CHRISTMAS ARRIVED EVEN BEFORE Thanksgiving this year, and you know it’s on its way because it’s announced by the Muzak first. There you are in the supermarket trying to decide between a frozen pumpkin pie or a can of filling and another crack at preparing that crust when the tinny strains of “Deck the Halls” tickle your subconscious.
Christmas Muzak is more insidious than you may think. Let’s first take a look at Muzak itself. It began in the early part of this century when someone had the notion of combining two new technologies: the phonograph and the automobile. He drove around broadcasting popular songs. An attempt to make any kind of industry out of it didn’t go anywhere until World War II, when it was discovered that the right songs, broadcast into the factories, increased worker productivity.
Muzak was, from the start, meant as a manipulative device, and today it’s a business that relies on a panel of psychologists who coordinate the song choices, the instrumentation, the tempos and so on, all specially designed to help sell products or keep the workers alert.
In a “retail environment,” Muzak programming is intended to encourage you to buy the particular lines that the store sells. And they’re very specific: they’ve got tunes that sell ice cream, tunes that sell washers and dryers. In an office or factory the music is programmed to perk you up midmorning and bring you down after the excitement of lunch. It’s on 15 minutes and off 15 minutes, and you don’t even notice which part of the cycle you’re in. In the stable, cows give more milk to the right Muzak.
So add to this already fiendishly clever brain game the arrival of Christmas, the biggest shopping season of all, a season that brings along its own tunes! Put into the hands of those psychologists a ready-made association and they can sit in their offices like so many comic-book villains and practice their cunning. It probably goes like this:
SCENE: A bunker in the steppes of Connecticut. The PROFESSOR, the DOCTOR, and the MASTER OF SOCIAL WORK sit at a table with a cassette deck and some legal pads at hand. They are listening to “Good King Wenceslas.”
PROF: The song talks about feasts, right? Maybe it’s an eating tune.
MSW: There’s snow in there too. Maybe it can sell sleds!
DOC: You’re missing something important. This man is a king. There’s a terrorist angle in that.
PROF He’s right. Terrorism is very big today. There re some wonderful action-figure terrorist dolls on the market now.
MSW: You mean like Charlie Starkweather?
DOC Get with it. I’m talking international, not midwest punk. We’re talking about grab a gun and off the king. All right. We want something zippy. Get me an up-tempo “Wenceslas” with strings.
PROF: How about a bossa-nova arrangement?
– Metroland Magazine, 19 December 1985