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Jewish World Review
March 16, 2006
/ 16 Adar, 5766
The day the Muzak died
When confronted with the world's many problems, the average
citizen can become discouraged about the future. With the
ongoing violence in the Middle East and
skyrocketing health care costs, we're inclined to wonder:
How can one person realistically do anything to improve the global situation?
And how can we do so before "American Idol" comes on?
advancements have typically
come through collective action.
Why, just in the past few decades
we've seen examples where united
action has helped to turn back
some of the 20th century's most
serious threats, including international
communism, South African
apartheid and New Coke.
But these are just the well-publicized
victories, the ones that lazy
commentators (like me) trot out
when looking for a reason to pat
ourselves on the back. During this
same time, almost without notice,
society has virtually eradicated
what many consider the greatest
scourge the planet has ever seen.
Of course I can only be talking
about one thing: elevator music.
Anyone over 35 knows what elevator
music is. But for the benefit
of younger readers, I will explain:
At one time, elevators were
equipped with speakers so music
(I use the term loosely) could be
piped in. What riders heard was
the result of a patented procedure
developed by the Muzak corporation,
in conjunction with NASA,
by which all the vitality and soul
was chemically extracted from a
hit song. This process was so powerful
it could take a real hip-shaker
like, say, Sly and the Family Stone's
"Dance to the Music," and render
it indistinguishable from "You
Light Up My Life."
I don't know who came up with
the idea of putting music in elevators,
but I suspect it was part of a
government experiment to trick
Americans into exercising more
by taking the stairs. The metric
system may have been involved.
All I know is that when I was a
kid, everyone seemed to hate this
music. At the height of the Iranian
hostage crisis, given the choice between
eliminating music from elevators
and having Ayatollah Khomeini
thrown into a dank prison
cell filled with vipers, the average
American would have reluctantly
opted for Khomeini's incarceration,
but only after being assured
that his cell would be equipped to
receive elevator music.
Muzak was supposed to calm
listeners, despite the many documented
examples of riders smashing
their heads through the glass
cases holding elevator inspection
certificates. That's presumably
why Muzak was heard in dentists'
offices, restrooms, supermarkets
and over the phone when callers
were placed on hold. But there was
a downside: Experts now blame
Muzak's numbing effects in the
1970s for the inability to defend
against the lure of disco.
So why do we rarely hear Muzak
nowadays, and never in elevators?
I credit our ability to harness
a very powerful form of collective
action: complaining. Eventually
our cries were heard, compelling
the folks responsible to respond
by saying, "Hey, why are we forcing
people stuck in enclosed spaces
to listen to this awful music? We
should put TVs in there so they can
And so the struggle goes on.
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JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
02/23/06: Checkbook diplomacy begins at home
02/15/06: Today's toys: Where learning means earning
© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner