Product

In the afternoon, Elfi Mehan drives me over to Redmond, where one of
Muzak’s contract studios is located (between offices for Microsoft and
Nintendo). As we’re crossing Lake Washington, a queen-size futon flops
off a truck into our lane, but she coolly swerves to avoid it.

When we reach the studio, a session is in progress. Guitarist John Morton
is bent over his instrument, dubbing guitar licks over rhythm mixes. This
is an important step in the long process of recording Muzak, because
Morton’s guitar often replaces the vocal; singers, remember, have no place
on the Environmental Channel.

After a few bars, the background track is stopped and rewound. First he
does “Next Time,” by Gladys Knight; then a tune from Boz Scaggs’ latest
release, which will probably reach Muzak before it hits commercial radio.
Morton’s guitar line is tight and precise, accented with vibrato and a
shade of wah-wah.

“Ten years ago, I remember getting shot down for playing vibrato melodies,”
says Morton, whose other credits include “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” by
Traffic, the Bo Deans’ “Good Things,” and “8:05” by none other than Moby
Grape. Adds Donny Marrow, who owns the studio and who produces about
half of Muzak’s background titles, “there’s a lot more expression in the music
now.”

Finally, a slightly raunchy but familiar groove comes on. It’s “Black Cow,”
by Steely Dan, an instantly recognizable cover version, except that
Morton’s guitar substitutes for Donald Fagen’s icy lyric. From the Muzak
rendition, you’d never guess that “Black Cow” is about a not-so-nice girl;
instead, it’s been transmuted into a toe-tapping happy tune, purified for
mass consumption.

“Wow,” Morton says, between takes. “I wanna dance.”

An old version of “Black Cow” is already in the Muzak library, but it’s
being re-recorded to reduce what Marrow calls “the hoke factor.” Becker and
Fagen translate especially well into Muzak’s unique idiom, says Andy
Suzuki, who arranged “Black Cow” for Muzak. The duo have 33 other titles in
the Muzak library, and much of the rest of Muzak sounds like Steely Dan
with the black irony excised, along with any other potentially disturbing
element. Steely Dan on Prozac, perhaps. But one wonders how Muzak will
adapt to a generation that listens to Aphex Twin or Nine Inch Nails for
relaxation.

Arranging a song for Muzak is like cooking for 50 people. Suzuki has to
please everyone to some degree, but it’s more important that he offend
nobody. His job is to take the edges off of songs. Vocals are removed and
replaced by a suitably anonymous instrument, usually piano, guitar,
woodwinds or vibes. Punchy rhythm parts are deflated a bit; distorted
guitars and overly brassy horns are filed down. High, squeaky passages are
lowered an octave, and dissonant chords are sweetened. “Their standards are
very specific, for what they want stuff to sound like,” he says. The end
product, nevertheless, must sound close to the original.

“I want it to sound lush, to have depth, be elegant, and not wash out the
original integrity of the song,” he says.

Suzuki is something of a Muzak warhorse himself, having arranged or played
horns on more than 700 tracks. “I have the dubious distinction,” he says,
“of being one of the world’s most listened-to horn players.” He hears
himself in airports, supermarkets, malls. “It’s not something I really talk
about.”


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!