Tuesday, June 3, 2014


by Joseph Lanza

In 1984, many wondered whether (or how much) George Orwell’s dystopian visions about Big Brother came to pass. That year, the UPC code had tattooed most of our products, cable television spread its multiple channels and 24-hour news cycles into more homes, the infomercial masquerading as news came of age, the B-actor president who scared us about the “evil empire” had his reelection locked up as he waved to his wife from a giant screen at the Republican National Convention, and oh yes, Muzak celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. 

Despite what some might assume, Muzak's golden year was the least Orwellian (i.e., technologically manipulative) of all these examples.  For half a century,  Muzak's melodies wafted through our public spaces to alternately soothe and stimulate our workaday moods, propel our purchasing decisions, and of course, make riding elevators less scary...

The elevator music did not silence the cultural and social upheavals of the sixties and seventies.  On the contrary, it complemented the seismic shifts with its toned-down counterpoint.  While the Beatles hollered out their rock and intoned their psychedelia, as Donovan sang about an electrical banana, and Bob Dylan worked his nasal passages with his paeans of protest, the elevator music songbook expanded – precisely because these artists were leaving melodic trails that were ripe for reinterpretation by the orchestras not only in Muzak’s studios but by a record industry that profited from easy-listening instrumentalists like Percy Faith, Paul Mauriat, and the Hollyridge Strings.  Like the Muzak arrangers, the easy-listening maestros had an uncanny knack for covering pop and rock songs shortly after the originals appeared, revealing tunes that were just as engaging as those from the Tin Pan Alley era.

Then, a Newsweek article from September of 1984 commemorating Muzak’s milestone revealed one disturbing sign of  havoc to come, Muzak’s then-president Tony Hirsh mentioned a new plan to broadcast “original artist music” – or “foreground music.”  This would have jarring consequences.  Instead of encountering an orchestral version of “Mellow Yellow” designed as an unobtrusive background, supermarket shoppers would soon amble through the produce aisle to the sound of Donovan’s actual voice from the 1966 Top 40 record.  With foregrounding, the songs would no longer have a shadow identity; they would instead induce people to listen more actively as if they were blasting the AM radio in their cars... 
Foreground music, despite what seemed its opportunity for “alternatives,” created an irony.  As in-store channels expanded and music classifications varied, the customers, underling employees, and public passersby had no choice in the programs.  The decisions were left to the tastes and whims of onsite proprietors...  

In contrast, elevator music, for those who took the time to listen, offered an aural depth of field: the opportunity to take in a shadow version of a song we liked or at least recognized.  The original lingered as a haunting memory while the background tune wafted through our minds.  This meant a deep-focused listening: both songs could simultaneously play in our imaginations.   

Conversely, with only the foreground, we are in the world comparable to the one Edwin A. Abbott describes in his fantasy story Flatland; in this case, we are stuck in a two-dimensional existence where we cannot conceive of music that exists beyond the hard, egotistical edges of its original recording artists…

The clash of musical tastes that wages from speakers all around us can instead make us feel irritated and, worse, dumb or numb.  I think of those blank, confused expressions on the faces of people on the streets and in subways as they absorb their iPod playlists through ear buds.   They hope to escape the pandemonium by retreating into their little corner of the world, even as their walls close in.  Elevator music, with its unassuming (yet artful) arrangements, was never a threat to individuality, whereas foreground music, when used as an environmental tool, drowns out individuality and flattens us into what many in the advertising and opinion-research fields like to call “psychographic profiles.”  Thinking about the matter from this angle, we can suspect that the less elevator music we hear, the more unreal we become.

(These are excerpts from an essay that appears in the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, from Oxford University Press, 2013.)

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