Why Muzak, as a concept at least, will never die

Why Muzak, as a concept at least, will never die
A visual representation of Paul Westerberg, Muzak-style.

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

Muzak just joined the ranks of words like aspirin, brassiere, cellophane, escalator, granola, kerosene, linoleum, trampoline, yo-yo, & zipper. These were brands that became the colloquialism for the thing itself, and the word lives on well after the brand itself has gone to that great Piggly Wiggly in the sky.

As of February 5 of this year, Muzak is no more. It has now been absorbed into its newest parent company Mood (formerly Mood Media). While a lot of people have taken the time to make terribly clever headlines like "The Death of Muzak," or "The Day the Muzak Died," it really isn't dead. You can breathe a sigh of relief that next time you call your cable providor -- your half-an-hour wait can still be a jazzy, super-schmaltzy trip on the A Train.
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The Muzak brand's death, however, is the end of a strangely American institution. It's technology originally designed for the military that encourages productivity and relaxation -- used ultimately to free up you wallet when your at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Muzak was founded in 1934 by the Army's Chief Signal Officer during World War I, Major General George O. Squier. He originally thought it would be helpful in battle prep, but beat out by the radio, he instead sold it to shops, hotels and the like, effectively ending the careers of lobby piano players across America.

The mighty Muzak General
The mighty Muzak General

Muzak also helped to make rides in the new invention of the time, the elevator, palatable. In the era of "if man was supposed to fly he'd have wings," an elevator ride was tantamount to a mechanical coffin run by someone you wouldn't trust with your car. Hence, calming music to make the journey all the more pleasant, ie: mind-blowingly frightening.

Honestly the history of that sound and the technology is sort of fascinating. If you want more, may I suggest Joseph Lanza's book Elevator Music, which is sort of the definitive work on the subject and a way more fun read than you'd think.

Muzak as a concept will never die. It sort of evolved into two forms, the first being what it was originally intended for: a distribution method for music to calm you and make you want to shop. Muzak's roots were really in in how the sound could change your mood.

Ask any of your friends who are semi-serious record collectors, and more than likely they have a copy of one of the "Stimulus Progression" records which were meant to showcase how Muzak worked in an office or factory environment. They created a subconscious "good mood" and a sense of forward movement, all set up in 15-minute blocks in order from least to most stimulating, with the value determined by tempo, rhythm, and instrumentation. Each block was accompanied by by 15 minutes of silence, so that employees would only hear it for half the time that they were working. It was supposed to increase productivity, and create a more peaceful environment. (They did seem to have a lot fewer workplace shootings back then.)

While this notion might seem quaint, you experience it in action anytime you set foot in a clothing shop, except now it's about more than trying to make a calm place to shop. It's about digging the whole experience to push you to be a consumer, through not just the music they play and how they play it, but also the signage and even the smells. It's that logic that makes a step into any Abercrombie & Fitch a bombastic assault of the senses that can only be akin to what it must be like to sit next to Rush Limbaugh on a plane.

If you take away the style concept of Muzak, you realize that it's more popular than ever. It's so much noise that it becomes lost entirely. So much so that it really becomes the background, a sound to cover the sliding of clothes hangers and the click clack of bank cards running through credit card machines.

Hear a Muzak take on the Replacements' "Skyway" below:


Then there is the other form of Muzak -- the music, or what it is sometimes referred to as easy listening. Or at least what we tend to associate it with: syrupy redoing of music that is popular elsewhere. Think of overly orchestrated versions of pop hits and songs from movies with lots of highs and lows, all smoothed together with a big butter knife. When we hear them now, they sound campy and ridiculous, but when you actually think about them in context, they are still quite campy and sort of ridiculous. That was the point, it was supposed to be familiar but not memorable. Of course how that evolved into the smooth jazz fusion hell that one hears on hold, who knows. If the Illuminati does exist, it's one of their plans to rule the earth; that, or just annoy the crap out of it's inhabitants.

Why Muzak, as a concept at least, will never die

Click here to watch a KARE-11 report about WAYL-FM from 1986.

Before I was born, my mom was a DJ at WAYL-FM, sort of the Midwestern mothership of music to put seniors to sleep, and because of this it sort of got into my blood. I have over 5,000 pieces of vinyl, and I have to admit probably 1/8th of it might fall under the "beautiful music" category. It started honestly enough, an interest in exotica and weird world records, that led into wacky covers and then things like the Mystic Moods Orchestra which used sound effects as part of the music. Next thing you know I had 100 Montavani records, and everything the Ames Brothers ever recorded.

Elevator Muzak has so many subgenres out of it that it strangely encompasses almost all of the larger genres: there is elevator jazz, classical, rock -- sure, it's soft rock but its rock nonetheless -- polka, exotica, country. Schmaltzy orchestral versions of country -- or at least a strange hybrid that is not really country but can be called that -- abounded in the late '60s and '70s. (It's a precedent that comes in quite handy for Taylor Swift.) There are Muzak versions of the Clash, the Ramones, and even the Replacements.

For most of the '90s I worked at the Twin/Tone Record Group as the Director of Artist and Product. If you don't know, T/T was home to the Replacements, the Suburbs, Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks and a million other awesome bands that defined an era. I got the era after that one. Not that I am complaining. It was about the best job ever, minus the pay and budgets. What we didn't have in cash we made up for in creative freedom, the stories of which you will just have to stay tuned to hear.

It was in 1999 when my then-fiancée, now wife, worked in a giant office park that also housed a old folks home, which explains why they had Muzak pumped throughout the common areas. She heard the Replacements' "Skyway" playing lightly under the hum of the fluorescent lights near the soda machine. The first time she said she had heard it I didn't believe it; until I heard it. That, of course, was the day I learned to not loudly yell "Holy shit!" near a room full of octogenarians. On the upside, I did get called a hooligan and have someone shake a fist at me.

I decided to see how the hell that happened, and possibly offer to buy someone scotch. A few calls to Muzak later I was talking with the music director. He indeed had arranged a cover of "Skyway." Not only that but he had also done "Greyhound Bus" by the Hang Ups. It took a little bit of horse-trading with various promo items, but I got him to send along a disc with both tracks, as long as I promised not to share it with anyone whatsoever save the bands themselves and in particular Paul Westerberg.

One of my favorite days ever was playing that version of "Greyhound Bus" to Brian Tighe, who co-wrote and sang it. It's that moment when the song takes on a life of its own. No longer was this an indie rock song of sorrow with a tinge of regret, it was now the soundtrack to sponge baths, and people buying support hose. In a flash, it was striped of its ironies and only the harmonies remained. It became the word, and the word is law (as opposed to love which is really more of a suggestion than a law if you think about it).

Muzak is a snapshot of our time, not the cool kind where everyone looks stoic like they are waiting to be in a Ken Burns documentary. It's the snapshot that's a little blurry and your uncle has a weird face and everything is just a little off. It's not going in a nice frame, but you smile just a little every time you see it in the photo album.

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