Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Canned Music Sucks

One of the oddest, least remarked-upon features of contemporary civilization is that we are almost always listening to music. In our cars, on the bus, in elevators, while we sit inside coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, while we shop for groceries, while we try on clothes in changing rooms, while we stand around at clubs waiting for the band to come on and play, even while we sit in front of our computers and read or write blog entries--we are listening to music. People make out to sexy music, fall asleep to soothing music, and get high to every kind of music imaginable. I would say that we are listening to music from birth until death, but this would leave out the practice of playing classical music to foster a child's development while it's still in the womb. This is an exclusively twentieth-century phenomenon. Before the advent of recorded music--when you had to track down a guitar player in order to listen to “Stairway To Heaven”--listening to musical instruments was a luxury. Now, it's practically a requirement. Thanks to the proliferation of music in public places, we've reached a brave new era of human history, where groups of people are routinely forced to listen to music that none of them have requested, and many of them don't enjoy.

Take Starbucks, for instance, where I used to work serving coffee and overpriced sandwiches. As any Starbucks-frequenter knows, there is always non-offensive, non-challenging, easily ignorable pop music being piped in through the store's sound system. This is mandated by company policy. Some executive decided that it would make people more comfortable if extremely bland songs were played all the time—at the very least, it would drown out the customers' objections that their skinny vanilla lattes didn't taste skinny enough—and now it is impossible to turn the music off. On a couple occasions, customers who were having business meetings or reading books asked the employees to turn the music off, but our hands were tied—if we had been able to smash the speakers that the schmaltzy cover of “Blackbird” was coming from, we would have.

The problem with canned music that you hear in Starbucks, or in your local diner or bookstore or supermarket, is that no one really hates it. It's all too middle-of-the-road to inspire any strong emotion whatsoever, that's the point of the song selections. No one is offended, everyone ignores it, and we hardly ever bother to ask who is enjoying it. If we did ask, the answer would most likely be “no one”--or if someone was actually enjoying the songs, it would be in a passive, kind of enjoyment. “Oh, this is okay, I guess,” is about the best thing anyone has ever said of a canned song.

We've created a soundtrack to our lives, in the worst possible sense. There's always something else going on, and we never devote our full attention to the notes. It's background, the sonic equivalent of wallpaper. We are training ourselves, essentially, to ignore music.

This is awful. Music should not be ignored, it shouldn't be ignorable. Music should grab you by the ear and force you to listen to it—music is art, after all, or at least it should be. But when it's pumped into every public space, music isn't art. It's just like silence, just a little noisier.

Silence would actually be a fairly radical alternative at this point. Imagine if your local bar or restaurant turned off the stereo. All you'd hear would be the clink of glasses, the sipping of drinks, the sound from suddenly-audible conversations. No one would have to yell across the table to be heard and the waiters wouldn't be shouting the specials over a Hold Steady song in the background. And if music came on after this period of silence, people might listen to it, instead of just hearing it.

1 comment:

  1. I actually disagree on this, at least in terms of supermarket music. I find I can't ignore the music and I hate it; since I'm not fond of supermarket shopping anyway this sends me out the door quickly. One common version is the pop style I think of as Hollywood duet, where vocal acrobatics are at a premium and the words are consistent love-song stupid.
    I know most people don't seem to notice the music, and I'm not sure why I can't. Wish I could.