“The music of rebellion makes you wanna rage, but it’s made by millionaires who are nearly twice your age” Steven Wilson sings in the famous Porcupine Tree song “The Sound of Muzak.” As can be understood from these lines, the song is about corporatization and commercialization of music, when it was meant to stay as an art form. Understanding The Sound of Muzak’s meaning requires a deep dive into music history.
Why is “music” written as “muzak” in the title? Americans who lived in the 60s-80s may be familiar with the term. It is often used for background music played in public spaces that doesn’t have any artistic or entertainment value. However, the word is actually a genericised trademark. Muzak is a company started in 1934 that specializes in exactly the kind of commercial music that Wilson is talking about in their song: elevator music. Though they never delivered to elevators, they aurally dominated every other public place. Every mall, every shop, every hotel was filled with a non-stimulating and unrecognizable sound. “It’s only meant to repress and neutralise your brain” describes Wilson the sound of Muzak.
Some say that Muzak is helpful. Restaurant owners say that it makes “people feel comfortable staying” and that “it makes the room alive.” Business owners use tempo adjusted Muzak to boost employees’ productivity. A Muzak executive describes the benefits of it for a factory worker as such: “Toward ten thirty, [the employee] begins to feel a little tired, tense, so we give him a lift with the appropriate music.”
It’s tragicomic that the “helpful” aspects are exactly the commercial use around which “The Sound of Muzak” is based. Though Muzak went under, the 8th wonder of the world is still not completely safe. Many modern record labels, especially for mainstream pop and rap music, force the principles of Muzak onto their artists. They just wrap it around the façade of casual listening instead of presenting freely in elevators.