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To-day’s Easy Listening

Here's a post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 3 years ago, in 2021, on the World Wide Web.

From Slate’s pop culture mystery podcast, Decoder Ring:

Shared Article from Slate Magazine

When Muzak Met Grunge

Muzak was once a great musical institution, but it was already a punchline by the time the Seattle grunge scene landed in its offices.


Three high points for this episode:

  1. The shout-out to Sara DeBell’s epochal work Grunge Lite;

  2. A really pretty useful and surprising retelling of the story of the music trade and industry in Seattle, which really kind of underlines the weird dialectic of rock music, Muzak, Sub Pop Records and the birth of grunge. Muzak was a commercial service and artistic culture basically designed around lushly orchestrated versions of jazz standards, and it faced deep, fundamental problems with the developing dominance of rock music and rockist ideas and culture.[1] Muzak’s footprint within professional music in Seattle ended up actually making their offices the incubator for what became Sub Pop Records, while at the same time everything about their business and product represented one of the most ridiculed and despised paradigms for everything that Seattle grunge rockers saw themselves as reacting against.

  3. A somewhat overly cynical, but genuinely insightful, discussion of how algorithmic mood playlists have dissolved the human programming of the Muzak Corporation and rewoven it into the fabric of everyday life for streaming music listeners. (It turns out that even as we [sic] were mocking Muzak out of business, we [sic] were coming around on its central premise, without even realizing it…. When you open Spotify, the first thing you see isn’t albums or artists, it’s playlists — prominently, mood playlists….) — and the closing, generous exhortation to come back to listen to Muzak as music, and to try really to hear what it does, and appreciate it for what it is.

  1. [1]Including basic practical problems — the central role of vocals and lyrics in rock music, changes to tempo and tone and instruments, etc. — as well as more ideological problems — the elevation of idealized original authorship and virtuouso instrumental performances, basically primitivist and stridently anti-commercialist standards of authenticity, etc. Muzak originated in a world where songs everybody played were standards; it found itself in a world where those songs became covers parasitic on an older and usually more esteemed original.

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