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