Sunday, July 13, 2008

When Listening is Work

One factor that may have encouraged me to run screaming from respectable music was the time I spent working in a large office in my early twenties. We had the misfortune of having an office manager who insisted that, instead of the glorious cacophony of fifty radios all tuned to different stations playing at the same time, only one radio station should be allowed. She chose the one with the format which at the time was known as Easy-listening.

Back then, the purveyors of Easy Listening music were people like Percy Faith and Mantovani, whose job it was to do lame versions of the recent hits of the day. They could always be counted on to re-make a good record in the worst possible way. Anything that had a beat was rendered beatless (that extra “s” makes all the difference, doesn’t it?), anything with a brain was lobotomized. Forget about anything with genitals.

It was painful to listen to, but it was only when I heard their version of John Lennon’s “Love” (from “Plastic Ono Band”) that I knew that I was my own customized circle of hell. You’d think that such a song would be right up their alley, but alas it’s so fragile and beautiful that it must be handled with care. They, of all people should have known this, but what did they do? They sped it up and made it…snappy. In other words, they tarted it up. It was like finding out that the lovely, shy girl you had a crush on snapped her gum and loved “Three’s Company”.

When enough of us got fed up with this (I’ll admit it’s not a major chapter in labor history), management took the bold step of changing the station to the one with the then-new “Lite” format. Although the decision was universally applauded, it proved to be of only momentary relief to me. The main difference between Easy Listening and Lite was that the former was comprised of lousy versions of decent songs, while the latter was made up of the original versions of awful songs.

It’s hard to remember now, but besides the power ballads and dance music of the day, there existed another genre of which most dare not speak. Remember “Mellow”? Oh, sure you do. It was the early eighties version of Easy Listening. Melissa Manchester, Peabo Bryson, Heinrich Himmler. Okay, maybe not him, but you get the idea. In a way, it was even worse than Easy Listening, which you could at least share a good laugh over. When I ridiculed Lite FM, everyone looked at me like I was nuts. For once, unjustly.

Now, there were an awful lot of middle aged ladies who would sing along wistfully to “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, that is, when they weren’t cursing you out for misfiling something. So there was obviously an audience for this stuff. Middle aged ladies in offices, I guess (which begs the question what the hell was I doing there? That’s a whole other blog.) But to this day there are songs for which I have nothing but revulsion – most of the Lionel Ritchie catalog, Air Supply and others who shall not be named.

And to be fair, this kind of experience isn’t confined to the business setting. Around this time, I was in a wedding party and on the way to the reception when Dan Fogelberg came on the radio. Now I will admit to going through brief non gay (I guess) Dan Fogelberg phase, but his song “Longer” was like a bucket of ice water thrown in my face, and I shipped him off to James Taylor Island where sensitive male singer songwriters have no females to feel sorry for them, and eventually cannibalize each other. (Did I hear someone say reality show?) So on comes “Leader of the Band”, one of his more shameless tear-jerkers, and the female members of the wedding party sang along in unison. Thinking I’d just stumbled onto some kind of cult, I looked to my fey fellow ushers for assistance. They could only shrug and shake their heads.

And then there was the time back before we had a car and had to get a ride home from a weekend at the beach. The driver was the friend of a friend, and although my girlfriend and I appreciated the ride, the two hours it took seemed much longer because of the radio station he had on. He seemed to prefer ‘70s top-40 to 60s. There was an awful, late-period Grass Roots song he sang along with to his girlfriend. For her part, she liked, and felt she needed to explain the moral of the ditty about the woman who had a wild life and then settled down. This seemed like the normal order of events to me, so I didn't know what the big deal was. I think the singer was trying to persuade the listener to skip the wild part. Not bloody likely. (Some basic survival instinct has blocked out the memory of the song titles. Please don’t feel obligated to remind me.) My girlfriend and I spent most of the drive with our eyes thoroughly rolled, which made me almost lose a contact lens. If I wasn’t such a cheapskate, on top of the gas money, I would have given him a few extra bucks to change the station.

And now I find there’s a new format called “Fresh”, which is essentially Easy Listening for the new millennium. I guess it’s what I’m hearing when I go into the local Walgreen’s. And you know, it could be a lot worse. They sometimes even find songs that I like. However, I rarely get to fully enjoy them. They always seem to get interrupted at the best part. (“Hey, Jude…DON’T MISS TODAY’S SPECIAL ON THE EXTRA LARGE TUBE OF PREPARATION H FOR $6.99. …And make it better”, and in a totally different key to boot.) If I were more conspiracy minded, I’d say that they were consciously replacing the hooks with the promos, just so that we get conditioned to enjoy them.

All of these formats are based on the mistaken notion that there is music we all like. Not! And while I can always hang up when I'm on hold, drive my own damned car and listen to what I want in private, workplace music has a captive audience, and is thus a form of musical Fascism. Now you may feel that the use of such a term trivializes the deaths of millions of people, especially when compared to one person’s urge to change a channel. But please bear in mind that I’m that one person.

But seriously, those poor people who work in a place where they are forced to listen to the same music all day long must surely go mad. Whenever there’s a workplace massacre, we re-run our debates about gun control and a culture of violence. But my first question is always What was playing on the radio?

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