Thursday, September 23, 2010

#136 - Audible Residue

Audible Residue

9/23/10 (#136)

At this moment, I am humming Buddy Holly's "Everyday." You know the one: "Everyday, it's a-gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster..." and so on. Buddy's charming paean to the promise of impending love is a sweet little ditty, but frankly, after more than an hour of it, I want to carve it out of my cranium with the thin plastic knife that I got with my bagel at the same time I got this freakin' song stuck in my head.

The café in my office building is notorious for such subliminal gifting. I stop in to order a latté or some peanut butter toast, flip through one of the newspaper sections left on the tables while waiting for the item is toasted/steamed/whatever, grab my purchase and jump on the elevator. It seems innocuous enough, until there in the empty silence of the elevator car the thought crime is revealed — suddenly I'm whistling the opening synth riff from "The Final Countdown" or realizing with great alarm that I have been reassembling the lyrics to "Hotel California" in my head. It's enough to sour the taste of whatever treat I have in my hands.

The bizarre array of music that sneaks from their speakers and into my brain on successive visits makes it clear that the various employees take turns choosing the playlist, and I'm willing to bet, often choosing a station for ironic effect. I've worked in such environments, where it's fun to pick stations that will playfully annoy particular coworkers or set a strange mood for the work day. The trouble for the customers is that we don't have Madonna to cleanse our audio palette after Bad Company has muddied up our short-term memory — we exit while the latter is still playing, and the offending chorus follows us around like an inescapable pest, nipping annoyingly at our thoughts every time we have an idle mental moment.

It's not just that café, of course. Ambient music plays almost everywhere we go, which explains why we can be sitting somewhere quiet and some long-forgotten melody will suddenly be front and center in our mind. I usually leave my bank with some passé radio hit by Alanis Morissette or Crowded House burrowing into my psyche, and leaving Target empty-handed rarely means I'll leave empty-headed. Worst of all, it's the catchiest songs that cling tightest, sonic burdocks that can't even be loosed by a headphone session with the iPod: I once pumped a blissful medley of irresistible Guided By Voices songs into my ears in order to flush a freeloading 80's hit, and ten minutes after turning off the device, I was once again banging my head on the table to shake loose the cloyingly effervescent da-da-da-dum-dum intro of A-ha's "Take On Me."

I know there's someone reading who is thinking, "Wow, I haven't thought about Alanis in a while. I'd love to hear 'Ironic' again." And therein lies the problem with these unavoidable soundtracks that fill our air and our ears — everyone likes different things, so a business has no idea how their so-called mood music is impacting their customers' moods: one might find Peter Cetera to be the ideal background music for filling out a deposit slip, while the next might close their account simply to avoid the risk of ever having to withdraw money to the strains of Jewel.

It's not really about Alanis (who, I confess, is one of my guilty pleasures) or Jewel (whose voice is impressive even when her songs are not.) It's about the reckless use of these voices in public settings. Companies constantly remind me about the convenience of online banking and online bill paying and online shopping, but it isn't the convenience that attracts me: it's the fact that all of these transactions can occur without the fear of some schlocky Heart ballad pirating the mental radio in my brain. Am I ready to skip the in-person retail experience completely? I don't know. But everyday, it's a-gettin' closer...

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