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July 13, 2024

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You Blight Up My Life
By: Danielle Woodrich

I almost don't want to tell you. If you were before ignorant of what follows below, I sincerely apologize for drawing it to your attention. However, if even one person finds solace from or vindication against the cruel regime of Incessant Backround Music, it will be worth it. This is not the average psychological nadir. Unwanted sounds stomp, pique, jolt, thunder and plink, intruding into too many areas of my life, and it happens all year long. The worst offense is unceasing sound, particularly music; this class of sound trespasses on the natural stream of consciousness that is ourcreative problem solving and skills of introspection, with tunes so familiar, the disruption is hardly noticeable. We whistle our own torment.

Though many states and the Federal government maintain strict laws on noise pollution, the existing 1971 Federal Statute and the 1990 Abatement of Nuisances regulations are based solely on decibel level and the frequency of the sound. These laws ignore a grave problem. Noise distress cannot always be measured with a decibel meter and a stopwatch. Unfortunately there is no Annoy-o-meter and no standardization broad enough to encompass individual tolerance of low level noise. The current categorization of ?effects? and ?hazards? of noise pollution is incomplete. The laws endeavor to protect consumers and workers from medical injuries caused by unregulated noise, yet mysteriously neglect to encompass any aspect of psychological injury. Is this an unbelievably stupid oversight or gross, knowledgeable negligence?

The United States military and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms have long studied and deployed "noise battery" maneuvers. They highly publicized their successes. Spinning the national media memory back five years, ten years, we can recall David Koresh's Waco, Manuel Noriega's Panama. Our forces paraded, grinning en masse, proudly enjoying their role in "Rock-n-Roll Warfare". For every official spokesperson's report, there was splendiferous gloating across our televisions.

How, then, are we to believe that this seeping aural toxin, this disfiguring mutation of musical sensibility, is for our benefit and pleasure? That is precisely what we cannot believe. Some secret core inside us must maintain that Muzak ruins music. It is either the top 10 of every generation's Top-40, or the bottom 50 of all time, played over and over forever, treble cranked, in mono. Muzak is a term used to describe not only disturbing covers like Nirvana's "Rape Me" played by violins, or Kenny G playing Zamphir numbers, but any flow of music completely outside the control of the consumer to change or ignore. It can be the same looped tape of Christmas carols blaring through the supermarkets from November to January. New Age fluff, commonly and criminally by the original artist, floats and tinkles through restaurants, insidious, noxious. Muzak, to some, is pop music from the 50's and 60's; it regurgitates songs thousands of times in original as well as many bastardized forms. Hear "Earth Angel" as it pipes out of a gas station's outdoor speakers, speakers never intended to broadcast anything melodious. It is no wonder that just beneath the insipid melody, roil the sounds of grinding teeth and the deep, desperate inhalationof fumes.

Each opus de fromage is laden with artistic arsenic for the persons who prefer the relative silence in the hum of honest activity or heaven forbid, music experienced by choice. A great song heard by the unforeseeable near-random of radio or by specific intent, is ambrosia to the ears and enjoyable at exponentially higher decibel levels than the most tolerable of uncontrolled sounds. Radio, though repetitive and loaded with advertising, can still be rewarding to a listener. Flipping stations is peeking around euphonic corners; with each switch we seek the surprise party that may hide there. If there is no party (that is, no well-liked or interesting new sounds) we can choose silence.

I am reminded of a scene from One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, teaches card games to several patients at the mental facility in which he is incarcerated to avoid traditional imprisonment. The patients make remarkable progress, just being in the company of so stimulating a character as McMurphy. The scene disintegrates into frustrating chaos when Nurse Ratchet comes on for her shift; she puts very loud classical music over the loudspeaker, blasting it through the entire ward. The patients lose their learning momentum; McMurphy sees them retreat from him; he begs Nurse Ratchet to turn it down just a little bit, but it's too late. The patients, gone from him completely, slide back into their defensive autism. McMurphy loses control of his temper, until Nurse Ratchet says, "For some of the men, that's all they have." That statement stuns McMurphy, as he sees the allegory encompass the entire system in which he now lives. Muzak is pushed for and accepted only by the people who never know it's there at all.

The subject of unfettered musical drivel has many similarities to the smoking issue. Their common denominator is health risk. According to the last comprehensive report by the EPA's Office of Noise Abatement and Control, "Noise may produce high blood pressure, faster heart rates and increased adrenaline. Noise may contribute to heart and circulatory disease. Noise may aggravate existing disease. Noise may threaten fetal development and has been conclusively linked to low birth weights." Sound familiar?

The difference between the second hand smoke and Muzak is this: second hand smoke is not a proven public health risk proportionate to the amount of restricting legislation and research funding. The few activist groups concerned with noise reduction (and not specifically based on content either, but beggars can't be choosers) are reachable at the addresses below. Admittedly, their impact is a hair above nothing when compared to the medical and insurance political action committees working for anti-smoking legislation.

The reason the activist groups remain ineffective is that the solution to this pestilence is not more legislation. The freedom of business owners to create an environment of their choosing is as important as my freedom to not spend my dollars where Muzak is an obvious marketing tool. Using Muzak is a means to end. We must ask ourselves, what is that end but to get consumers to pay less attention to their tasks at hand, and consequently spend more money? Awareness, not restriction is the key to changing the paradigm. If a business receives enough complaints, it will be in his best interest to change. There is a possibility that he may earn the loyalty of his consumers by accommodating them, thereby encouraging spending by more honest means. We can dream.

For additional information in the U.S.:

Noise Pollution Clearinghouse
PO Box 1137
Montpelier, VT 05601-1137
[email protected]

Institute of Noise Control Engineering
PO Box 3206
Arlington Branch
Poughkeepsie, NY
[email protected]

In Canada:
Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection
#359 1985 Wallace Street
Vancouver, B.C. V6R 4H4
[email protected]

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