I once lived for a year in a small town in Alabama. Like many small towns in the mid-20th century, Anniston was worried about its long-term prospects, and kept thinking of ways to keep the town, especially the downtown, vital. If this had been New England, the town fathers would have closed off one avenue to automobile traffic and created a pedestrian mall; but because it was the Deep South, they’d chosen to cover the sidewalks on the main drag with an awning and have Muzak piped in.
I arrived in Anniston in high summer, when the awning made a certain sense: Humidity or no, the midday sun could be brutally intense. As a patronizing Yankee, however, I could hardly contain my merriment about the Muzak. I had never seen, or heard, such a thing. The outdoor piped-in music was not only discordant—shag carpeting in a gothic cathedral—but incongruous as well: There was nothing especially pastoral or Southern in its dulcet tones; we might just as well have been in Michigan.
But then, that was the point of Muzak, wasn’t it? I use the past tense because I came to the realization a few years ago that Muzak—or elevator music, to use the generic term—as we had come to know it no longer exists. Whether this is due to economics, changing demographics, or the evolution of popular taste, I cannot say; but the background music of the past half-century is no longer in the background.
Muzak, I should explain, is in fact a commercial term, and the eponymous company (Muzak LLC) that produces it still thrives. But the nature of the product has changed. Muzak was originally conceived as “mood music” designed to soothe and comfort people in work spaces or retail outlets, airplanes, and elevators. Contented humans, I presume, are less inclined to complain, more likely to buy. The notion that silence, or ambient noise, is somehow discomforting seems to be a peculiarly American conceit. Yet so ubiquitous is Muzak that it is difficult to imagine the interior of a shopping mall, or an airport terminal, or dentist’s waiting room, without it.
During the golden age of Muzak it was instantly recognizable: Popular tunes of the earlier 20th century—“Marie,” for example, or “My Blue Heaven”—would be slowed down in tempo, heavily orchestrated with an emphasis on strings, and minor chords would be softly transposed. Call it the Lawrence Welk effect. Muzak even had political applications: In later decades, when my grocery shopping was accompanied by a 1,001-string version of, say, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” I would cite this to demonstrate Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” in which capitalism neutralizes radicalism by taming it.
My problem with Muzak, however, was a matter of substance, not style. I happen to possess a three-LP album of Background Music, produced by Capitol Records in the 1950s, which features “music blended to mix graciously with social gatherings.” The cover photographs look like stills from a Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy, and the liner notes inform us that “this music is unique. It will never dominate, yet always be pleasant and listenable. Early in the evening, when the hostess is struggling to get the party off the ground, the music will fill those embarrassing lulls.”
Of course, for anyone remotely possessing a musical ear, there is no such thing as background music. In the old days, when I would step into an elevator, or walk down the street in Anniston, the background music would be in the foreground, front and center, and I could no more escape those adulterated versions of Disney tunes, or songs from My Fair Lady, than I could fail to hear thunder or feel rain.
Which brings us to the moment of irony. A few years ago, while standing in line at the drugstore, I noticed that the Muzak was unlike any I had heard before: Instead of sleepy woodwinds and monotonous strings, from out of the ceiling came the voice of Beyoncé. She sounded, of course, as if she had stuck one of her fingers into an electrical socket; but the point is that the sound was Beyoncé herself, not some watered-down, low-volume, orchestrated version. I was suffering, I confess, as I awaited my prescription; but everybody else looked perfectly content, the Muzak safely and demonstrably in the background.
And with that, or so it seemed, the sound of Muzak was transformed. The studio musicians who once fed their families by recording long hours of schmaltz have been replaced by the simple (and presumably less expensive) expedient of familiar pop stars: Buy a gallon of milk, board the escalator, or wait for your oil change, and it’s Taylor Swift, One Direction, Justin Bieber assaulting your ears—unfiltered, unedited, and, as always, inescapable.