Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Muzak Man

An icon of American pop culture is teetering on the edge of the economic collapse. And maybe that's a good thing.

Muzak Holdings, the maker of background music heard in elevators, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this past week.

If this is indeed The Day the Muzak Died, we will at last be free from decades of ear pollution that threatened to turn our brains to oatmeal.

No longer will we be subjected to romanticized versions of "Disco Inferno," "Stairway to Heaven" or "Mustang Sally" performed by the 101 Strings and endlessly piped into elevators, doctors offices, restrooms, grocery stores and bank lobbies.

No longer will we be put on hold for a half hour while some orchestra plays "The Sounds of Silence" or "Tired of Waiting for You."

In 1989, rocker Ted Nugent tried to buy the company for $10 million just so he could destroy it. One wag claimed the name was a combination of Music and Prozak.

For whatever else it may have been, Muzak had a dark soul. According to published reports, the company marketed a theory called "stimulus progression" which stated that a person's outlook could be altered with music.

Offices played 15-minute blocks of Muzak tracks that increased in tempo until the final song was so upbeat the workers found themselves happily toiling away when they normally would start to lag.

One man's manipulation is another man's brainwashing.

To give Muzak its due, it has in recent years moved away from the
"elevator music" approach to multiple specialized channels of music, including offering channels of commercially available recordings intended to match the targeted environment.

But live or die, the name Muzak will always be synonymous with music to slack your jaw by.

Pass me my I-Pod.

President Obama's speech to the nation in front of joint session of Congress Tuesday night was remarkable for two reasons.

First, it was a pep talk that Americans needed to hear. But at the conclusion of almost every sentence we were treated to the sight of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaping to her feet to lead the applause. She looked like a jack-in-the-box that landed on a whoopie cushion.

After a while, it became a distraction. I stopped watching the president and focused on Pelosi, wondering if she was going to break out a set of pompons. Enthusiasm is fine, and I know she had to sit next to Dick Cheney for two years. But next time, Nancy, fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a long ride.

To hear tell it, Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard showed up on Colorado Boulevard one recent morning, his chain saw glimmering in the sun, the stub of a half-chewed cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, and, aided by a pack of hired goons, started chopping down ficus trees.

I don't necessarily subscribe to this view of events but there's no debating the heated level of rhetoric over the city's tree removal ordinance. The city recently approved a plan to remove three dozen ficus and carrotwood trees and replace them with palm and ginko trees.

Businesses in the area have complained that the ficus trees have caused costly repairs to sidewalks and sewers. And, more to the point, obscured signs. There's a lot of evidence to support this view. Santa Monica, among other cities, has been yanking ficus trees and replacing them for years.

Advocates say the trees provide needed shade and beauty. No argument there. You have to wonder if a little more study would have resulted in a better solution such as better maintenance, better replacement choices.

Several council members said they felt compelled to stick with the original removal plan, since it is part of a phased landscaping plan that dates back to 1996.

So what? Nobody was asking the council to repeal the Bill of Rights. Just reconsider an ordinance. It's too bad patience didn't carry the day.

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