muzak in the observer

Via Fimolicious, the Observer had a piece on Muzak the other day, asking what it means that so many people walk around all day lang with their iPods blasting music originally designed to be rebellious—be it punk rock or gangster rap. The piece then goes into a history of Muzak, but unfortunately it seems to get cut off at a strange point.

Even if the pyramid style of reporting, in which the most important news is at the top still makes sense for news on the net, it’s strange that when editors cut pieces to fit columns, the cut version is generally what you also see on the Web site. I suppose it’s so as not to degrade the ailing print versions further, but still. In any event, for more on Muzak, read Blue Monday

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muzak fills the deadly silences

An excerpt from Blue Monday:

Muzak developed during the era of Art Deco architecture and “jazzy” design. Like Art Deco, Muzak was meant to inspire office workers to move along to the increasingly fast pace of the modern corporation. Just as design and architecture evolved from Art Deco to the International Style, Muzak moved to the Stimulus Progression.

The streamlined geometry of Art Deco design attempted to mask the repetitive nature of office work with a representation of the speed and tempo of modern music. But Art Deco failed to keep its promise: fixed in architectural form, it could only represent change, and was not itself capable of changing over time. As workers grew accustomed to Art Deco, they grew bored of it, associate its forms with the overheated exuberance of the 1920s and the desperate salesmanship of the Great Depression. As International Style modern architecture spread in the postwar era, Muzak spread with it. Muzak punctuated activity on the floors of the Johnson Wax Company building, Lever House, the Seagram building, the Chase Manhattan bank building, the Pan Am building, the Sears Tower, the Apollo XI command module and countless other modernist structures. Muzak is the hidden element in every Ezra Stoller photograph of a modernist office interior. By 1950, some 50 million people heard Muzak every year.

Muzak made modernism palatable sonically. The new, hermetically sealed office buildings that the glass curtain wall and postwar air conditioning system permitted were capable of blocking out distracting sounds from outside, but without these sounds, two new conditions emerged. In some areas, office machines, building control systems, and fellow employees became more distracting while in others, you simply had too much quiet making the artificial lack of environmental sound uncomfortably noticeable. Broadcasting Muzak ensured a superior, controlled background condition.

Muzak’s slogan during this period was “Muzak fills the deadly silences.” But Muzak isn’t just invisible to the eyes, in the company’s own words, Muzak “is meant to be heard, but not listened to.” Aimed at a subliminal level, the immaterial gestures of the Stimulus Progression were neither ornamental nor representational, but rather physiological. Workers did not think about Muzak, they were programmed by it. As soon as Muzak received any requests for songs, they immediately removed them from the library. Like the Fordist worker, Muzak that drew attention to itself was deemed unsuccessful and dismissed.

By filling the deadly silences, Muzak supported modernism and made the impersonality of the Fordist management system more palatable. In bridging melody (individuality) and monotony (the abstract field), Muzak provided an element of accommodation against a background of abstraction, acting as a palliative for both the modern office and for modern architecture. Interactions between individuals that would otherwise have been uncomfortable, such as disciplinary reprimands, terminations, and general office tension could all be alleviated by its soothing background tones.

Composed almost exclusively of love songs stripped of their lyrics, the Stimulus Progression provided a gentle state of erotic arousal throughout the day. Desire, union, and disappointment could all be felt collectively, albeit subconsciously, thereby adding color to the day and blunting the impact of such emotions when real life erupted in the workplace. James Keenen, Ph.D., the Chairman of Muzak’s Board of Scientific Advisors concluded that “Muzak promotes the sharing of meaning because it massifies symbolism in which not few but all can participate.” Muzak provided the same symbolic experience as the pre-Industrial song did, but this sharing of meaning happened below the threshold of consciousness.

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