Show Hide image

Will Self: Is there nowhere I can escape the tyranny of muzak?

All right-listening folk despise this piped sonic sewage.

Sitting in the snug bar-cum-restaurant of Tarr Steps Farm – a monstrously comfy little boutique establishment in the Exmoor National Park – I looked out over the wooded valley. I felt the stress of the metropolitan go-round slacken in my shoulders. My wife, bless her, observed at this point quite how strange it was that even an establishment of this type, with this sort of clientele – wealthy, foodie, moderately outdoorsy – still had a loop of soft rock music playing in the background in its public areas.

I had become so relaxed that for once I hadn’t even noticed the muzak (a term, which, up until 2009 when the company Muzak Holdings filed for bankruptcy, should always have been written with a capital “M” and accompanied by a ®, since it was the coinage of one George Squier, who took out the patents for ambient music systems in the early 1920s) but once I registered that Foreigner, or some other equally tedious combo, was perturbing the air with their guitars, my breakfast – hitherto irenic – was entirely ruined.

Like all right-listening folk I am an implacable enemy of all muzak. True, I’m not in the position of those factory workers for whom muzak in the 1940s and 1950s constituted a sort of mind-control – or “stimulus progression” as it was chillingly, Pavlovianly termed – designed to move their tasks forward with its insistent and carefully calibrated tempo, while lulling them into the monotony of their tasks with its equally bland and Lethe-like melodies.

However, even in modern Britain we of the whitish collars are still subject to a form of this. I travel for work and there doesn’t seem to be a Travelodge or Holiday Inn Express the length of the land that doesn’t come equipped with its own piped sonic sewage, which is surely at least partially designed to send the punters quickly on their way, to generate more “growth”.

I remember finding myself in one such establishment in Norwich – eating breakfast, natch – when I became insistently aware of some particularly crap muzak and upon looking up saw the speaker cabinet immediately above my head, trailing some tempting wires. I stood up on my chair and detached them – bingo! silence (except for the mastication of my fellows) fell like a 30-tog duvet across the room. Unfortunately, a maintenance man hove into view, opened a stepladder and reinserted the jack plugs. I waited until he’d retreated, then got back up on my chair and was about to commit this dreadful crime against late capitalism for the second time, when he leapt out at me from behind a pillar and near-screamed: “Don’t you move!”

I thought I was about to be dragged away to some inhuman reconditioning unit, where, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I would be subjected to muzak until I learned to love it. But this didn’t happen, because I was in just such a unit already.

True, there was a backlash against the hateful “elevator music” in the 1960s but those natures that abhor a sonic vacuum outflanked this effortlessly by in the one ear incorporating the pop hits of the day into their go-round and in the other devising something they termed “audio architecture”: muzak still more cunningly fashioned to sink below the level of ordinary consciousness, while yet retaining its ability to influence. The success of these stratagems can only be gauged by just how little mass objection there is to the fact that nary a nook nor cranny of the built environment remains unsullied by these sound smirches.

I found myself a while back eating dinner in the trendy restaurant at Kings Place, which, among other functions are the Guardian’s fancy new premises. My dining companions were a trio of my late father’s friends, who taken together had a collective age of over 270. These feisty nonagenarians – whose sparky conversation, wit and general insouciance in the face of egregious modernity would put a similar group half their age to shame – showed no animus towards the muzak playing, despite one of them being very hard of hearing.

I, however, am made of less stoical stuff and bearded the waitress, explaining that since we were the only diners and we didn’t want to listen to The Four Seasons, perhaps she could turn the fucking noise off! She looked at me quizzically and replied – as if this definitively settled the matter – “But this is a restaurant.” The obvious implication was that even when all human life is extinct on this planet, there will remain buildings that continue to resound with Barber’s Adagio or indeed Lou Gramm warbling, “I wanna know what love is . . . !”


Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism