Rage Against the Muzak

  • Share
  • Read Later
I push a cart up and down the supermarket aisles, drifting like a Stepford wife past shelves dense with a hundred varieties of mayonnaise and a thousand brands of soup and ten thousand variations of orange juice and a hundred thousand nuances of ice cream: All the metaphysical abundance and diversity of the universe organized, canned, packaged, frozen, bar-coded, neatly awaiting the pleasure of our consumption.

If we have such options of ingestibles — I am not complaining; our stomachs have, by the standards of most of human history, died and gone to a heaven that they scarcely deserve — why are we forced to shop for them under a steady downpour of moronic canned music? This horrible amenity punishes the senses with throbbing, moaning, whining agitations of the stupidest trailer trashiness that venality can distill.

Now I admit that if one considers all the evils loose in the world (poverty, pollution, terrorism, global warming, drug addiction, famine, Bryant Gumbel), canned music does not cry out to heaven for vengeance. But small evils---the evils of banality--- also need attention, especially when they become universal. Canned music is what you expect to hear when you die and go to hell. "De la musique, avant toute chose," advised the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. I'll give you de la musique: In one ear, in the other.

We accept this imbecility---passively, without complaint. Or have trained ourselves to tune it out.

The noise has achieved cultural permeation, critical mass: It's everywhere, in chain pharmacies, department stores, restaurants, beauty parlors, shopping malls in every corner of the global village. Once my wife and I were driving across the Sinai desert and found a modern hotel in the middle of nowhere, like a mirage. We went in for lunch. We were the only persons in the hotel, except for the staff. They had a canned music system, and when we entered, the desk clerk rushed to the sound control panel to turn on the stuff ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," a little oasis of song in the Sinai). He watched us intently, and as we passed from lobby to dining room, and I, eventually, to the men's room, the clerk switched on the speaker in that particular room in turn, so that we were never without the bouncy, relentless companionship.

Aux armes, citoyens! Shake off passivity. We must recover some of the aesthetic activism that came into play in the Astor Place Riots of May, 1849, when New York audiences of Shakespeare divided their loyalties between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready. Forrest gave a crude, robust, vehement interpretation of Macbeth. Macready was more cerebral.

Feelings ran very high. At Macready's opening performance at the Astor Place Opera House, on May 7, partisans of Forrest threw rotten eggs and potatoes. Does this give you ideas? Think of the ammunition available in a supermarket.

I admit that the Astor Place activism got out of hand. A force of citizen militia was called for Macready's next performance, on May 10. An immense crowd gathered outside the theater, as many as ten thousand people. The militia fired warning shots in the air, and then panicked and fired into the crowd. Twenty-two people were killed and fifty were wounded. That's a fairly large butcher's bill to pay for a dispute over interpretations of Shakespeare.

Still, the principle (I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore) is a good one, especially when the target is not live performers doing something as sublime as Shakespeare, but, on the contrary, dead speakers exhaling dead music that destroys brain cells. It's time for a little rage against the machines that emit such toxins.