In Praise of Elevator Music
“I don’t exclude any influence” –Curt Kirkwood, The Meat Puppets
I used to be the sort of person who couldn’t stand elevator music, but every day last week, I sat in my home office listening to the mindless piano noodling on a six-hour-long YouTube channel called “Winter Night Jazz Music - Stress relief - Relaxing Cafe Jazz Music For Sleep, Work, Study.” Initially, this made me feel very conflicted. Who had I become? As the title suggests, I was working. The research I was doing was a kind of studying. I was definitely relaxed. Only an hour earlier I’d been clenching my jaw while stuck behind obliviously slow commuters on the narrow congested road leading to my daughter’s daycare. Now I sipped my morning tea to the soothing sounds of a generic jazz trio. Piano twinkled. December rain speckled my office window, and a drummer’s brush slid smoothly over their snare. The scene was exactly like the images these self-described “cafe music” YouTube channels feature on their homepages: quiet contemplation in a warm setting, with a caffeinated beverage. What penetrated my chill was the painful reality of how much I enjoyed this elevator music. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I subscribed to many related channels, including the four-hour-long “Night Traffic Hip Hop Jazz - Smooth Jazz Beats - Chill Out Jazz Hip Hop for Work & Study,” and the three-and-a-half-hour-long “Slow Cafe Jazz Music - Soothing Jazz Music - Chill Out Cafe Music - Stress relief,” which is playing now. Every minute of them sounded the same. I loved it. A Japanese company named the BGM Channel Group creates and distributes this background music to listeners and commercial businesses through YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon. At first I couldn’t tell if the musicians were human. Some pieces end so abruptly it sounded like the programmer just hit the “off” button on the drum machine, and the other machines followed. But at its core, the seemingly faceless BGM is a band composed of a pianist, bassist, drummer, and guitarist. Their names are not listed on their website in English, but the text on their videos confirms they aren’t robots: “We are playing all the songs.” We. They don’t limit themselves to the piano trios I favor. Other BGM channels feature bossa nova, guitar jazz, even vocals. The goal is always the same: create an easygoing atmosphere that helps listeners focus, work, sleep, and relax. After Muzak launched in 1934, the brand name became a catchall for all background music the way Kleenex did for tissues, but BGM’s isn’t technically Muzak. Like Spotify’s modern chill playlists, these jazz channels qualify as what’s called mood music, a commercial category called elevator music in the late 20th century, which is a name now marooned in an era when fewer people will understand the reference. That’s fine. Call it Muzak, lift music, lounge music, piped music, café music, doctor’s office music, hotel lobby music, robot apocalypse music, easy listening, the stuff you hear on hold during phone calls. All of this incidental sound is played in places where people don’t come specifically to listen to anything. Manufactured for maximum situational adaptability, background music has the ability to impose the mood of various classy or professional venues, manipulate listener behavior, increase retail spending, increase workplace satisfaction and employee productivity, and disappear like carpet into the ambiance of a place. But on YouTube, people noticed and loved it. After only two months online, “Night Traffic Hip Hop Jazz” received 706,937 views, 8,300 likes, and only 151 thumbs down. “Winter Night Jazz Music” has been viewed 2,913,324 times and received 31,000 likes during the last 11 months. “Slow Jazz Mix,” is one of BGM’s more popular. After 22 months online, 5,890,849 people have viewed it, and 22,000 have tapped the like button. “Listen to this every time I get up in the morning!” wrote one listener. “I have become addicted to Jazz because of this channel,” another commented. Listeners on various channels raved: “I work half day in the morning in the office. I don’t like this job, but this music is the best company for me.” “I simply can’t get enough of this. It seems to amplify my love for all things.” One got spiritual: “Infinite love!!” Even if it was designed in a laboratory according to consumer reports and scientific data, this music clearly meant something to people. I am those people. With the exception of coffee — I prefer green tea — I love all of the things BGM markets: coffee shops, warm interiors in cold weather, jazz, and serenity. The fact that the general public was listening to jazz, let alone talking about it, made my jazz-fan heart smile. So why couldn’t I immediately let myself embrace this genre?
One day passed working to BGM’s elevator music. Then another. Then a third day. I started my days with legit mid-century jazz to get my blood pumping, blasting fast Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis after dropping my daughter at daycare. At home, fast loud music was distracting. BGM’s worked so well that I went back to it. The sound wasn’t bad. As a fan of mid-century Bebop and Hard bop jazz, I favor soulful players like guitarist Grant Green and saxophonist Hank Mobley. I have a special affection for piano trios by Billy Taylor, Hank Jones, and Red Garland. Warm weather always feels like guitar rock for me, so I play psychedelia, garage, reverby pop, and twang. Jazz was my cold weather soundtrack, my quiet rainy indoor day, reading and working and staring out the window soundtrack, because it, as BGM’s business model framed it, just fit the mood. BGM’s meandering piano music was a far cry from the deep feeling and dynamic rhythmic sensibility of pianists like Sonny Clark and Wynton Kelly. It lacked the inventiveness of originals like Ahmad Jamal. Those well-known musicians had chops. They could swing. They embraced melody. That’s why it was jarring to go from Sonny Clark’s propulsive cover of “Dancing in the Dark” to BGM’s “Slow Café Jazz Mix.” Frankly, after hearing any Sonny Clark, I struggled to respect a pianist who played like they were lost half the time. BGM’s pianist was proficient, but if he or she enjoyed melody, they showed no sign. Since the music didn’t have a groove, they had nothing to swing over. They just noodled, meandering through notes, drifting through different keys. They were no Hank Jones or Red Garland, who solo with their right hands and hit chords with their left–not even close. There were rare moments when the pianist surprised me with brief, lyrical passages, and some precisely articulated little tender phrases, like at the 2:56:36 minute mark on “Slow Cafe Jazz Music.” There were even moments when the BGM pianist played what resembled a phrase from jazz standards like “Stardust” and “Autumn in New York,” as if, in lieu of original ideas, they veered through their improvisational darkness into a popular song by accident. Those moments made my ears perk up, but they did not provide the sustained melodic experience I craved in jazz. Overall, BGM’s pianist struck me as the one you heard playing live in department stores while you Christmas shopped. They reminded me of a man I saw playing accordion in a grocery store parking lot. People kept stuffing bills in his jar. He played songs like “Bésame Mucho” over a recorded drum beat. But his hands drifted robotically up and down over his keyboard, up and down, without his fingers pressing any of the keys. He was a horrible pantomime, but a lucrative one. What people thought they saw wasn’t real. They saw what they wanted to see. I kept coming back to this idea of “real jazz.” BGM music wasn’t real jazz, but what did “real” mean? That a deep emotional experience moved the musician to make it? That is swings? Distinguishing between fake and authentic jazz was like asking if two people banging sticks on rocks were making real music. It’s not Tchaikovsky, but yes, it’s music, and yet I denied BGM that same standing. It just seemed that if BGM and Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers lived in the same musical category, that made them equals, and they were not equal, even if they didn’t deserve different names to distinguish them. BGM was vaguely jazzy, but its lack of fire, imagination, and melody made it seem the worst kind of jazz, the kind that did the definitive stuff a huge disservice by making neophytes think all jazz sounded this formless. Improvisation is not just a bunch of aimless noodling! I imagined telling listeners. Don’t think that! Next to trios by Bill Evans and Lorraine Geller, I dismissed BGM as a group of cold corporate musicians who made music to sell, not because longing or joy or imagination drove them to express themselves the way Coltrane, Blakey, and Miles Davis did. All BGM’s channels were prescriptive: for sleep, for relaxation, for stress relief. Music was an expression of the human soul, able to improve the condition of the human soul, but was jazz really something you could manufacture to treat the maladies of modern life? My tendency as a listener has always been to assess the authenticity of music based on how much feeling it evoked in me, which I assumed was partly a measure of how much feeling the musicians put into it. Sure, music moved listeners partly because of its propulsive rhythm or catchy groove, partly because of chord progressions, certain minor keys and so-called blue notes that evoked sad, strong feelings, which imprinted itself on experiences of particular places and periods of time. Some music with no feeling has such a catchy chorus it gets stuck in your head. After all, jazz standards become standards because of their appealing, memorable melodies. But beyond a song’s construction, there was the issue of human spirit. It just made sense that if I felt something by listening to it, then the musicians surely felt something writing and performing it. If it didn’t feel real, I thought, then the music wasn’t real, whatever that meant. It was either real or it wasn’t. To add an authentic old-timey quality, BGM added static to one channel to make the music sound like it was coming from a record, but that wasn’t realness either. Articulating all of this, I could clearly see the flaws in these ideas, but measured by BGM jazz’s barely perceptible individuality and lack of heat, I still dismissed it as fake. The BGM band made music to, in their words, “make people feel pleasant at any time, anywhere and any scene in everyday life by our music.” The lifelong music fan in me thought that if something fit every place and every situation, then it belonged to no place at all. To be universally accepted, stuff must be so benign as to be inert, so if music could make “people feel pleasant at any time, anywhere,” then it couldn’t be good. The word ‘pleasant’ was also hard to get past. ‘Pleasant,’ not hot ’n bothered, not inspired, not dancing, singing, excited, passionate. Pleasant: an adjective meaning “having qualities that tend to give pleasure,” says Merriam Webster, “agreeable, as in a pleasant day. 2: having or characterized by pleasing manners, behavior, or appearance.” Agreeable was so tepid. It means “ready or willing to agree or consent,” and “being in harmony.” Harmony had its benefits — who wants to feel disturbed all the time?–but as an artist, discord, disharmony, and struggle had their benefits, too. I felt strong things. I got angry, confused, excited. I asked questions that were hard to answer, and this fueled my writing. I didn’t listen to music to feel lukewarm. I listened to light a fire, to feed my internal combustion, conjure the spirit of the other side, or briefly drive myself toward transcendence. I played music on planes to heighten the experience of travel, played it with my daughter to create connections and future memories, to dance and connect with my body, to sharpen perception in order to heighten the very nature of experience itself. Rather than listening to feel “pleasant,” I listened to amplify the sadness I often feel, not so I can escape it, but so I can process its cause and move through it. Was the goal of life to avoid discomfort or cling to some sort of chill middle ground between misery and bliss? To release ourselves from suffering and desire, in a Buddhist sort of way? Or was it to endure suffering, embrace the highs and lows, and learn to appreciate the fleeting periods of tranquility between the inevitable trouble? Without the lows, we can never fully appreciate the rest. Art made us uncomfortable sometimes, and having our ideas challenged was an inherently constructive thing, not always a pleasant thing. Gradually I could see how BGM’s music was challenging me. This music designed to disappear into the background provoked such probing self-reflection in me. My snobbish self resisted calling it art, but measured by BGM’s own goals of making transparent mood music to make “people feel pleasant at any time, anywhere,” and measured by reach, sales, and customer satisfaction — the metrics of capitalism — their music was exceptionally accomplished. “Currently our channel receives about 30 million views a month globally,” BGM’s website says, “and so far our channel has been played for about 2500 years! Our music is played in South American movies, European cafes and department stores, USA boutiques, and so many other locations such as hospitals, beauty salons and restaurants.” Clearly it was a listener like me who needed to catch up with the music, not the other way around. As the 59-year-old Miles Davis said in an interview with The Guardian. “I mean, I can’t play Honeysuckle Rose. Fuck that. I was playing that shit when I was 12. It’s a nice song for a show . . . there’s gotta be some different stuff, man. You can’t keep playing The Barber of Seville and stuff. …My Funny Valentine, it’s beautiful, but it’s been done to death.” He called those old standards “that same shit.” At the end of his life, Davis didn’t even like the word ‘jazz.’ He preferred calling his music ‘new music.’ Davis praised Muzak. If a song had a good melody, he said, it was good. Simple as that. He always played sweet with emotion and melody in mind. And Muzak’s ability to play a version of that seemed proof of its timeless appeal. Reading Davis’ words and hearing such glowing YouTube comments for BGM, this distinction between real jazz and elevator jazz was clearly irrelevant. My ears agreed. My mind agreed. When I was honest with myself, I knew that BGM wasn’t so fundamentally different from my favorite trios. And yet, it was technically elevator music, and like a punk rock Pavlovian dog, my younger self gagged at the notion.
I started skateboarding in fifth grade, in 1985, back when this underground sport was unfortunately considered subversive. I listened to INXS, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but after a fellow sixth grade skater classmate played me the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” on a cassette tape in 1986, my taste permanently tuned into what in the 1980s and early 1990s was still the musical underground. Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Agent Orange, The Cramps, Hüsker Dü, The Cult — these bands are now passé, but back before mainstream America discovered so-called alternative music during the 90s, they were cutting edge, and mostly people on the inside knew them. Before the internet evolved enough to distribute music and information, older siblings turned you on to cool music. Your friends with older siblings turned you on to cool music. You saw tantalizing stuff late-night on MTV or, if you were cool enough to listen to college radio, you heard it there. Once you got a taste, you sought more in print magazines and record stores. You really had to work hard not to live in a vacuum or subsist solely off of what was popular. The era’s limitations meant that there were much stronger divisions between the insiders and outsiders, the mainstream and the underground, the counterculture and everyone else. It wasn’t necessary a better world, just a different one. Frankly, I prefer our current world of easily accessed information, but that old world shaped how I both heard music and thought about it. I didn’t understand any of these larger social or economic dynamics in middle school. I just thought of this music as the stuff we skateboarders and outsiders listened to, which wasn’t the hair metal or pop the other kids listened to. In high school, I got really into Butthole Surfers, Mr. Bungle, Soundgarden, L7, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana. I eventually heard it labeled “alternative” music, since much of it came out on small, independent record labels and got played on so-called college radio stations, rather than on mainstream stations or the big corporate labels that released Phil Collins and Queensrÿche. A so-called “alternative” system created it, and it offered listeners an alternative to the mass market sounds. After the 90s grunge explosion, bands like Nirvana unwittingly helped alternative music cross so far into the mainstream that it was no longer alternative to anything, and my teenage friends and I experienced that seismic cultural shift first-hand, watching our music, long hair, and clothes get co-opted by the same jocks and jerks we’d positioned ourselves against. But that was later. Thanks to that sixth grade classmate, my middle and high school listening habits were ahead of trending pop culture, which made me feel cool and discerning and frequently superior. My whole world soon revolved around rock ‘n’ roll. During high school in the early 90s my friends and I saw tons of now-legendary guitar bands play like Nirvana and Pearl Jam before they got popular. In July 1991, we attended the first Lollapalooza, not the first tour, but the first show of the first tour, which MTV’s 120 Minutes documented for a special episode. We went to tiny clubs to see bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Faith No More, The Wonder Stuff, Monster Magnet, and Rollins Band. We stagedived. We snuck into shows, dropped acid in 100-degree heat, and recorded bands illegally. Friends and classmates asked us for musical recommendations. We turned people on to stuff. This reinforced my sense of taste and deepened my judgements of other peoples’ “inferior” tastes. When you’re young, music stands for something. It represents your independence from your parents; your rebellion against social norms; your outsider status; how tough, tender, depressed, angry, or nihilistic you are. Music designates our identities, our personalities, all that we are or are trying to be, including our tribe: goth, rebel, skater, artist, jock, queer, band geek, computer programmer, sorority sister, class president, Mr. Nobody or Mr. Popularity. Music makes a statement: Fuck you, I’m me, defiant and free. Or: Hello, I’m me, who’s just like you. The Circle Jerks’ song “Wild In the Streets” always struck me as a fitting anthem. I didn’t literally run wild in the streets, smashing car windows or beating on mailboxes, but I was wild at heart, thinking myself irrepressibly individual, a sovereign state, and I liked that song title’s message more than the music. If music stood for how cool my friends were, its cachet also worked against me, by amplifying the arrogance and negativity that already poisoned my mind. In the 90s, my teenage heart was filled with hate. I didn’t express it by abusing anyone. I loved animals, cuddled my pet gerbils, mourned the death of my beloved bunny Dutch, joked and laughed and loved my grandma, but my teen anger found expression through music, and it pooled with my friend group where we felt safe. Back in the day, my friends and I hated certain bands like 311 and Collective Soul because of how bad the music sounded, and because of how the lead singers acted in their videos — like that overly dramatic guy in Live, who played the role of the possessed, visionary poet-guru, flailing and gripping his bald head like he was possessed, while snakes slithered through the video. We also hated bands because of who we associated them with: jocks, sorority bros, racists, hicks, violent skinheads, poseurs, or our straight-laced classmates who seemed destined to live office drone lives. Some of these bands’ other songs might have sounded good, but if I didn’t like one song, or how one video looked, I dismissed the whole band and never gave them another chance. They were worse than dead to me: They were lame. Death at least afforded the dignity of escape. Being lame was something you had to live with. Bands like Counting Crows were irredeemable, just as bands like Fugazi imbued a person with instant credibility. Snap judgements were integral: This sucks, this rules, that’s stupid, that’s cool. My judgmental musical cosmology cast elevator music as the ultimate symbol for mediocrity, lack of taste, and old age. In my closed mind, the windowless offices where it played were staffed by corporate lackeys who’d traded their dreams and individuality for a steady paycheck. Even as a teen, I’d heard elevator music playing in uncomfortable dentist offices, in my high school principal’s office, and in the vacuous lobbies of interchangeable chain hotels. As a rebellious skater, I grew into an adult who loathed the sound of anodyne keyboard versions of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” or anything that resembled the flaccid commercial sounds of Kenny G. Because I dismissed music swiftly, I lumped easy listening jazz and elevator music together, because they struck me as equally mind-numbing. I unfairly imagined middle-aged suburbanites playing them in McMansions, the kind of people who loved Steely Dan and thought Eric Clapton was the ultimate Blues guitarist, and that was a world I felt no kinship with. Throughout the 2000s, after I graduated from college, I kept on attending small rock shows, and I saw legendary jazzmen perform before they died, Blue Note Records staples like alto Lou Donaldson and pianist Cedar Walton who knew Coltrane and Charlie Parker. As my tastes expanded, so did my sense of my own exalted palate, that the Charlie Parker, Charlie Patton, and Television in my collection meant that I could hear the difference between authentic feeling and heartlessly commercial engineering, and that I valued originality over predictability. Predictability was the biggest thing I feared about a career after college: knowing that every day in the office would be the same. Elevator music was the soundtrack to those identical days. Even lacking lyrics, elevator music embodied everything I stood against: blandness, calm, conformity, interchangeability. In your teens and twenties you feel so alive, with heightened sensory perception, higher highs and lower lows. Also, I was pissed. I didn’t know why. I didn’t enjoy feeling so pissed. I just was. And I craved music that reflected that intensity. But that was my youth. I’m 44 now. Although I don’t occupy a corporate cubicle, I have traded some of my dreams and individuality to earn a steady paycheck. Instead of symbolizing my identity, I use music to power me through my heavy workload, to chill me out when I’m stressed, amp me when I’m dragging, and to help me understand the different periods of history, and different cultures, that produced it. My listening habits have only expanded with age. I listen to garage rock and doo wop, Dead Moon and Neil Young, 40s country, 50s jazz, 60s surf, 70s Grateful Dead, 80s new wave, and 90s hip-hop, as well as world music, from Japanese DJs to Nigerian Blues to psychedelic Peruvian cumbias. If anything, I imagined that my broad musical tastes reflected my evolved adult identity: curious, open-minded, a shameless fan of anything that pleases me. And yet that openness didn’t extend as far as I gave myself credit for. BGM’s elevator music should have fit among this eclectic assortment of genres. Instead, it violated my old vision of myself, and shame awoke that ugly, hypercritical part of me. When I looked closer at that clash between who I was and who I still wanted to be, my entire worldview crumbled. I sang in a band during my senior high school year. I absolutely sucked, but in 1993, we did play on the same small stage that Nirvana played on in 1990, and Metallica, Meat Puppets, and Pearl Jam. How could that teen rock ‘n’ roller respect himself if he knew he’d grown into a person who liked elevator music? That realization was like seeing yourself in the mirror while masturbating: Good god, that’s me? Questions cluttered my mind: Was this a new low, or simply an inevitable part of middle age, like your spouse and you spending Saturday night watching Netflix instead of eating out, or spending your date night talking about Netflix? Did all cutting edge people become people who their former selves would laugh at? Like the slow death of the sun, certain changes are a natural part of the universal order, but I just couldn’t accept that John Coltrane would have liked Kenny G. if he’d lived past age 40. No. I couldn’t tell anyone about this. What would my childhood friends think? What would my wife think? Age had already desexualized me, along with my other unflattering personality traits. This died here. When I was 24, I had kept my heroin addiction secret from my closest friends and girlfriend, so I could definitely keep my elevator music habit secret. Anyway, it’s not like elevator music had taken over my life. I only played it in the basement at work. Upstairs, I still listened to Coltrane and Cat Power. The same rationalizations from my drug years emerged after my elevator music week. It was the language of shame. But my adult self knew that secrecy was not a constructive response. I always tried to free myself from shame in other areas of life, and that required publicly embracing the things I loved and, when the situation was appropriate, admitting the regrettable things I had done in order to change them. I had to do that here. That required chiseling through so many resistant layers. It wasn’t just my past reputation as a cutting edge person I was protecting. It was my vision of myself, an identity warped and outdated by the reality of middle-age.
Surely other people in their early forties have embarrassing musical habits: frequently playing the Titanic soundtrack maybe; or listening to the early Dave Matthews they liked in college; exercising to KORN. Few things make you feel older than enjoying elevator music. Music isn’t the only thing that can impart a painful sense of your own decline. Identify some behavior or habit that you find embarrassing, something that your younger self would have rolled their eyes at, something you previously judged people for. Wearing sweat pants to the grocery store? Preferring to stay home eating ice cream alone on a Friday night rather than joining friends at a show? Whatever that is for you, that’s my elevator music. The thing is, I was old, and I should be thinking like an adult, not a teenager. For some of us aging underground music fans who lost the underground to the mainstream, there was once a sense of tribal loyalty, what author Rick Moody calls “an intellectual obligation to support music that was loud, dark, and challenging” in his book On Celestial Music. For some of us dudes who grew up skateboarding and listening to punk rock, that hard-edged, nihilistic, tough guy bullshit gets so hard-wired that, years later, some of us can reflexively react to things the way we had as a teenagers, and act like changing up our style is a form of self-betrayal, that becoming any less rock ‘n’ roll is the same as going soft, or selling out. “Selling out” is a very 90s concept. We Gen Xer’s thought of us versus them, we pure of spirit bucking the system versus those sad others selling their soul to the system for money, power, and stability. Bands who “made it” made money, but they often lost authenticity, and that wasn’t a respectable trade to us. Millennials and Gen Z don’t think in such simplistic terms. Artistic people now work for big polluting, exploitive, immoral corporations, and these so-called creatives make their money and accept their creative role in the capitalism machine and get on with their lives. I don’t want to think that way either. I want to find my middle ground, but the teen me’s reflex is very deeply ingrained. I don’t hide my age, but I don’t feel great about it. Besides accumulating wisdom, aging is all about getting soft: soft in the middle, soft in the mind, and someday, after retirement, your food would get soft too, so you didn’t have to chew it. Aging is partly about admitting increasing limitations, from your faculties to your influence to your ambition, and about having your vulnerability seen. Age puts it on your body in full view, alongside the insecurity of age. Rather than concealing age or establishing youthful self-assurance, clothing often advertises our anxiety. Sixty-year-old punk rockers who cling to those badges of youth often look desperate, in denial, and few things are sadder and less authentic than someone with a receding hairline still wearing spikey hair, spikey bracelets, ripped jeans, and jackets covered with band patches smoking a cig outside a club. Part of seeming cool is never appearing to try. And you sure sound like you’re trying by talking constantly about all the cool shows you went to from bands that younger generations don’t think are cool. Music may have meant a lot to certain people as teenagers and in college, but as they build their careers and became parents, their relationship cools. They attend fewer concerts. Instead of searching for new music, they play what they always have. Music becomes an old blanket warming an aging body: ragged and worn out of habit. Some of these people don’t care if they hear music at all. It’s fine if it’s playing, but they make no effort to create a soundtrack for their days. They listen to podcasts and NPR during their daily commute, or make phone calls while stuck in traffic, preferring silence to songs between calls. Some treat music as a childish indulgence they can’t afford, like Oh you’re still so into music. I wish I had the time. Time can be a factor. So can the effort required to navigate the dizzying volume of new music to find what you like, but neurobiology is behind much of this.+++++++++ Studies show that the majority of people over 30 seek very little new music compared to people in their teens and twenties. Summarizing a New York Times statistical analysis of the generational relationship between age and favorite songs, Alt Press writes that “the average woman’s musical tastes are formed between the ages of 11 and 14, while an average man’s music tastes are virtually cemented between the ages of 13 and 16.” In our twenties, we experience another powerful, but slightly less intense, period when we cement our long-term musical tastes. As we age, our changing brains crave familiarity and nostalgia, which means that our musical taste often stops evolving, because our brains prefer what they already know. As Business Insider reports, “research has shown how our favourite songs stimulate our pleasure responses in the brain, releasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other happy chemicals. The more we like a song, the more of these chemicals flow through our body.” Something called the mere exposure effect also plays a role. The idea is that we tend to like things the more we’re exposed to them. With music, the brain recognizes patterns in songs that it has already figured out, and an important part of that routine exposure happens during our very hormonal, impressionable youth. When one Neuroscience News post asks “Why do older people hate new music?” the sad answer is that the older we get, the harder our brains work to decipher new musical patterns. As we lose what’s called neuroplasticity, we go back to what we know, what’s already on hand, and what releases those happy brain chemicals. Embracing elevator music felt like a corollary of this middle-age neurological phenomenon, proof that I had stopped evolving and let my taste plateau. I knew this was false. I craved new sounds, new melodies, new sensations. I know people who still play Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys when they host dinner. I still technically like those bands, along with Soundgarden and Meat Puppets and so many others that moved me in high school, but I couldn’t imagine listening to them regularly anymore. The world is filled with so much new and old music that you need a thousand lives to hear a fraction of it, and I can’t stick with what I know. Along with my 60s jazz and psychedelic cumbias, I want my tastes to reflect what that YouTube commenter called “infinite love.”
BGM music was, in the company’s words, “colorless and transparent,” designed “to make the listener’s daily life as colorful as possible.” The first time I read that, I wondered how anything lacking color could add color to a listener’s life. And yet, the hours-long piano mixes I favored did successfully color my daily life, partly by making its pieces lack individuality. With the “Slow Cafe Jazz Music” mix playing, it’s not 5:43am on a cold December Tuesday. I’m not shivering alone in my basement, wearing a flannel, slippers, and boxer shorts, trying to warm up beside the space heater while working before my daughter wakes up, because her nightmare at 4:40am jolted my wife and I awake, and I couldn’t fall back asleep. No. I’m in a cafe. In Tokyo. Traffic passes outside the picture window. Customers chat around me as I type, giving me ambient noise that metabolizes as energy, and the smell of coffee wafts through the air like the pleasing notes of this piano trio. To listen to a channel like “Slow Cafe Jazz Music” is to live inside a night without end. It’s a welcoming Groundhog Day existence, except instead of being trapped in a nightmare cycle of wake, work, sleep, work, this cycle eternally extends pleasure outward on a horizon line that places you perpetually between bored/tired and perky/engaged. Maybe you’re not happy, but you’re never sad, never going home to get back to the grind. You hover in that adequate place, still moved by tranquil emotions but not burdened by sadness or desire. Here in the jazz cafe purgatory, the band is always playing, the sun never rises or sets. Cast in a permanent twilight, customers are always arriving, fresh coffee’s always brewing, and the cocktails never go to your head. No world exists outside the cafe door. It’s a set. It’s a drug. Nothing’s real. What matters is what’s happening to your mind: the mood. It’s all about the mood. Background music had become far more scientific since its Muzak origins, with decades of history and study now shaping its form and delivery. Numerous studies show that customers spend more money in retail settings when they hear slow tempo music that they don’t recognize — so essentially, piano jazz from an unnamed band. The satisfied customer in me felt very pleased by BGM’s product. I never imagined I would say that I liked music that didn’t light a fire in me, but BGM’s produces a different kind of heat. At first I didn’t miss the music or look forward to it. Without a melody, how could I wake up with it playing in my head the way Coltrane’s song “Naima” did? But soon I did wake up craving the escapist hours I spent with it, the relaxed, narcotized trance it induced, because here’s the thing: At home, in my office, I needed relaxing songs like “Special Time” and “Sophisticated Cocktail” to calm my nerves. I’m the parent of a toddler. I work a full-time job in a media industry that’s always restructuring its best workers out of a job, and I write freelance stories on the side, do odd jobs, have a house that requires lots of upkeep, have aging parents, one who’s very ill, have too many emails and tweets and texts to return, too little money in my savings and barely any in a 401K. I no longer smoke. I drink very little and don’t do drugs. I need something to take the edge off. As my wife wisely tells me, I should be doing yoga and exercising a few times a week, but I haven’t used my gym membership in nearly two years. I can’t hit my local skateparks during the rainy season, which lasts eight months here in soggy Portland, so I have few outlets for my stress. This means I demand my chill music deliver more relief than it’s capable of. Where punk rock once energized me, it now rattles my nerves. Life already rattles me. It’s not that I no longer love hard guitar music, it’s that my middle age nerves need more soothing than amping. I can’t take Dead Moon’s wailing, gritty guitar solos when I’m slogging through rush hour traffic with a toddler screaming in her car seat behind me and my stomach tied in a knot. I need “Smooth Jazz Beats.” In the end, BGM’s mood-managing service was no different than what I already did with my so-called real music. I play fast tunes in the morning to wake up. I play mellow piano trios at home during dinner, and to prepare our daughter for sleep. I blast Bad Brains’ bracing “At the Movies” to get stoked while driving to the skatepark. I play slow bluesy Kenny Burrell guitar tunes at low volumes while editing and writing stories. This Japanese elevator music belonged in my arsenal with all the rest. BGM songs like “Special Time” were designed to pass through our ears to pass the time, not to get passed down generation to generation. That’s a legitimate goal. It isn’t like 1950s and 60s jazz was some “pure art” free of commercial ambitions. Accessible pianists like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Erroll Garner played a stylish music that was cool enough for dedicated jazz listeners but accessible enough for the masses. Garner, Peterson, and The Three Sounds in particular sold tons of records to mainstream America. As Richard Cook writes in his Blue Note Records biography, The Three Sound’s approach had a formula. Their pianist Gene Harris stated each song’s melody and built his solo’s intensity in a particular way, and the band had a predictable way of mixing fast songs with mid-tempo tunes and ballads on their albums. “As a result,” Cook writes, “all their records were the same. If you liked one of them, you’d like any of them . . .” As hard as The Three Sounds could swing, the goal wasn’t to change music itself, or redefine jazz. It was always to make people feel good. “If you leave here with a smile on your face,” their pianist would say at the end of their concerts, “remember Gene Harris put it there.” BGM jazz brings people moments of peace, either conjuring a welcome fantasy of a perfect world inside a perfect moment, or imposing a little joy on an otherwise difficult day. I like that, just like I like seeing people happy, and like adding to the joy in the world, rather than the suffering. Joy, not genre, is a force I can get behind.
In the 90s I loved The Meat Puppets so much, but even under their lysergic influence, I missed the lesson of this innovative band’s only philosophy: Forget genre, like what you like. After they outgrew their original punk rock sound, the Puppets embodied the true punk spirit, which isn’t about clinging to genre or styles of clothes, but is all about thinking for yourself, self-definition. For the Puppets, that meant expansion. It meant dissolving genre distinctions and absorbing any appealing musical influences, to create something unique that defied boundaries and pleased only themselves. Nothing’s more punk than shamelessly embracing what you like. They played Grateful Dead songs to early 80s punk crowds. They covered Hank Williams and Little Richard, John Denver’s “Country Road” and the C&H Pure Cane Sugar commercial jingle, all while writing distinctly original songs with warped names like “Enchanted Porkfist” that, minus the involvement of guitar, drums, and bass, shared little with anything else. When an interviewer in the 90s asked how Puppets guitarist Curt Kirkwood would categorize his band’s music, Kirkwood said that rock ‘n’ roll had so many subcategories that categorizing no longer mattered. “The proliferation of branches is gonna become so dense that it really means nothing, eventually. I think we’re world beat, actually.” The interviewer faced the camera. “World Beat,” she said. “I like that. So you’re going to take over the world.” Grinning, Kirkwood said, “Pretty much, yeah. I don’t exclude any influence.” That, not punk rock credibility or fantasies of youthful freedom, was true liberation. On the “Winter Night Jazz Music” channel that’s playing in my office right now, a listener commented: “It’s snowing outside, I have bread baking in the oven, a fire in the fireplace, and I’m sitting here drinking a latte and listening to this beautiful music. Perfect day.” Another listener, unaware how deeply their comment would speak to me, wrote: “I don’t know why I like jazz so much, but I just do. It is very relaxing, thank you!”