Underrated: Drown out the sound of silence: The case for muzak

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The Independent Culture
A colleague of mine was recently stuck between floors in a lift for over an hour. Soon after his rescue, I called him up to offer my condolences, and discovered that he was still strangely unsettled by the experience.

'I don't know why,' he whimpered, 'but I was fine, and suddenly, after 20 minutes, I started to panic. I couldn't breathe. Something must have happened to make me that scared. But I don't know what.'

The next morning, he phoned me back and exclaimed: 'I've got it] Why I suddenly panicked] They turned off the muzak] I was left in silence. Jesus] Am I that spineless?'

These days, of course, muzak is haughtily shunned as an antiquated relic of a bygone age, an unpleasant disturbance designed to sedate the schmuck consumer into shopping more bounteously in synthetically tranquil surroundings. There have even been calls to outlaw it, along with those enticing and welcome artificial fresh bread smells that they pipe through supermarket air-conditioning vents. Those who revile muzak suggest that one's shopping and leisure pleasures are heightened by only hearing 'natural' sounds, such as shrieking babies, babbling pensioners, crashing cutlery, screaming ambulances and thunderous roadworks. But, as my elevator-incarcerated colleague discovered to his cost, life without muzak can be a very frightening experience indeed.

Some things - as Joni Mitchell once intoned after a big yellow taxi took away her old man - are so entrenched in our way of life that we don't know what we've got until they've gone. And the calming tinklings of piped muzak will certainly prove to be an example of this, should the huffy demands to prohibit it succeed. But Joni Mitchell was wrong, too; some things are improved by their absence. Indeed, I recently visited the Excelsior Hotel in Heathrow and, as I sat in their fish restaurant, the PA system began to play a charming muzak version of 'Big Yellow Taxi', in which Joni's shrill voice had been replaced by a rather nice synthesised violin. For the first time, I was able to appreciate the song's alluring musical refrain without being distressed by the piercing vocal and the sincere ecological message. Instead of the words 'Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now', I was thrilled to hear simply, 'De deee de-deee de deee deee de deee deee de'.

And in these lamentable days of seemingly mandatory appalling song lyrics, what pop hit wouldn't benefit by being muzaked? A random 30- minute review of the output of Monday evening's Capital FM brings forth such dubious lyrical joys as the biologically invalid 'Two hearts living in just one mind'; the frightful cod surrealism of 'The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks'; and the unforgivably earnest 'The Russians love their children too'. A cacophony of artistic banality.

So much for banning muzak. It should be made compulsory.