Fifteen Minutes: Music Vs. Muzak
Mu-zak, a trademark for a system of transmitting recorded background music by telephone line or radio to restaurants, stores, factories, etc. -noun, the music so transmitted, variously regarded as unobtrusive but pervasive, bland and monotonous, etc. (Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1980.)
The music at Chili's is a "big mix of crap," declares hostess Cara Fay. A mysterious person "downstairs" gets to choose one of three sanctioned stations to play: classic rock, 80s or, Fay says, "They call it pop, but they only play the most annoying girl in the world...what's her name?" Hit me one more time; it's Britney Spears. Working at Chili's, it seems, entails filtering out the music "they" filter in. "No one listens to it unless we hear a really good song," Fay says. "The B-52s gets everyone a little crazy...you know, with that song."
While "Love Shack" may be a hit at Chili's, the Kinko's across the street grooves at a self-proclaimed 24-7 muzak dance party--literally. The Muzak Company produces four-track mixes, which can only be played in special machines for stores across the country. This censorship of music through mechanical means irks Kinko's employee Shawn Griffin, who has abandoned three separate Starbucks jobs to escape working with people who didn't know how to have fun or listen to music. "[After a while] you don't really notice it's on anymore," he says, "because these extended length tapes of bubble-gum pop just play over and over and over." Griffin stays at Kinko's because he has learned how to beat their Muzak system by bringing in a car CD adapter for late-night Sublime and Portishead.
There's no beating the system at Abercrombie. Day after day, a manager puts the same CD on repeat and cranks it to a set ear-blasting store volume. Nationwide, Abercrombie plays pumping bass to whet customers' appetites for flared khakis. "After a while you don't notice [the volume]," says MIT senior Hans Yang, an employee at the Harvard Square branch. "But the music is supposed to make us seem like we are all having fun," he adds, swiveling his head back and forth to look for shoplifters. Yang does not seem to be having much fun, however, as he screams to be heard over the blaring "upbeat modern rock." Anyway, he liked last month's CD better.
Some liberal employers, on the other hand, use music to create a genuinely fun atmosphere, and Muzak just doesn't cut it. At Toscanini's, tattooed espresso aficionado Max Milgram believes the strategy's working; he and his fellow ice cream-scoopers remain enthusiastic because, he says, "We have an owner who is hip to everything and lets us choose. But we can't play anything too extreme---except late-night." If it was up to his tie-dyed coworker, Tessabelle Walker, "The only thing that would be playing is bootleg Phish and the Dead." Other Toscanini's staples include Portishead and Radiohead---and the microsundae.
--F. G. Tilney