Originally published in Travel + Leisure, November 2009; finalist for a National Magazine Award for Columns & Commentary, 2010.
IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’ll agree there’s nothing so dispiriting as finding yourself in the lavishly appointed dining room of a luxury resort, flute of Prosecco in hand, about to embark on a nine-course tasting menu—when, from somewhere up on the ceiling, in wafts the opening verse of “Lady in Red.”
Maybe I’m oversensitive, but it felt like a dentist’s drill aimed squarely at my skull. I loathed Chris de Burgh’s 1986 original; going cheek-to-cheek with this florid instrumental version was infinitely worse. From that point on the meal became an afterthought, while the god-awful sound track consumed all my attention. An orchestral arrangement of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” came and gave without mercy. Mantovani’s rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” only made me wish I were.
They say music has the perceived effect of slowing down time. In this case it made time grind to an agonizing halt. By dessert (rhubarb tart and six violins playing “Against All Odds”) my thoughts were with Manuel Noriega, holed up in that embassy, besieged by the likes of Rick Astley. When I finally escaped to my room, I savored the silence like never before.
At breakfast the next morning, however, it was a whole new vibe. Jazz drifted through the room like sunlight glistening off the china. The warble of Chet Baker’s trumpet put me in a perky mood. Everything seemed brighter, crisper, cooler. Two meals, two playlists, two wildly different impressions of the very same table.
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’m not talking about loud music in public spaces. I’m talking about bad music in public spaces. If the right song playing at the right restaurant functions like a rave review posted in the window, the wrong music is like a violation notice from the Board of Health: DO NOT APPROACH. BACK SLOWLY AWAY.
Most people, I’m told, hardly notice background music, which I guess is the point. But like a dog tuned to the shrillest frequencies, I seem to register only the most grating aural wallpaper, the Célines and Enriques and Mariahs (she of the voice like a dog whistle). 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.
In certain environments songs are presumed to help people relax. They generally have the opposite effect. Spas still insist on playing what my piano teacher liked to call “newage” (“rhymes with sewage”). This sounds innocuous enough for the first two minutes, but after an hour ties your nerves into knots faster than any therapist can undo them. Airports play soaring ballads that are supposed to make you feel like you’re flying; they make me feel like stabbing someone with a piccolo. Resorts pump their newage right into the pool via underwater speakers, leaving you no hope of escape. Even hospitals get it unfathomably wrong. A friend of mine went in for an MRI and had to endure not only her own claustrophobia but also the clinic’s cheesy piped-in sound track—45 minutes of continuous soft hits to the head.
The infuriating thing about background music is not that it’s unavoidable; it’s that it screws with the natural order of things, elevating the blandest drivel (“Lady in Red”) to the status of a timeless classic—or, worse, sullying timeless classics (“Eleanor Rigby”) by programming them alongside the drivel.
It would be revealing to compile an alternative history of Western music, focused solely on Songs Played in Hotel Lobbies and Cruise-Ship Corridors Through the Ages. You’d document a bizarro parallel universe, one where Michael McDonald is more popular than Led Zeppelin and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons trumps everything by Mozart. The Eagles would be more revered than Dylan; Jamiroquai bigger than Springsteen. And at the top of the pyramid, with her Nagel-print cheekbones, would sit Sade.
The quintessential background record of any era, Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1984) was also the perfect theme for its time: languid, sexy, and reeking of money. This explains why it’s been playing in yacht clubs and business-class lounges since the Reagan administration, despite being a patently ridiculous song (not least for the sax solo). Its popularity highlights a key ingredient of the genre: If you’re going to make sultry, anodyne lounge music, it helps to sing with an accent. Sade’s own inflections—she rhymes Key Lah-go with Chicago—were indeterminate (French? Latin? Nigerian? Who could tell?), yet indisputably cosmopolitan.
An even better tactic for background success? Don’t sing in English at all. Whether it’s Serge Gainsbourg wooing Jane Birkin or Cesaria Evora lamenting her saudade, foreign-language songs are believed to lend any venue an air of sophistication. They’re easy to listen to and easy not to listen to, since the lyrics make no sense. Where would your neighborhood tapas bar be without the worldly stylings of the Gipsy Kings, the Buena Vista Social Club (the Gipsy Kings of the 90’s), and Amadou & Mariam (the Gipsy Kings of the 00’s)?
Then there’s Brazilian music, which has supplanted reggae as the global sound track for chillaxing. From Bali to Bodrum, every high-end sandal emporium and beachfront sushi bar seems to play the same 12 songs by the same six Brazilian singers—particularly Bebel Gilberto, the Brazilian Sade. The samba is as ubiquitous as the caipirinha. (Don’t get me wrong, I adore Brazilian music, even after 3,500 listens. Not knowing Portuguese, I used to think it the most romantic music of all. I’ve since learned that every song is about soccer. But I love it no less.)
If you think I take this way too seriously, talk to Daniel Barenboim. The Argentine conductor has spoken out vehemently against the creep of background music into every corner of public life, calling it “as disturbing [as] the most despicable aspect of pornography.” Others agree. A London-based group called Pipedown is waging a vigorous campaign against canned music; in 2002 they staged a demonstration outside Selfridges department store. Two years earlier, a bill was introduced in the British House of Commons proposing a ban on recorded music in civic spaces. (It didn’t pass.)
Citizens have to reclaim “the right not to listen to music,” argue Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook in their (very funny) 2008 treatise “Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go?” Comparing background music to secondhand smoke and acid rain, the economists claim it promotes “a culture of non-listening.” More troubling to the authors is the insidious manipulation at work by marketing and retail puppeteers who don’t play music so much as deploy it. Studies have shown that sad songs can actually boost greeting-card sales; that slow songs inspire shoppers to spend more time in supermarkets; and that classical music spurs diners to order more expensive bottles of wine.
Background music is as old as recording itself—though, unlike the recording industry, it shows no sign of going away. It found its apotheosis in Muzak, created in 1934 and still heard in 400,000 locations worldwide. Other services have expanded on the Muzak model, including the Austin-based DMX, which sends its 106 satellite channels out to Cheesecake Factories and Gold’s Gyms across the nation, reaching 80 million defenseless listeners. DMX’s themed playlists range from Malt-Shop Oldies and Riviera Discothèque to Italian Bistro Blend, which sounds like a coffee and seems to perform the same function. (“Give me a nonfat ‘Volare’ with a double shot of Prima!”)
DMX, it turns out, was responsible for the turgid dinner mix I’d heard at the resort. This was Channel 22, Beautiful Instrumentals. Then again, the Chet Baker mix I’d enjoyed over breakfast was also a DMX stream: Channel 5, Straight-Ahead Jazz. Perhaps they weren’t wholly evil after all. Later I spoke to the resort’s GM and gently suggested that he reconsider the dinner music. He made no promises, though the phrase “melon scooper in my eardrum” was, I thought, fairly convincing. Still, one man’s Mantovani is another man’s Mingus. Who’s to say the regular clientele won’t prefer Beautiful Instrumentals to Straight-Ahead Jazz?
This is the fundamental problem with music in public spaces. Not everyone has an opinion about the proper temperature of the salmon or the aesthetic merit of that floral arrangement. But everyone has an opinion about music. There’s no accounting for taste, especially that of your customers. No wonder so many places farm their music out to professionals.
My friend Jeremy Abrams is one of those professionals. His consulting company, Audiostiles, devises playlists for Thomas Keller’s restaurants and Four Seasons Hotels, among other clients. The service is as much about branding as it is about entertainment. As Abrams explains on his website, “Décor, accessories, and clothes all create image, persona, and mood…. Music now does the same.” A well-chosen “soundscape” also says, “Trust us, we’re hip. Even if we didn’t program this iPod.”
The idea that piped-in music could actually be hip is a relatively new one. Perhaps I’m just getting old and out of touch, but lately I’ve been hearing songs I like in the Container Store. Eight times out of 10 they still subject you to James Blunt, but just when you’re ready to hang a noose around that Elfa closet rod, along comes Arcade Fire to set everything right.
The sea change, for me, came on a recent flight on Delta. It’s been my experience that music, like food, is best avoided on passenger jets. So imagine my surprise at actually enjoying Delta’s boarding music—even writing down the names of songs to buy later: Grant Lee Phillips’s “Fountain of Youth,” M. Ward’s “For Beginners,” Jeremy Messersmith’s cover of the Replacements’ “Skyway” (my favorite song by my favorite band). When was the last time you discovered great music on an airplane?
For the most part, though, the song remains the same. Three hours later I was in the airport waiting out a layover when my ears pricked up at a familiar line: “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago.../Across the north and south to Key Lah-go....” It suddenly struck me that I’ve heard “Smooth Operator” more times than I’ve heard “Born to Run,” more often than I’ve listened to NPR’s All Things Considered, maybe more than I ever heard my own grandmother speak. It’s not as if I chose to; I never owned the recording (and if I did I wouldn’t tell anyone). Yet at that particular moment, I confess, it was the ideal sound track. The lazy spirals of saxophone melted the stress of the commute away. The epic line at security didn’t loom as large. I had considered popping a Xanax, but no longer felt the need. •