When I broke up with my first boyfriend, I did not speak for days. Certain places became off limits, certain foods, people. But worst of all was the music. Oh, the music. And I’m not talking about listening to Dashboard Confessional on repeat, or making mixes rife with sad songs, or even creating playlist upon playlist with titles like, “Boys Are Scum Between My Toes.” (Because I did do all of that.) I’m talking about something different, a different kind of music.
After that first breakup, when I was able to finally leave the house, when I was finally able to return back to life, my friends took me out for “a night on the town.” We were walking under the awning of a BJ’s when I heard it—the faint sounds of Motown. Well, it was almost Motown: it was Muzak Motown. Two footsteps into the song, my two friends slowed, giving me an “Uh oh” look. They recognized it before I did. Soon, I too slowed: the notes hitting me, the song coming into full fruition. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations. Well, I fucking lost it. The heavens parted, and a giant hand came down, slapping me across the face. Every feeling came back. I started sweating, shaking. “I can’t believe this!” I yelled. “I can’t believe this! This can’t be happening!” It was my favorite song. Our favorite song: our favorite song together. But we weren’t together anymore. And this goddamned song coming from a goddamned pizza place was shoving that fact into my goddamned face. “I can’t believe this!” I repeated, indignant. I was swept quickly from under that awning, back into the cool sounds of nothing, but the damage was already done.
I’m talking about that kind of music: the music that haunts; the music that creeps in, without warning, and welcomes an unwelcome memory. Music we don’t choose to listen to, but that finds us, and catches us off guard. Music that is more of a whisper than a shout. Background music that pushes its way to the foreground.
The background music we know as Muzak was first utilized during WWII for use in offices and factories to promote faster work production. It wasn’t until the ‘60s and ‘70s that the company moved away from its factory origins, and started using popular music for use in restaurants, shopping malls, and, of course, elevators. While Muzak originally used fast tempo songs to encourage workers to produce more quickly, elevator music’s goal was to put its listener at ease.
It wasn’t until my run in with the Temptations back in 2007 that I began to hate Muzak. Sure, it was always a joke to me, a game. Who hasn’t chuckled when hearing a smooth jazz version of The Beatles, Wham! or my favorite, Rage Against the Machine? Muzak, for me, was good for a laugh. After the vocal-less version of “Ain’t Too Proud” nearly caused me a public nervous breakdown, I began to look at this so-called “easy listening” elevator music in a new light.
In one of the few essays I could find about Muzak, writer Ronald Radano decides that what distinguishes foreground from background music is that the latter is “decidedly void of the humanizing qualities we tend to associate with the musical work.” But while background music may strive to dissociate from human connection by flattening songs and stripping them of vocals, the use of popular music in Muzak adds back in a human element that often cannot be ignored. The goal of Muzak is to be unobtrusive yet familiar, but it is this exact familiarity that makes it intrusive. The listener, or, essentially, the non-listener, of elevator music, of Muzak, has the ability to recognize certain arrangements, certain notes, and it is this recognition that takes her out of the world of easy listening. Some songs carry with them previously formed associations, memories that can be evoked upon listening. And I began to wonder, to realize, what happens when those memories are bad…
I was taking a class in psychoanalysis around the same time I became bemused with Muzak. When I came across Freud and the Uncanny, I could not help but put two and two together: I had finally found the perfect adjective to place upon my Motown Muzak experience. Freud filed the Uncanny into “that class of the frightening which lends back to what is known of old and long familiar.” The Uncanny is not a feeling of fear that derives from an unknown, but instead a fear that derives from exactly the opposite—the known. The Uncanny is the unwanted familiar, a bad memory that comes to the surface, the return of the repressed. Is not Muzak the familiar turned strange?
I did not know what to do with my newfound feelings, my uneasiness. Why was this happening? In a different essay on Muzak, the writer Joseph Lanzano noted that “we can suspect that the same music designed to soothe us can also be altered to induce anxiety.” If something so innocuous as a few musical chords could knock me off my feet, what else could be the basis of my demise? I had to live my life! I had to move on. But how?
I began to listen to Motown. I turned my strange back into the familiar.
Refusing to be crippled, I decided to face my fears head on with a method that analysts like Freud would call, “conditioning.” Over time I listened to old mix-tapes, read old love letters, even watched Blue Valentine on Netflix. And you know what? I survived. Little things could no longer break me. Surrealist artist Andre Breton defined Freud’s Uncanny as that which is marvelous. To master the Uncanny is to undergo a revelation. In light of my musical undoing, I learned that the obvious was easy to tackle, but it was the less obvious, the things that took me off guard, the background music, that I really needed to battle. It is what you encounter without a clear path that is hardest to conquer, the hardest to find your way, but yet the most beautiful, the most rewarding.
So, my friends, confront your background music! Let it know who is boss! Just because you cannot grab something, does not mean it cannot be squashed. And just know it will be totally worth it if you do.