Thursday, October 20, 2022

Muzak-The American Work Song




“I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else to invent.”  

Lily Tomlin  

A few days ago I was in SEPTA’S Jefferson Station, and I was in a bad mood. I was in the middle of doing a bunch of errands that I did not want to do, I had gotten some bad news about a friend’s health, and I was upset, tired, worried and concerned. I was talking to a friend on my cell, and suddenly a Muzak version of the song, Stand By Me came over the station’s PA. I lost it. I love that song-the sense of devotion and pleading and passion that the original version of that song conveys still moves me to this day. And it was totally lost in this silky- smooth, instrumental, even-tempoed,  syrupy, violin-heavy Muzak version, and I was outraged.   

After I talked to my friend and calmed down I laughed and reflected on my outrage. It was clear that it was the culmination of a rough day, and I took it out on the Muzak. I laughed at myself, and then I started reflecting on what Muzak is and has been, and how it came to be. The history teacher in me took off, and I did some research about this seemingly strange and ubiquitous background to so much of American life. Because for decades, Muzak has been a soundtrack for all of us. It has been there for so long and in so many ways that we scarcely notice it anymore.  

When we hear the word “muzak” the first thought that often comes to mind is, “elevator music.” Muzak had it origins in the 1930’s and was invented as a way to send music through wires to people in their homes. Major George Squiers had perfected how to send recorded music over wires and wanted it to go to customers in their homes. However, radio had become very popular, and radio soon cornered most of that market. In the meantime, cities, and especially urban downtowns, were starting to boom across the nation. This meant huge office towers and this strange new invention called, “the elevator.” Initially Americans were very nervous about elevators; the idea of going way up in a tall building, stuffed into a narrow tight compartment carried only by a string, and in close contact with strangers, was not so appealing to many folks. To make this easier for people to deal with, office towers started piping in soothing, non-threatening music to calm people’s nerves during their elevator rides. This took off, and the Muzak Company had its opportunity. The company would bring in orchestras to record calm versions of both original material and popular songs, and then lease and sell these recordings to building owners via subscriptions. Soon office buildings, restaurants, and stores in downtowns all over the country were carrying Muzak. Mass background music had arrived in the Untied States via The Muzak Companyand its “musical architects.” 

World War II really cemented Muzak into the nation’s psyche. Major Squiers was into what we would now call “psychological research,” and he discovered that playing certain types of music in factories at certain times changed moods and made factory workers both happier and more productive. Remember-the US had to suddenly start mass producing tons of things for the war effort, from uniforms and ammunition to vehicles, weapons and more. Many of the workers hired to do these jobs had never worked in a factory or on an assembly line before. Something had to help them adjust. Muzak would do that. It would pipe in blocks of 15 minutes of carefully selected music per hour to help factories run more productively and smoothly. When that worked, factory owners brought hundreds of subscriptions to the service. Muzak was here to stay.  

Although we may not be aware of it, Muzak is all around us still. It has gone from elevator music to fsactories to now designing and providing carefully selected audio programs for all types of businesses, from offices, to restaurants, department stores, warehouses, train stations, malls, and more. Yes, there are places that are seemingly streaming from playlists in coffeehouses. But some of that is Muzak. Small businesses cannot afford the licensing fees for the music they play, and the Muzak Company can, so it does that for them. So it is unconsciously still a vital part of the everyday life of many Americans.  

After thinking about it and researching it some, I am tending to look at he phenomenon of Muzak as a type of universal soundtrack or “work song” for much of American culture. Every culture has some type of music that its members sing or chant or listen to that draws them together, calms them, and keeps them centered as they work and go about their regular day-think of the stereotype of the chain gang worker. Muzak is quietly like that for many of us, whether it is setting a mood and helping us calm down as we eat and/or navigate the aisles in a crowded store, trying to motivate us to spend more money, helping us wait in line without getting too riled up, or what.  It is our “collective work song,” even if it does screw up some great tunes every now and then.   

(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”         

VOTING IN 2022  

The last day to register to vote in the mid-term election in Pennsylvania is Monday, October 24th. If you are not registered, please register, and if you are, check your registration by the deadline. And please show up and vote. This may well be the most important and consequential election in our lifetimes. We all need to show up and have a say. Thanks  


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