some other dramatic horrible end to all good things and that pressing the button to my floor will not hasten my escape.

    • #7
  8. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    “A Horse With No Name” brings back memories.  Vague, boring memories.  Now there was a song meant to be heard, arranged of course for violin and clarinet (no vocals), while the dentist zzzzzzz’d your upper back molar.  It’s a mantra.  It’s a song that you breathe to when jogging the last quarter mile to your apartment.  A classic, right there with “Timothy” and “Song Sung Blue.”  It came with a warning sticker: “Newlyweds: no children were ever conceived while this music played on a radio or stereo.”  

    Of course, to certain Minnesotans, it is a cowboy and western tune.  Let me also remind you that in Minnesota, cheese is a vegetable and a fruit.

    • #8
  9. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I have always liked “Easy listening” 

    • #9
  10. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    I had a job for a couple of months at A&P (the grocery store) headquarters.  My job was pretty quiet at times, so I would walk across the hall to the Eight O’Clock coffee testing area.  That is a story in itself.  I learned so much about coffee just chatting with the two guys who were tasters.  But like a department store, there was always music playing.  Never too loud, but you knew it was there.  One day as I walked in the hall (I think I worked in the basement…or at least it felt like the basement), I noticed a dimmer switch.  The switchplate was steel.  There was a number dial printed on it and one word: Muzak.

    I discreetly turned it down a couple of notches.  Still there, but less so.

    • #10
  11. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Oh, and here is probably the best use of Muzak ever:

     

     

    • #11
  12. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    James Lileks: In Praise of Muzak

    No.  Hearing a Muzaked version of a Led Zeppelin song while shopping in Food Lion is the ultimate in destroying one’s formative years . . .

    • #12
  13. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    One of the strange joys of life and an essential part of growing up is that there are so many things that exist in your life before there is a word that defines them. Once you learn the word, the reality of the thing seems to change. Musak is one of those strange things. It existed long before I knew its name. I don’t know if I was first annoyed with it when I heard contemporary music muzzeled by the format or maybe I learned the word within a context of derision that I accepted. It was everywhere but had no name for me as a small child.

    Now the sounds that are forced on people who are put on hold on digital phone answering systems, which you called “hold music” in your bleat are an abomination far worse than anything Musak would ever impose on us.

    • #13
  14. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    Oh, and here is probably the best use of Muzak ever

    Yeah, when someone says Muzak, the first thing I think of is The Girl From Ipanema

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    You can download many hours of authentic classic Muzak for free from YouTube if you like it so dang much.

    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=muzak

    Ok, I cannot tell a lie. I have actually downloaded some of these and had them playing in the background at work when I’m all alone and I need some “sonic wallpaper”.

    Specifically, Stimulus Progression.

    • #15
  16. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    I spent a summer working in an office that had Muzak or something like it playing softly all the time on the ceiling-mounted speakers.

    At some point one of my cow-orkers (HT Dilbert) discovered a pattern that seemed intentional. About 2PM every day the BPM (beats per minute) increased quite a bit.  So we all became aware of this and discovered that the music did the same thing every day. There was a pattern, but the post-lunch bump in tempo was the most obvious.

    Our theory (no Internet to research such questions back then) was that it was intended to break us out of our food coma from lunch.

    A stranger visiting our office would have been puzzled by the simultaneous cry of “there it goes” by people all over the office in the early afternoon.

    • #16
  17. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    Oh, and here is probably the best use of Muzak ever

    Yeah, when someone says Muzak, the first thing I think of is The Girl From Ipanema

    Aka “Daba Daba” music, because of the wordless singing usually found in post-’66 Brazilian-flavored  MOR and instrumentals.

    BTW, this is a subject distinct from production or library music, which has charms of its own. That’s the stuff they wrote by the yard for industrials or commercials, and it exists in a strange netherworld: never meant to be played except in a particular context. You couldn’t buy it.

    Now and then it summed up an era better than the tunes in the top 100. If I had to explain 1968 to anyone, it would be with this.

     

    It has it all: peppy brass, daba daba singing, aggressive flutes, wah-wah guitar. Music for the squares to enjoy Goldie Hawn’s dancing.

    • #17
  18. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Or perhaps this:

    Would’ve made a great soundtrack for a swank cigarette commercial, with young moderns walking hand in hand; he’s got sideburns and a turtleneck; she’s blonde and carefree but also sensible in a middle-class way. Listen to those first 40 seconds: there’s not a single original idea, but when it slides into those warm trombones to wrap up the A section, you feel completely satisfied.

    It seems as if it’s going to repeat, but it brings in a new theme, and the way the smooth Cigarette Satisfaction Brass slides in at :58 is just a work of commercial art.

    • #18
  19. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    One of the many things I miss from the 80s is…big giant speakers the size of Stonehenge. Now everything is a crappy pair of tweeters and a subwoofer.  I wasted many an hour in my youth laying on the floor with my head between two monstrously large speakers listening to the sweet sweet sound of guitar played loud.

    • #19
  20. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    Music for the squares to enjoy Goldie Hawn’s dancing.

     

     

    • #20
  21. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Metalheaddoc (View Comment):

    One of the many things I miss from the 80s is…big giant speakers the size of Stonehenge. Now everything is a crappy pair of tweeters and a subwoofer. I wasted many an hour in my youth laying on the floor with my head between two monstrously large speakers listening to the sweet sweet sound of guitar played loud.

    The problem may be that you’re not getting GOOD small speakers, and a subwoofer.  I have a stockpile of Polk RM-3000 which are likely the best speakers I’ve ever heard, and I never get tired of them.  They’ll also get quite loud, but not so easy to put your head between them and get proper bass.  (Many people don’t realize that proper bass isn’t BOOM BOOM BOOM! it’s something you feel more than hear, which is why headphones are no good.  I get people sometimes who don’t think my setup has much bass, and then we go outside and I point out that the windows and doors are vibrating.)

    • #21
  22. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    See “Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood” for an argument that streaming music services “have arrived to fill the gap as personal care products for affect management and mood elevation.”

    It seems to me that, for a moment, “New Age” music was the new Musak. No need to re-record/ modify music by Enya.

    • #22
  23. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    Oh, and here is probably the best use of Muzak ever

    Yeah, when someone says Muzak, the first thing I think of is The Girl From Ipanema

    Wasn’t that playing in the store elevator in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith?

    • #23
  24. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    The best part of listening to Gleason, Mitch Miller, and the others of the genre is that it makes Stan Freberg’s parodies funnier. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” still destroys me. I want a T-shirt that says “Smart Aleck Yankee Drummer.”

    A little like listening to Mozart and Beethoven makes P.D.Q. Bach funnier. Or contemporary music and Weird Al. The parodies make you appreciate both the original and the witty version.

    • #24