Elevator music, or Muzak.
It wasn’t there, but it was there, omnipresent, everywhere you went.
It seeped into a room or space often undetected, like an odorless vapor. It provided the soundtrack of our daily routines as we moved from the workplace to grocery stores, strip malls, restaurants, dentist offices…
…and yes, the occasional elevator.
If you were a child of a parent who listened to a “beautiful music” station, it accompanied you in the car ride home and followed you into the house as well. It was inescapable and emanated from every imaginable place in our lives.
There was a restaurant near my house called Uncle Andy’s Cow Palace that featured a giant cow out front.
After several visits, we noticed there was elevator music coming out of a speaker in the cow’s mouth. Of course there was. (My sister’s response was the obligatory “that is udderly ridiculous!”)
Meant to be a calming presence, I sometimes found something vaguely unsettling about Muzak.
- Why was it just always there?
- Where did it come from and who was behind it?
The musical artists were largely faceless and anonymous. Names were not often announced, and I would have recognized only a handful of them anyway from my parents’ record collection.
As I recall, there weren’t what you would call “deejays” on the radio station, just a soft and deep male voice from an amorphous existence that would occasionally appear and soothingly announce the call letters of the station (“FM 100: a beautiful place to be”)
And who in the later evening would give a brief “end of the day” monologue in a hushed, peaceful tone, accompanied by an almost meditative whistling version of “Mack the Knife”.
Getting back to the music: the melodies were played instrumentally by large orchestral groups or sung by standard issue smooth vocal ensembles.
These were often familiar – yet totally different than the original versions of the songs I knew, meant to tame the wild beast of more current rock and pop music to make it more soothing and suitable as background music.
The cornerstone of the operation were the giant string sections, employed to smooth out the rough edges of the original recording, oozing enough layers of syrup to cause a maple tree to gasp for its last breath.
But they could get dark as well. An entire section of low strings on the foreboding melody of “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt 2”, with intermittent glissando stabs could somehow manage to feel more menacing and subversive than the Pink Floyd original.
Unbeknownst to me, there was an actual company called Muzak (which derived its name from the Kodak brand.)
They provided a large of amount of this music to restaurants, malls, and businesses, and which is where this style of music got its popular moniker.
The company also developed a “stimulus progression” program, which involved pumping in music to the workplace to increase productivity.
Eventually, to keep with the times, Muzak began including original recordings in their playlists, though always soft and muted in nature, never too obtrusive, in order to fit under the easy listening umbrella.
The “beautiful music” stations did this as well, and while still mostly instrumental, they would incorporate songs from classic old school singers like Perry Como and Johnny Mathis as well as the softer, middle of the road songs of the 70s. Bread’s “Aubrey” is one I remember hearing.
The origins and history of all of this remained a mystery to me at the time.
And if I had spent any time at all contemplating the idea that music could be used to manipulate one’s behavior, it would have only added to my complicated relationship with this gentle overlord.
Sure, I knew there was something off about a xylophone standing in for a Keith Richards guitar riff, an oboe (or was it an English horn) replacing a snarling Mick Jagger, and a perky brass section punching out the chorus of “Satisfaction”.
Even back then, elevator music was routinely mocked for obvious reasons that don’t need to be belabored.
It was never my choice to listen to any of it, but in perhaps a benevolent case of Stockholm Syndrome, I found myself giving in.
I remember one particular instrumental cover that I really liked when I was about 11, but I didn’t know the original. So I had no idea what it was. I asked practically anyone I knew if they knew the title, and I was given a few different answers.
It was decades later that I learned it was Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper.”
Out of the known musical groups that were featured, the lounge-Latin sounds of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66 stood out to me.
At first, they seemed strange. What in the world was up with their take on “With a Little Help from My Friends”?
And we laughed when they crooned the words “Shobby Shooba”. What did that mean?
It was actually “Chove Chuva (Constant Rain)”, which I only learned in the streaming era.
I grew to genuinely like them, and they are firmly imprinted in my musical DNA. I still listen to them frequently.
As I grew older, my teenage sensibilities should have eventually turned me wholly against all of this. Though I did find it slightly amusing to hear a somewhat misguided attempt at an orchestral version of a familiar Police song playing overhead as I walked along the local strip mall, I never fully rejected any of it. At that point it would have been akin to rejecting trees or grass.
Though Muzak basically fell out of practice by the mid to late 80s (my theory at the time was that it was replaced by smooth jazz), did it ever really die?
I can safely say that it will always be a part of me, and I am guessing I am not alone.
I could delve further into this music, but if you are of a certain age and place, you just know. And if you are not familiar, the only real way to somewhat do it justice… is to hear it for yourself.
I recently compiled a playlist of over 60 songs. Listening to it not only transports me back to pretty much my entire childhood, but I almost find myself becoming my father. Like no other kind of music, it evokes a feeling that I can’t quite describe, and maybe it is appropriate not to try. How do you explain something so
ubiquitous? It just is.
I will leave you with that playlist. Listen at your own risk. And if you find yourself kind of digging it, no need for worry or alarm.
Just sit back and relax. Everything is going to be just fine.
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