Note: If you want the full immersion of this article, I recommend listening along.
“Honey I’m home,” you say as you step into your small suburban home, your wife preparing dinner as the radio is emitting the latest commercially free jazz music. The familiar smell of Jell-O and Spam wafts out of the kitchen, “Oh, hello dear, dinner will be ready in a bit. Remember we’re invited to the cocktail party at Richard and Debra’s house later tonight!” she calls out. The furniture is kept in a brownish-yellow color palette, wood paneling is dispersed on the walls and the television is hidden away in a cabinet next to the fireplace. Your job is paying you well, your wife loves you and the world is good. While the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union is in full swing and technological milestones are being set, the future seems brighter than ever. The growing threat of an atomic fallout doesn’t cross your mind and why should it? Accompanying you are the constant rhythms and sounds of saxophones, flutes and French horns soothing your thoughts and relaxing your body.
If this sounds like an ideal state of mind, then I hate to break it to you, but this time has long gone. The American way of living in the 1950s and 60s is a thing of the past and we are in the 21st Century. With the climate crisis at an all-time high and the political situation increasing its tensions every day, the future doesn’t seem all too peachy for us younger generations. If only there were a way one could escape and live in complete denial of our uncertain and maybe short future.
The concept of Muzak goes back to the US-Military General George Squire, who, as legend has it, coined the term shortly before his death as a combination between the two words Music and Kodak in 1934. But Squire’s history with background music goes further back to the early 1910s as Squire paved the way for the modern usage of cables. Funded by the US-Military and using its equipment he was able to make strides in the functionality of telephone wires. Through his invention of so-called “multiplexing” it was now possible to transmit multiple signals using only a single cable. Squire saw this revolution as a great opportunity to upgrade the radio service for households and consumers. With his “Wired Radio” he essentially wanted to jumpstart the subscription based streaming industry as the business model sought out for people to pay for the directly transmitted music into their homes using his new technologies. However, people of the 1920s weren’t ready for vintage Spotify and seeing that wireless radio was on the rise and free, for that matter, Wired Radio Inc. eventually slowed its sales before the transition into Muzak.
In the years following the funding of Muzak, business began to boom as it was regarded as an effective way to increase productivity in factories, raise sales in department stores and calm the general human disposition. Factory workers were focused on their mundane tasks as they were listening to the smooth bossa-nova tracks for eight or more hours a day and factory owners and corporation heads saw their profits rise. As an added perk of the music, the workers weren’t as likely to talk and fraternize with each other, reducing the risk of uprising worker unions or strikes. Money was flowing and that’s all that was important. The company Muzak began to grow out of factories and work environments and started to impact every aspect of everyday life. In grocery stores, malls or public spaces like buses or trains, the sweet melodies could be found everywhere, seemingly without any identifiable soundsource, eerily filling the rooms with conformity. This began the debate around Muzak as a lot of people saw this as an invasion of their privacy, constantly being blasted with these unavoidable happy-go-lucky tunes. It even went so far as that there were multiple accusations of the attempted brainwashing of the public. Despite the partial public disapproval it stayed popular throughout the 1960s and early 70s but as a new generation began to take the reins of America the demand began to decline and by the 1980s it became a villainized sin of the music industry. After countless rebrand attempts and increasing insignificancy in the music industry, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009, marking the company’s official downfall even though functional and mood regulating music continued on, especially with the birth of Spotify and its various playlists or similar services like Pandora.
The general gist of Muzak songs is: If you have heard one, you’ve heard all of them. Designed to regulate the moods of the listener, Muzak’s “Stimulus Progression” can fill even the most mundane tasks with some life. “Stimulus Progression”, like all Muzak, is meant to be played in the background while there is a more important task going on. Every quarter hour a selection of six songs is played that range on a scale of 1 to 6 in their stimulus value, 1 being a slower and 6 being a very upbeat type of song. Following these songs is a 15-minute break of silence in which one is focused on the work only to be uplifted by the next increment of songs. This resulted in a complete analysis of a workday to plan out the correct stimuli for the correct hour. The programming in the morning mostly consisted of higher ranked stimulus songs which are more upbeat and after lunch or nearing the end of the day the more inactive songs like the 1s and 2s on the scale would play. The interesting thing in all of this is the proposed business model which the company proposes. Muzak claims to individualize each listener and regulate their mood. However, this “individualization” is only a facade since the music is produced for the whole collective of the general public. Muzak can never reach the sought-after level of individualization that it wants because the listener does not have any form of influence or autonomy like with Spotify as we know it today.
I thoroughly enjoy listening to Muzak. I like to put it on while working, cleaning or doing other mundane tasks, in fact I’m even listening to Muzak right now while writing this article and I have to say it works. Muzak doesn’t only kill time, but it also demands so little of your brain power that you can really concentrate and begin to fade out the music. To my full surprise I’ve been sitting here writing for the past hour and I truly haven’t noticed the time go by thanks to the sweet variety of jazz tunes in my ears. I first was formally confronted with Muzak during a university course about “Ambient Music” and while I had heard the actual music countless times before, this was to be the first time I would really dive in and learn about its usage and functionality. After talking to my fellow students about the topic, I was shocked to discover the general contempt for Muzak. For me this was a strange turn of events, and I became a strong Muzak supporter, chanting to “bring back Muzak” in class despite being othered and ostracized by my friend group. But I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
There’s no doubt that Muzak is the epitome of capitalism. The “canned” or “piped music” as it is sometimes called, removes all forms of artistic integrity and value and is the musical embodiment of a greedy, money hungry nation. This form of musical commercialization and the necessity of a mass appeal leads to the music being bland and linear, like I said earlier “If you’ve heard Muzak once, you’ve heard it all”. There’s nothing exciting or unexpecting that happens during a song, which reflects the way the average person should work in society like a well-oiled machine. The absolute lack of personalization and the conformity of the music has resulted in a different approach and meaning to Muzak. In pop culture Muzak established itself to give off an eerie feeling to the viewer and mostly sets in to give a feeling of unease. A common usage of Muzak on the internet is intertwined with the concept of “Liminal Spaces”. Think about The Backrooms, a space that you supposedly enter if you “glitch” through reality and are stuck in six hundred million miles of randomly segmented empty rooms. The same concept can be seen in film, like the ending scene of the 1975 release “The Stepford Wives” for example. This scene shows women grocery shopping in a store, however you notice something is off as they move very mechanically and coldly interact with each other as the Muzak hymes are put centerstage. So how does one enjoy music that extracts the musicians out of the process and listen to an endless loop of generic (un-)easy music?
For me one of the main reasons is escapism. Now this to begin with is not uncommon, people tend to look towards music as a way to shut out the world and focus their mental energy on whatever is best for them, but to me Muzak does way more than just that. The thought alone of living in this idealized and romanticized era of 1960s America fills my brain with whimsy and Muzak is just a way to enhance that feeling. Especially during the current times, don’t we all need a bit more lightheartedness in our lives? When the first bars of “Stimulus Progression” sound from a speaker my brain can’t help itself to start monologuing like I’m a character from a noir movie. Personally I can find a lot of hope in this daydreaming. It’s a type of escapism that builds on what Mark Fisher describes in his book “Ghosts of my Life” as “Lost Futures”. Fisher describes the state we live in as a “slow cancellation of the future”, with little to no innovation in pop culture and an overall exhaustion of life and, looking at the current state of the movie industry you can’t deny it. With reboot after reboot, purely nostalgia driven plotlines or cameos to rake in the cash so everyone can see “their” stars back on the big screen. However bad this may seem, it is something we are going to have to live with, especially with studios financing fewer original ideas or canceling already finished movies to focus on “a blockbuster scale” (aka a bigger cash grab). Doesn’t that seem familiar… corporations disregarding all artistic quality, removing the artist and pipelining it for revenue. This is when it suddenly hit me like a bus: The reason why I enjoy Muzak is because it is so brain-deadly capitalistic.
On a side note, I’d really like to emphasize Mark Fisher and his work again. What I mentioned here is truly not even the tip of the iceberg of his works. I encourage everybody to go and read his books. They were so eye-opening for me not just in a Muzak sense but an overall enlightenment. He goes into the whole topic on a much deeper level and much more thoroughly than I could ever write myself.
Tuning the radio dial back to the bossa nova patterns: Muzak allows me to feel like there is a future. Don’t get me wrong, I am well-aware that during the 1950s and 60s not everything was peachy and perfect, especially for minorities, but the smooth jazz tunes make me romanticize the era. It grants me an escapism from the bleak future that is in store for us and even though I have not and will never experience it, it transports me back to the era with a bright outlook on life. Googie Architecture, technical innovations on the horizon and no impending threat or thought of a climate crisis. In a way, Muzak acts like a spell that transports my mind into an alternate reality of the great American Pastime which has been shaped and built through the pop culture nostalgia. Things like the beginning episodes of Wandavision, Netflix’ Hollywood, or classic sitcoms like Mister Ed, The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Jetsons.
Funnily enough, and this is the point where you, the reader, begins to judge me if you haven’t already, I also find the soul-sucking conformity of the music very comforting. I can truly find an element of peace in the fact that in the capitalistic space that is 1960s America you are just one small piece of a big working machine that is designed to work and not question their own state of being, living in a constant state of oblivion. Even though I am truly thankful for being able to show my individuality and express myself how I would like, the 60s sitcom character version of myself is something I think I would truly enjoy.
Although it is probably best that these pipe dreams are just dreams and the “piped music” is long gone. Nowadays we have other contentless husks that portray capitalistic greed. So do I want Muzak back? Yes of course! If you are going to fully immerse yourself into capitalism at least make it groovy. To me Muzak represents the corporate hellscape that strived to achieve a stellar future while increasing profit revenues. A time where the future consisted of flying cars and space age living. As legendary song writing duo The Sherman Brothers put it:
There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away.
Bildrechte: Oberholster Venita/Pixabay