The Day the Muzak Died

Years ago, the rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Ted Nugent announced that he was planning on buying the company that owns Muzak. Why? So he could destroy it.

“After being tortured in my dentist’s office, waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles or having that damned noise oozing out of a telephone while the bitch puts me on hold, I’ve had enough,” he explained. But he was unsuccessful.

When I first heard this, even though I initially dismissed it as a stupid publicity stunt, I was sorry he didn’t succeed. “Better luck next time, Ted,” I thought to myself. But now, I’m not so sure.

Surprisingly, considering Mr. Nugent’s right-wing opinions of everything from abortion rights, affirmative action and gun control, this was one of the few times where I found myself in complete agreement with something he said. Muzak has always hugely annoyed me throughout the years because I thought it was a dishonest perversion of a musician’s original vision; a simple-minded shortcut for lazy idiots who preferred skimming through a Cliff’s Notes pamphlet than reading the real thing to avoid struggling with all those sinister words. It’s like choosing to eat baby food instead of steak.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that I actually missed listening to Musak.

Don’t get me wrong: listening to a gooey, coma-inducing version of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” feels like somebody is pouring a gallon of maple syrup into my ears. But it’s preferable to the equivalent of an used car salesman trying to sell me something. Even at its worst, Muzak gave you a few minutes of pleasure, reminding you of a favorite song you forgotten. In spite of yourself, you (almost) enjoyed it. Now, unfortunately, instead of a pleasant memory, you get a sales pitch. And that’s what you’re hearing in place of Muzak these days.

Instead of phony music, you’re hearing and seeing omnipresent liars trying to sell you cell phones, magazine subscriptions, car insurance, free samples of Viagra or whatever and it’s not just annoying, it’s incredibly intrusive. What’s made it worse is you’re trapped because while you’re waiting to wash your clothes, buy your groceries or get your car fixed, there’s a television yelling at you.

And it isn’t just television anymore. How many times have you’ve been tortured by pop-ups and Spam while sitting at the PC? Going to the movies, instead of trailers you’re seeing commercials that you can’t shut off with your TV remote. If Nugent picked up the phone today, he wouldn’t hear that “damned noise”. He’d hear a robotic voice telling him about a great new long distance plan. This is a big media genie that doesn’t want to go back into the bottle and I don’t know what we can do about it.

Lately, I keeping thinking about a scene in the science-fiction movie Minority Report where corporate intrusion into our lives had gotten so bad, even Tom Cruise’s box of breakfast cereal tried to sell him something. Doesn’t seem like a fantasy anymore, does it? Before, just to get some peace and quiet, you needed a portable CD player. Now, you need a sensory deprivation tank. Maybe we’ll be safe for a little while before we inevitably become a vast herd of obedient Neos with sockets in the back of our necks plugged into the global version of Wal-Mart.

Ted, I think you and me owe Muzak an apology.

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