Having spent the weekend in a Hilton hotel in Hartford, Connecticut, this essay from Travel & Leisure by Peter Jon Lindberg, about “bad” music in corporate spaces open to the public, resonated with me (via NYT Ideas). The Hilton was particularly aggressive with the piped-in smooth jazz, which blared in the lobby and the coffee shop and the bar and the elevators and the indoor pool and the fitness center and possibly even the business center, which incidentally was basically an extortion scheme for those poor businesspeople who break their laptops during their stay. (The center offers you the opportunity to rent an old computer at the rate of 99 cents a minute. And don’t think you get internet access included with that, or with anything having to do with your stay with Hilton. In fact, the Hilton was out to nickel-and-dime patrons at virtually every level of service. Parking for $18 a night? $15 for the internet? This is not at all how the resort is portrayed on Mad Men.)
Lindberg’s essay is an intermittently amusing exercise in fussy snobbery:
Some people are irked by bad lighting, excessive AC, the reek of European men’s cologne. I’m hopelessly particular about music. Background sound tracks can make or break my impression of a place—and these days every place has one, from wine bars to Williams-Sonoma. Too often it’s employed with alarming incompetence…. I’ve walked out of otherwise appealing shops that elect to blare Maroon 5. I’ve hung up on reservations lines that put me on hold to “Groovy Kind of Love.” I bring earplugs on planes to block out not the roar of the engines but the insipid pabulum of the boarding music.
You get the idea. His taxonomy of Muzak is spot-on, though—Bebel Gilberto, Gypsy Kings, Amadou & Mariam. The idea is to evoke thoughtless, non-intrusive cosmopolitanism, the fantasy that global homogeneity is just one slick programmed beat away. Lindberg reserves special opprobrium for Sade, whose 1984 release Diamond Life was one of the first non-rock cassettes I ever owned. Like Hiltons across America, I believed it would make me seem sophisticated.
Lindberg ends up focusing on Muzak as professionalized aural branding for corporations trying to negotiate the diverse tastes of their clientele, and he even celebrates it, as long as it is “hip”—that is, suits his indie-rock tastes. That seems like a cop-out, but after all, the piece was published in Travel & Leisure, not Adbusters or something. But along the way, he cites an academic paper by business professors Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook, “Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go?: A critical consideration of the consumer culture,” which argues that the copious deployment of background music “support concerns that culture is degraded by marketers as a means of social control.”
By methodically testing the effectiveness of certain types of music to elicit certain behaviors in commercial spaces, canned-music suppliers instrumentalize music, make it “deployable” instead of listenable. Simply schematizing our emotional responsiveness to music may ruin it—giving credence to the frequent complaint that music criticism kills what it anatomizes. Music is “de-aestheticized”: The songs remain the same, but the uses to which they are put (as “retail atmospherics,” in the marketing jargon) irreparably alter how we can hear them. We can’t pay attention to it with the goal of immersing ourselves in it. It becomes background music everywhere—it gets iPodded, etc. Further, when music is deployed in this way, we no longer have the option of simply listening to it, of having an unmediated response to it. Music retains its emotional efficacy, but that efficacy is co-opted and used to achieve the ends of those deploying it. When we choose to hear something, we are giving our consent to be moved by it, but when it’s foisted on us, we are vulnerable to those properties in music that slip by our conscious defenses. We are moved against our will, to purposes that aren’t our own. These include efforts to make us buy more and buy specific things, but more surprising is the suggestion that “less pleasant music” affects our perception of time and theoretically makes waiting in line seem to pass more quickly. Bradshaw and Holbrook, pictures of academic neutrality, put it this way:
Apparently, more distasteful music will make the queue appear to move more quickly. Really loathsome stuff should make the wait breeze by in a jiffy. So can it be that the onslaught of diabolically annoying sounds that typically assaults the unwilling victim on such occasions – the most offensive canned drivel imaginable, epitomized by garden-variety vanilla-flavored squeaky-clean middle-of-the-road bland-as-blazes Muzak – actually makes the time seem to fly?
This speaks to Bradshaw and Holbrook’s more general point: Background music is meant to manage us, not entertain us. Whether people “like” it doesn’t figure in to the decision to pipe it in. They cite Adorno’s lament over our loss of the right not to hear music. (This puts a different spin on Keats’s verse: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”)
If background music can be so effectively instrumentalized, is its ultimate purpose not any particular local effect but a general conditioning of consumer-citizens? Is it subliminal orientation to our role in the totally administered society, or some such? “As we have demonstrated, music plays a complicit role in creating this conveyor-belt style of organized consumption, coaxing customers to travel at suitable speeds through a retail setting dependent on the manager’s manipulation,” Bradshaw and Holbrook write. They critique “consumer-culture theory”—that version of cultural studies that regards consumerism as a form of expression and rejects ideas that social control could be implmented top-down through cultural products. Consumers, to that view, are “more than capable of defending themselves against the onslaughts of commercially-entrenched brain washing.” But the efficacy and ubiquity of background music suggests otherwise. Consmers don’t transform it; they tolerate or ignore it while it works semi-subliminally. Music helps regulate our internal rhythms and synch them with the necessary flow demanded by capital. Often, we ignore background music, which suggests it’s working as it should and we are in that flow. When we notice it, when it galls us, we have become sand in the gears of postindustrial society.
I used to think this meant we should complain loudly and often about piped-in music, to prove that we are still alive. The melodrama helped me regard a gesture that cost me very little effort as something truly revolutionary—that is where I would take my last stand, against Natalie Imbruglia in the supermarket. But is this a matter of my performing my discontent, which gives me a stake in the persistence of background music, to give me my rebel identity? Bradshaw and Holbrook note how resistance is typically co-opted, and perhaps only registers when it is available for co-optation:
despite the tendency toward market resistance, the ultimate performed resistance is ironically market-mediated (Kozinets 2002) so that resisting one market discourse of power merely generates another (Thompson 2004). The phenomenon of a countercultural brand community entails a basic paradox.
The problem with resisting Muzak is that it plays immediately into self-presentation, how we use our tastes to market ourselves. The critique of background music is always already defused by the fact that the credibility and motives of the complainers can always be questioned. Many things in consumer society seem to work this way. The idea that we are all “brands” engaged in our ongoing identity projects, just like the corporations, levels the moral playing field and preempts resistance.