And then begins
A snivel on the violins.

–Philip Larkin

The history of postwar capitalism is the history of consumer desires and
their gratification. Great fortunes have been made by entrepreneurs who
gave (well, sold) the people what the people wanted or needed or thought
they could not live without: The telephone. The automobile. The phonograph
player.

Only two companies have ever prospered from products that almost no one
admits to liking. One is Hormel, maker of Spam. The other is Muzak, L.P.,
whose infamous “background music” has saturated America’s public spaces
and workplaces for 61 years.

Within a decade after Muzak, Inc. was founded in 1934, its name had entered
general usage as a noun, the way Kleenex, Xerox, and Rollerblade have
since. Unfortunately, “muzak” rather quickly became a pejorative. If music
was sappy or annoying, then it was Muzak.

You would notice it at the worst of times: when the pilot announced a
“brief delay,” or in the middle of some painful dental procedure. Suddenly
your ears caught the syrupy swell of strings emanating from invisible
speakers somewhere overhead. It was anything but calming. Only Andy Warhol
ever publicly confessed to liking it. “I think they should play it on MTV,”
he once said.

They already do. Contrary to popular belief, Muzak’s repertoire did not
freeze with “You Light Up My Life.” On the current 5,000-song playlist,
one finds titles by the Gin Blossoms, Cocteau Twins, and Cowboy Junkies.
Coming soon to an airport lounge near you: the theme from “Friends.”

Ted Nugent — ever in search of a fat, slow-moving target — once offered to
buy the company for $10 million, just for the pleasure of erasing the
tapes. The offer was ridiculously low (Muzak’s revenues approach $200
million a year), and he would find few tapes left to erase. The music is
all on CD and hard disks, for one thing. And a new generation of Muzak
engineers and programmers, mostly baby boomers and younger, has seized
control and reshaped the Muzak sound — played on Muzak’s “Environmental
Channel,” the oldest and best-known of sixteen separate Muzak channels — to
their own tastes.

“We all remember stepping into the dentist’s office and hearing “Hard Day’s
Night” done by the 101 Strings,” says Steve Ward, a 39-year-old
programming manager. “We don’t want to hear that again.”

“The demand is not for string versions of those songs,” he adds, “the
demand is for the real thing.”

Almost the real thing, anyway. In their Environmental Channel incarnations,
songs’ lyrics are replaced by soothing guitar lines or soft horn melodies.
Vibes, to be frank, are used a little too often, but the 101 Strings —
once the signature element of Muzak’s sound — have been sent home.
Elevator music is dead.

As Muzak evolves, narrowing the gap between itself and popular music, it
has become pop’s doppelganger. On the new Muzak, a Steely Dan tune still
sounds like a Steely Dan tune; Bonnie Raitt like Bonnie Raitt, more or
less. But not quite. Herewith, an exploration of Muzak’s parallel universe
of pop.


Do you think the tides of Muzak are ebbing or rising? Are we witnessing the dilution of rock into mere atmosphere or is Muzak just an unfortunate musical tangent? Can you recover the essence of a song once it’s been Muzaked? Whether you’re a rocker, hummer, or hipster, you can take part in FEED’s online discussions. Just click on the Feedbag icon below and start posting!