Nightmarish heralds of the holiday season in Minnesota: The far-too-early arrival of Christmas displays in our favorite stores. The Vikings tanking. That first snow where everyone treats traffic lanes as optional guidelines.
And, of course, the endless barrage of holiday music -- in stores, on TV ads, at gas pumps. At least one local radio station switches over to “all Xmas music, all the time” programming, which, if you’ve ever been stuck in a cubicle next to a passive-aggressive office manager who insists on controlling the music, quickly turns into a form of torture that I’m fairly certain was implemented by Dick Cheney at the height of Guantanamo’s notoriety. Imagine cell blocks of people begging to be released, tears streaming down their faces, wondering what they ever could have done to deserve “Last Christmas” fading into “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (and not the viral version) for the umpteenth time.
But there’s one piece of music this time of year that drives thousands of Minnesotans to wonder why the trend of “anger rooms” hasn’t caught on here yet: MNsure’s on-hold music. And I know it all too well.
As a self-employed freelancer, I have to purchase health insurance for myself and my family. I’m grateful for any sort of public option, and so are others, apparently, as MNsure has enrolled a record 54,586 individuals this year ahead of the January 31 deadline. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be on a long-term job that comes with employer-provided health insurance. Sometimes I’m begging City Pages' Music Editor/Man-Bun Model Extraordinaire for as many assignments as possible. Either way, I couldn’t do what I do without a way of getting a reasonable price for health insurance, something that MNsure has, to some imperfect degree, allowed me to do.
But there’s a price to pay: Sitting on hold, listening to a Muzak saxophone jam that I can only describe as the worst parts of Kenny G and Yanni, except with every iota of humanity extracted through some complicated process that probably involves freeze-drying, the disembodied head of Walt Disney, and Donald Trump’s spray tan. I mean seriously, I’m literally arguing that they took Yanni’s music and made it less sexy.
Don’t think I haven’t done my homework. In the winter of 2013, I spent a total of 73 hours on hold with MNsure. In 2014, I spent 42. In 2015 -- my best year yet -- I spent only an hour on hold. So far in 2016, I’m at 39 hours and counting. During these hold times, I have cleaned my entire house. I have taken showers. I’ve gotten in full workouts at my gym. I’ve eaten meals -- as in the plural of meal -- in a single hold session. Once, I actually left the house and ate an entire fancy dinner with my in-laws with one sad little earbud stuck in my head.
And almost all of that hold time was spent listening to this same piece of music, which seems orchestrated to be the opposite of a catchy earworm and induce maximum misery and anger. It starts with a Casio-keyboard flute line and the twiddling of synth sounds. The primary melody then kicks in via something that might have once resembled a saxophone before it was run through the same micro-processing supercomputer the NSA uses to track our innermost thoughts and feelings. The saxophone might be called “soaring” if vultures “soared.” But they don’t. Eagles soar. Vultures flap their wings awkwardly and pick carrion off rotting bones. Which, if you think about it, is a fairly apt metaphor.
Here it is, if you dare (thanks to reader/county worker Benjamin Henry for identifying the song):
And then, after 45 short seconds, the song ends, a voice apologizes for the long hold times, reminds you that calls are taken in the order that they are received, and then the music starts again, from the beginning, only to repeat itself again ... and again ... and again…every minute or so. Think about it: Yesterday I was on hold for 1 hour and 7 minutes, which means I listened to this song 67 fucking times. That’s enough to drive anyone to start popping Xanax like candy to stave off the crushing anxiety that comes with being stuck in this Kafka-meets-Lovecraft nightmare of a hold queue. Except in order to get Xanax you NEED HEALTH INSURANCE!
I’m not alone in my utter hatred of this song. A quick Google search gets you a number of choice quotes.
Nancy Wurtzel, writing for Minnpost in 2014: “Elevator music is bad enough, but elevator music that is out of sync and filled with static noise is just plain torture.”
Kate Stanley, quoted in the Pioneer Press in 2015: “If I could ask one thing of the MNsure telephone system, it would be to change up their hold music. It’s the same damn song over and over and over!”
Some guy named @TheDez on Twitter, in what might as well be the engraving on my headstone: “The hold music for #MNSure = concept album by John Tesh about disappointment called ‘100% Out Of Pocket.’”
Hell, I even asked a MNsure rep about it at the end of one of my recent exhausting calls, and got this answer: “I’ve never heard it myself, but I’ve never heard anything good about it.”
All this means that by the time you actually reach a person, especially if this is your third or fourth call (anything past that is guaranteed madness), you’re already at wit’s end. You’ve completely lost perspective. You’ve turned into that crazy guy in line loudly talking about “those people” while everyone tries to shuffle away uncomfortably. And now, you’re desperate to to get your health insurance set up, because the last thing you want to do is ever hear this song again.
But if you’re one of those people who can’t seem to find a quick resolution to their situation, you know you’re going to call again. Take, for example, me: I have now been told four times by MNsure reps -- a total of six hours on hold -- that they sent my 2016 file to my insurance provider, only to have the provider confirm yet again that they haven’t received it.
And each call becomes more painful and exhausting, like this whole idea is less an imperfect solution to the terrible health care problem we have in this country, and more of a bad joke played on you by millionaires and bureaucrats who don’t give a shit about you or your family or your health. And that's mostly because 45 seconds of the worst music ever, on repeat for hours at a time, is possibly the worst customer service decision someone could make in this situation.
So how can MNsure fix this? Give us something with movements, something that changes, something that sustains and entertains and actually makes us feel good about being part of this well-intentioned but ultimately frustrating process. Give us Beethoven. Give us Parliament’s “Maggot Brain.” Give us the Who’s “Underture.” Give us Television’s “Marquee Moon.” Hell, give us R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.”
Or how about something -- anything -- from one of the best albums of 2016?
But if you want to stick with simple and repetitive and lyrically apt, try the song posted below. Hearing the Buzzcocks howl “there is no love in this world anymore” might not relax miserable insurance seekers, but at least they'll know someone understands their pain.