Thursday, May 6, 2010

Soul music

(Note: this post talks a lot about popular music. I'm not including links to each song; you can search YouTube as well as I can.)

While my mother was, on the whole, charmed beyond reason with our fair country, there was one aspect of our colonial lifestyle that drove her completely up the wall. This was the inescapability of background music.

Just to be clear what we're talking about here: in New Zealand, practically every shop, mall, cafe, restaurant, food hall, arcade, bar and supermarket you can walk into has its own canned music playing - usually low, but very audible. It's everywhere. Even on the street you can often hear it. It is so ubiquitous that, when I find a rare case of a shop that doesn't have it, I will pause and wonder for a few moments before I figure out what's missing - then I'll enjoy the peace.

Contrast: in 1992 I visited Budapest - my first trip behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain - and there, too, I found music everywhere; but that was live music, played by real musicians. Good musicians. It seemed that dozens of concert-quality violinists, cellists, clarinetists, trios, quartets, and even (on at least one occasion) an entire symphony orchestra, were trying to supplement their livings by busking in the streets and public spaces. The result was noisy, but not unpleasant.

The music here is not like that. It's recorded, trawled from chart hits and popular oldies (occasionally dating back to the primordial days of the 70s or 80s), and played endlessly at a background level. In short, it's music at its worst. Some places have a more upmarket selection - mellow jazz, piano arrangements, whatever - but these are rare.

In my workplace, music is played over speakers all day long. This irks me on several levels. First, there's the choice of music - in an office of 20-plus people, most of them young, you can imagine how hard it is to reach a consensus on what should be included in the playlist. Then there's the volume; some people want it loud, some want it soft, I want it switched off entirely. There's the chorus of jeers and outbreaks of banter and lively discussion when certain music or artists pop up in the rotation, which varies - depending on what, if anything, I'm trying to concentrate on - from mildly entertaining to knuckle-chompingly distracting.

"Why don't we just each listen to our own music on our own headphones?", I've asked more than once. It's not as if everyone in the office didn't have an MP3 player of some description, to say nothing of their own computers. That's what we used to do back in good ol' Bristol, and the result was a happy and hardworking office with background noise kept sternly under control.

But that was in England, where personal space is a serious matter. More importantly, I think, it was among mature professionals, not the 20-somethings that dominate this workplace. Rejecting the music here is seen as rejecting your colleagues' tastes and values.

And somehow, I think, there's more to it than 'tastes and values'. Music is no longer just a matter of preferences. Increasingly, with the ubiquity of pop music, it's become a part of our very souls.

When I hear a song I've heard before, there's a part of my mind that is irresistibly drawn back to the previous times I've heard it. In most cases that's a weak or meaningless memory, but with a few songs, it's deeply embedded in my mind. If I hear Spiller's 'Groovejet', for instance, I am instantly dragged back to the late summer of 2000 - the time I quit my job and spent eight months eking out a freelancer's pittance. It was uncomfortable, but very liberating. Anything by the Cardigans recalls the mid 90s, which to me means security, boredom, loneliness and opportunity. Tears for Fears - my sixth form - a combination of naïve optimism, creative romanticism and teenage desperation. And I can't hear Shakira's 'Whenever, wherever' without being taken back to a chalet at Center Parcs, with a bunch of my oldest friends from university. ("Is that Britney?", asked Penny. "No way," I thought. "That woman has more talent in her hair clippings than Britney will ever muster." But I didn't say it out loud, just in case I was wrong.)

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that these songs are a part of my soul. Because of the way pop songs are promoted - played widely and frequently for a short time, then discarded - they will always be associated with particular phases and periods of my life. They will always evoke some kind of feelings in me - feelings that are nothing to do with the singer or the song, but are mine, arising from my life and my personal history.

And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in feeling this way. That's why there are so many 'oldies' radio stations out there, each aiming at its own particular demographic.

This realisation comes with some uncomfortable corrollaries. First is that my emotions can be readily, though clumsily, manipulated by someone who knows what songs to play. Really I'm not worried about that, because these associations are far too personal for any stranger to guess precisely what effect any given song will have on me in any given situation.

Then there's the thought that a part of me is made up of the horribly commercialised products of an industry that is justly renowned for destroying human beings, in pursuit of fame and wealth. And that the music industry itself, increasingly, tries to manipulate my associations with their 'product' by placing it in TV shows, movies, games and elsewhere; these people are trying to write directly to my soul.

And this may be a clue to why my current colleagues can't imagine their world without constant music. It has been written to their souls. They hear the soundtrack to a movie, and their memory is of whatever excitement and pleasure they felt in watching the movie. They hear a song that was used in a TV ad when they were ten, and they remember life as a ten-year-old. It's not quite that simple, of course; but it's a lot easier to predict their responses than those of us who've reached middle age, with our wider variety of background and experience.

Finally, in the uncomfortable-reflections column: this is the music that, the industry insists, doesn't belong to me. If I want to play it, to evoke those memories - my memories, remember - I have to pay them to do it.

This, I think, is another important clue to my colleagues' attitudes. Because not one of them would dream of paying for any of this music - they simply rip it from somewhere online. The music played in our office is not paid for. And even though I don't generally condone piracy or commit it on my own behalf, and even though I hate the music, I find myself wholeheartedly approving of this attitude. The notion that you can implant something into someone else, and then claim to own it - that is just Evil. So, I think - good on my colleagues, for their subtle but ongoing 'Screw you' to the industry.


Anonymous said...

Music can indeed be very evocative, and I'm sure that's why each generation carries a nostalgia for the pure trash of its own formative years.

I simply couldn't survive in the muzak-infested environment you describe. It saddens me to say the UK has got worse since you left, in that it's moved into the majority of supermarkets now :(

I think science tells us that smell is really the most evocative of the senses, and brings really strong associations. And dare I mention Proust?

Anonymous said...

Just remembered ...

Re: muzak at work. I recollect hearing of a case in (I think) Austria, where a union representing shop workers took the shops to court over christmas muzak, and won a ruling that forcing it on them all day was indeed a form of torture. Might be worth googling for that?

Ragnhild said...

It must be my lucky day! I got to vote this morning - and you and your bfb had posted fresh blogs, as had my friend deadlyjelly. We can still find the odd eating place and shop that's free of muzak and we treasure them for that. I love listening to the silence - not easy to do in your new country.