I like having music on at pretty much all times. That doesn’t mean I like Muzak.

Remember Muzak? There was a time when this bland, innocuous, lobotomized form of music provided the soundtrack to grocery stores, office buildings, and elevators. The Muzak company took popular songs, emasculated them with sugary, string-drenched arrangements that leached every drop of life and vitality from the music, and packaged it all as the perfect accompaniment to efficient modern life. It would have been perfect for a Stepford Wives hootenanny

I remember Muzak. When I was in high school I was a supermarket bag boy. This was in the era before “paper or plastic?” There was no plastic. You took paper and you liked it. My job was to segregate the soap from the chicken, make sure not to load any bag with too many cans, put the ice cream in a freezer bag, and locate the eggs carefully so they wouldn’t break, and then bring the bags out to the customers’ cars.

I hated it.

The job was bad enough. Having to wear a bright green apron with a name tag made it worse. What pushed into the realm of the unendurable was having to perform my menial tasks to the mind-numbing sounds of Muzak, audio that sounded like it had been created in a lab by Eisenhower-era engineers with slide rules and pocket protectors.

In fact, Muzak predated the Eisenhower era by several decades, although Ike was the first president to have it piped it into the White House. The muse of Muzak was Major General George O. Squier, who trademarked the name way back in 1922. The Major’s breakthrough was the development of a method to deliver music to many customers at the same time—but to only his customers (unlike radio signals, which anyone can pluck from the air). Later his company began developing its own white-bread versions of popular songs.

It all became very scientific. Studies showed that workers and shoppers performed their assigned tasks better when the right music was being played softly in the background. The Muzak company developed something called “Stimulus Progression” that was supposed to act like an audio pep pill, a string-based pick-me-up that would make for a better, stronger, more consumer-oriented America.  If bees had the ability to create Muzak, no doubt the queens play it in the hives to motivate the drones.

Well, I can say that things are better now. The grocery stores I go into today no longer play Muzak. They play popular music. As I’ve made my way down the aisles I’ve heard Elvis Costello, the Cure and even New Order. In a world that sometimes seems to be plunging to hell in a handbasket, the death of Muzak is one positive development.

However, it’s quite possible that the popular tunes I hear in the supermarket these days arrive via Muzak’s parent company, which over the years turned away from its overly pasteurized, lifeless product and began providing its customers with a wide variety of real tunes. But it must have been too little, too late for the now-bankrupt Muzak LLC. I wonder what Ted Nugent thinks about it. In 1989 Terrible Ted, the Motor City Madman, offered to buy Muzak for $10 million just so he could have the pleasure of putting it out of business. Looks like Ted saved himself some dough.

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