Listening to Muzak

What Suzuki creates, with each arrangement, is not a single piece of music
but a component of a larger whole, a brick in Muzak’s wall of sound. The
differences between individual bricks are minimal, at best. Donny Marrow
remembers that Muzak was playing in the delivery room, as his 5-year-old
daughter was being born. It was a Beatles song, Marrow remembers. He has no
idea which one.

Every day, on average, Muzak devours another three pop songs, adding 1,000
tracks a year to its Environmental Channel. In their new renditions, the
songs are close enough to the original to be recognized, but still somehow
anonymous. A Muzak press release calls this “tunesmithing for commerce,”
but something more is going on here. As it reinterprets pop music —
creating what Joseph Lanza calls “metarock” — Muzak cannot help but alter
our perception of the originals.

Real Muzak is not normally available in record stores, but the company did
release a 60th-anniversary commemorative CD last year. The disc’s 21 songs,
selected by Mehan, prompted useful and interesting comparisons with the
originals. I played it blind, to see how many of the tunes I could
recognize without looking at the liner notes. Songs like “Alison,”
“Moondance,” and, of course, “Riders on the Storm” translated seamlessly
enough that I could sing along, although Muzak dropped a verse or two in
each case. Even “My Funny Valentine” came across nicely, a respectable
complement to (for instance) Miles Davis’ explorations of the beautiful

The Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods,” on the other hand, will never
sound the same to me, because I’ll always think of the Muzak version. The
correspondence between Muzak and pop works in both directions. Gloria
Estefan plays Muzak versions of her songs as a warmup for her live shows.
On a few tunes, like Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?”, the original studio
musicians played on the Muzak recording of their own song. Muzak sometimes
uses instrumental tracks by pop artists; hearteningly, John Tesh’s latest
musical excretion failed to make Muzak’s cut.

I grew to like my Muzak CD, and caught myself putting it on voluntarily, as
it makes an excellent companion to my morning coffee-and-Times. I would,
however, skip the Wonder Bread-ed version of “Lively Up Yourself.”

Muzak has some things in common with pop — more, perhaps, than pop artists
would care to admit. Both are ingratiating, to some degree. Elvis Costello,
Van Morrison, and Jim Morrison all sought to please listeners with an
engaging melody, and to stimulate them on some level while not grating on
their sensibilities. But the things that divide a great pop song from the
merely competent ones are exactly the elements that Muzak removes: an
idiosyncratic vocal; a haunting atmosphere. A great pop song pulls you into
its narrative; it doesn’t just tell you a story, it makes you feel it.

Case in point: “Summertime,” (recorded at Marrow’s studio, incidentally). I
didn’t even recognize the Muzak version on the first play, which is strange
because it’s one of my sentimental favorites. I think it had to do with the
“Synchronicity”-derived intro and the excessive use of vibes, giving the
murky tune a bogus transparency.

Without the sultry sadness of Sarah Vaughan’s black-coffee voice,
“Summertime” is reduced to a collection of pretty riffs, pleasingly
arranged but ultimately meaningless. It tells no story, and the Gershwins’
simple melody is almost buried by Muzak’s hyper-active ensemble (or is it
Casiotone?). But, then, it probably serves Muzak’s subconscious
motivational purposes quite well. Vaughan’s “Summertime” always reminds me
of a certain woman who broke my heart in college, and I’d rather not think
of her at the mall.

The hipster’s objection to Muzak seems to be that it is processed
entertainment, a watered-down version of “real” music, and therefore
worthless as art. But let’s face it, many of the songs that Muzak
cannibalizes are pretty generic to begin with. Muzak’s fastest-growing
channels, tellingly, are the ones supplying original pop tunes to be used
as background music, in formats tailored to specific environments and
demographics. Just listen to the channels’ names: EuroStyle. Urban Beat.
Hot FM. Country Currents. ’70s Songbook. There’s also one called Light
Classical, billed as “Old World ambience for today’s digital age.”

So everything is background now, from rock to country to Euro-pop to
Rachmaninoff, who probably never dreamed he’d provide fill-in-the-blank
atmosphere for today’s digital age. It’s hard, ultimately, to fault Muzak
for this, though its Stimulus Progression techniques would make Aldous
Huxley feel smug. Muzak simply anticipated the way we live our lives today,
accompanied by a constant soundtrack of radio, television, video and film.

Especially television. People leave their televisions on almost
automatically now, murmuring in the background as they chat on the phone or
eat dinner. Don Delillo captured this perfectly in White Noise, where the
ever-on television acts almost as an independent character, injecting bits
of its own surreal dialogue. Newer model sets allow viewers to watch two
channels at once.

Television has responded to this saturation effect by becoming ever more
insipid, ever less demanding. Everything on MTV and much of the late-night
fare on, say, EPSN qualifies as ambient television, meant to be seen but
not watched. To say nothing of C-SPAN, Home Shopping Network, or, once
upon a time, the O.J. trial; all of which perform the same function as Muzak,
sopping up our random, private thoughts like super-efficient sponges.
Thoughts which, it sometimes seems, are too much to bear.

So the question of Muzak’s hipness or unhipness is irrelevant — although,
given the ascendance of ambient music and nouveau lounge acts like
Combustible Edison, I’d vote the former. Muzak’s real significance is that
it paved the way for a new ambient culture, a culture that Sensurrounds us
with digitized music and pixelated images, endlessly looping screen savers
and point-of-purchase interactive displays, occupying all areas of our
multitasking minds. Music, or Muzak, is but a single element of this
technological babble, and one wonders how pop music will respond to its
evolving exile in background-land.

By sounding more like Muzak, no doubt.

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!