Like many music-obsessed New Yorkers, Oliver Truman navigates the honeycomb of city streets with headphones plugged into his ears. Mr. Truman, a 26-year-old marketing assistant with a beanstalk frame and curly-q’d chestnut hair, has a playlist called “walking” on his iPod, loaded with songs ranging from The Buzzcocks to The Four Tops.
On a recent weekend afternoon, he listened to The Jam while flipping through a magazine and Screwdriver while depositing a check at the bank. But when he got to the ’Wichcraft on 20th Street, he pulled those insect-size earbuds out of his ears.
“This is one of the places where I actually like the music they’re playing, it’s not the same stuff you hear everywhere, like R&B, top 40’s, T-Pain or whatever,” he explained between hefty bites of a chicken salad sandwich. The Velvet Underground played in the background. “Sometimes it’s like I never took my [iPod headphones] off.”
What’s the difference? IPod or no, we are perpetually surrounded by music these days, and often by the thumping beat of the Arcade Fire song “Laika” or the insane carnivalesque psychedelia of 60’s Brazilian bizarros Os Mutantes. Our restaurants, retailers, doctors’ waiting rooms and business offices silenced the languid keyboard covers of top 40 tracks or the smooth jazz that misted from their ceiling speakers long ago. Classic rock from Led Zeppelin? Harmless R&B from Mary J. Blige? Electronic blips from Brian Eno? Even pop jazz (blech) from Kenny G? Those are moldy elevator music choices. Now it’s all about obscure electroclash and bass-heavy baile funk. Underground hip-hop and grimy punk. The Kinks. The Clash. Black Sabbath. Even … Minor Threat? This is the new background music, and you can’t get away from it.
In the era of the earbud, businesses are making their own playlists using iTunes or getting custom-made “audio personalities” from music companies and trend-savvy DJ’s. No more gentle piano notes, smooth synthesizers and a string instrument or 20 to help the shopper buy, the client relax, the worker work. Then, background music was meant to literally fade into the background, whispering sweet nothings just out of earshot while the din of consumerism and socializing (couples chatting, plates clinking, cash registers clanging) took the main stage. But now companies are pummeling us frontally, with a half-ironic rock ’n’ roll sneer, slinging music from bands like Sri Lankan beat-mistress M.I.A. and emo-punk pioneers Jawbreaker into our ears.
The original, instrumental elevator music developed by the Muzak Corporation, the 74-year-old company that made so many languid synthesizer covers of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” was, actually, controversial: Angry listeners accused it of deploying mind-controlling, Orwellian tricks. It was, they claimed, formed as an emotional sedative, coaxing consumers into mindlessly and happily conforming to the capitalist society by buying useless things.
But this new background music, these punk, hip-hop and rock bands, made revolutionary sounds that were meant to wake us up. We wonder whether iPods constantly being in everyone’s ears lays a mental fog over the brain. Do we even listen to music anymore? Or is it all just sinking into the background, surrounding us like air-conditioning?
“I can’t help wondering if the incidence of earworms and musical hallucinations is higher now, with background music in every public place,” said Oliver Sacks in a recent interview with Wired about his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. “The brain is very sensitive to music; you don’t have to attend to it to record it internally and be affected by it. I think we may be exposed to too much loud and repetitive music. One patient of mine has epileptic seizures induced by music and has to wear earplugs in New York City. It’s a dangerous place for him.”
For all of us!
Grilled Peasant Bread With Side of Siouxsie and the Banshees
’Wichcraft partner Sisha Ortuzar, 35, orchestrates the sandwich shop’s playlists. He downloads songs off a site called eMusic.com that sells mp3’s for mostly independent artists. Using iTunes, he organizes the songs into playlists, one for each day of the week. Devendra Banhart in the mornings, Spoon and Enon during their busy lunch hours. He freshens the playlists about once a month, taking suggestions from workers and utilizing his own taste in music.
“You make an effort to find stuff because it’s fun, but also to find stuff that is not played out, not played at every restaurant or every other business.”
Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for The New York Times, has jammed to the background music in Little Giant, the Lower East Side fresh market eatery, which includes tracks from English New Wavers Squeeze and alt-country/rock band Wilco. In his 2005 review, he wrote: “During a typical dinner, I grabbed a slice of grilled peasant bread, slathered it with the restaurant’s evanescently sweet chicken-liver mousse, took a bite and smiled not just at what was happening in my mouth but at what was happening in my ears. Siouxsie and the Banshees? Circa the early 1980’s? Didn’t I own that album?” In The New York Times blog Diner’s Journal, Mr. Bruni is chronicling the music that has titillated his eardrums on his dining adventures across the country, like Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” in Dallas, Texas, at a fancy boite “with a clientele that doesn’t really dovetail with an angry pop tirade against infidelity.”