Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unwanted music

In his book The Doubter's Companion, pop culture philosopher John Ralston Saul sardonically describes Muzak as "A public noise neither requested nor listened to by individuals. It is the descendant of a school of public relations invented by the Nazis." A little heavy, but this perception of Muzak is not without its adherents. There are many who find this common musical annoyance not only bothersome but invasive.

The question of whether it is in fact music often elicits a drawn out, undecided 'uh, sort of, not really' kind of answer. That it was invented by a sound and communications inventor rather than a musician furthers conflates the argument. In the early 1920's Major General George Owen Squier, an American scientist, inventor, and decorated WWI veteran, had pioneered a way to deliver music without the use of traditional radios. This new concept of background, or 'elevator music,' quickly found a niche simply by filling silence with sound. In 1934, Squier had officially founded Muzak and near instantly carved his legacy as a unique contributor to world culture. He passed away later that year of pneumonia, while his most renowned creation lives on.

Not everyone is happy about this. The more ominous perceptions of Muzak view it as a manipulator of human behavior; an Orwellian tool of crowd control and psychological domination. The relationship between Muzak and subliminal suggestion is no secret. Muzak was built on the ability of its product to optimize production from government and business employees through the use of music and sound patterns. In a terrific audio history, the company itself proudly illustrates this. In behavior and marketing experiments, Muzak has also proved to be remarkably effective. From the subtle (playing culturally specific music to persuade wine purchases), to the intrusive (subliminal messages that discourage theft), Muzak seems almost perfect at what it does.

In the same way daily technology such as television, computers, and the internet have been popularly described as tools or weapons of the fascist state, so too has Muzak. The more conspiratorial are easily convinced that governments and big business routinely impose their will on the hapless citizenry through electronic agents such as these. Though the technology of Muzak may fit in comfortably with the worst of these dystopian science fiction scenarios, this is to completely ignore its home and founding within the stronger Western traditions of freedom and law - and revolution.

A more reasonable explanation for Muzak might be that people actually find silence to be more annoying. As watered down, faux-jazz, and soulless as Muzak may be, it is better than nothing. A sixty second wait on the phone with nothing but silence would be unimaginable. In the waiting room or at a restaurant, every personal noise, shift, and scuffle would be amplified for everyone else to hear. In stores and businesses, no Muzak means listening to all the unwanted details of other people's conversations, or if you're lucky and the store isn't busy, the soft hum that drones from the ceiling of fluorescent lights.

In many public situations, silence can be creepy. It implies warning or caution, and socially detaches us while we more closely guard our personal space. Music, even if it is the sanitized, aesthetically bland, electronic production that is Muzak, is a healthy connection to civilization, as well as an indicator that a particular environment is welcoming. Similar to other social art that is specifically made to appeal to the lowest common aesthetic denominator (such as the art deco of lobbies and hotel rooms, the riveting acting performances in tv commercials, or the high fashion of workplace uniforms), Muzak may never be requested, but it's not necessarily unwanted.




There is music that perhaps more people can agree is truly unwanted. Though it can be popular, the level of public odium reserved for certain pop music, or pop acts, can be powerful.



Any pop/rock lists with the phrase 'worst of' are the best places to look. Replete with the most annoying and overplayed (often #1) chart hits, this is music that is truly hated, and easy to argue unwanted. Over sweetened melodies, obvious and uninspired nursery pop hooks, and the most tortuous earworms; this music isn't easy to describe, but it's very easy to identify. Buzzfeed has a couple of indispensable lists full of the most irritating pop/rock hits of the 90's and last decade. The best examples are actually from the dozens of reader contributions where Eiffel 65's "Blue," a 'popular' dance hit in 1999-2000, was offered by several posters from each list. Not only did it straddle the two decades, it was just that bad:




Who knew Wikipedia would have an entry on a list of music considered the worst. Not as comprehensive as it could be, though it was nice to see my favorite worst song of all time, Starship's "We Built this City," duly represented. I unwant this song more than any other.

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