News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: Oh, Muzak, I won’t miss you
BY JONAS BEALS
It is with an empty ear and a heavy heart that I meet the end of a cultural touchstone. Muzak is no more.
But fret not, friends of the synthesized fret-less bass—the rumors of Muzak’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The name is gone, but the song remains the same. The music service that has provided the background accompaniment for generations of shopping automatons will live on, although parent company Mood Media has decided to drop the iconic name.
But first, a toast to inventor George Owen Squier, a man who not only devised a (mediocre and inconvenient) way to broadcast music over electrical lines, he saw opportunity in every public venue without music. Hotels, restaurants, shops and factory floors needed music. Squier gave them Muzak.
He died in 1934 and would never see Muzak become the cultural force that fate had determined. These days, Muzak is bounced off satellites and into the subconscious of unwitting shoppers—toying with their chemical constitutions and subtly influencing purchases.
Nor would Squier see his invention become a convenient synonym for boring, bland and sterile. When he died, his music service was commissioning the great big bands of the day to record instrumental songs to chew food by. He would never get to see the musical punchline of “The Blues Brothers:” Jake and Elwood Blues loitering in the elevator of the Cook County Assessor’s Office, passively listening to a sexless Muzak version of “Girl From Ipanema.”
If rock ‘n’ roll comes from the crotch, Muzak comes from customer service surveys. Whether you are aware is beside the point—you, as a shopper in North America, have been participating in a long-term psychological experiment to determine what sounds make cash pop out of your pocket. Congratulations! Your subconscious went with ultra-light jazz versions of Captain and Tennille songs. You might crank Imagine Dragons in your Jetta, but corporate America knows what you really, really want.
So why am I taking this time to discuss Muzak? I have a personal connection—I worked at grocery stores for a couple of years while I was in college. For eight hours a day, I lived with Muzak and cursed the corporate gods who demanded unbending allegiance to mass-market mediocrity. But it did allow me and a co-worker to play a pretty competitive game of name that tune.
Times have a-changed. About 10 years ago, I noticed that most grocery stores had switched to playing actual music. I guess a marketing study proved Bruce Hornsby sold more salsa than John Tesh. At any rate, it was music to my ears. I recalled my years as a Phish-obsessed produce boy and basked in the glory of a personal victory over the squares who insisted on the subliminal power of crappy music.
It also reminded me of a particularly world-rocking Muzak moment. I wasn’t just a Phish fan, I was a jam band fan. One of my favorites was the modern jazz group Béla Fleck and The Flecktones.
As I stacked bananas, a familiar sound floated into my earholes. It took me a minute, but I recognized the tune. It was “At Last We Meet Again” by Béla Fleck and The Flecktones.
No big deal. Muzak was always butchering otherwise good music. Then I realized it was the original, unadulterated version. I cried a little inside.
Muzak, you got what you deserved.
JONAS’ IN-TOWN PICK: Mercutio at the 909 Saloon. A great band from Lynchburg in an intimate setting. Friday at 9:09 p.m.
OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Chatham County Line at Ashland Coffee & Tea in Ashland. A rough-around-the-edges roots–bluegrass band with some killer songs. Wednesday at 8 p.m.
LISTENING TO: “Spunky and Clorissa” by Béla Fleck and The Flecktones. Man, that is some seriously hot banjo. And Bruce Hornsby adds some fire on the piano.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036 | email@example.com