Any owner of an mp3 player can recreate that ubiquitous movie moment: where the protagonist walks confidently down a bustling street, the activity of strangers somehow falling in line with the rhythm of his step. The cinematic conclusion – that the protagonist has his place in the world – is brought up a notch by the thrumming soundtrack, which elevates his personal story to a larger truth. The world is in fact in sync with him.
In its power and ambiance, music is an effusive medium. Movies have soundtracks because they help convince viewers that the world of the movie is all of a harmonious piece. It’s no wonder we try to imitate this effect in daily life. When deployed with skill, a track or an etude adds framing and color to any experience, much like the proverbial rose-colored glasses.
Owners of products like the iPod constantly have the option to put on those glasses, or rather those headphones. The endless retrievable music at their fingertips lets them tweak their perception of experiences that are largely beyond their control – for instance, hustling through our detour-rife campus during the 10 a.m. crush. What power this device gives the individual to create a sense of his place in the world no matter where he finds himself.
The obvious, slightly ridiculous side of such a sense is that it’s an illusion. And thus that movie moment has become a cliché, for the protagonist’s cocky sense of ownership over the scene (e.g., Mean Girls, when Lindsay Lohan’s character falls headfirst into a trashcan). But all the same, people are willing to pay for it.
It’s not only Apple that’s paying attention to the connection between music and a sense that a hostile world has been custom-made for an individual. Ever walk into a store and have the eerie sensation that everything was made for you – that it all looks like something you could already own?
When business owners can convert the unfamiliar into the homey, the foreign into the “already mine,” they’ve struck gold. And what better tool to complete the fantasy than music?
I had thought the word “muzak” was simply slang describing the sort of rehashed versions of tunes you hear in doctors’ offices and such. This is a common misconception. As I learned from a 2006 New Yorker article (“The Soundtrack of Your Life,” available on the magazine’s site archive), Muzak is a powerful, relevant company that custom designs streams of music for client businesses.
The artistic insight behind Muzak is how precisely music, to the modern ear, lends a sense of identity. Muzak works with a store or business to determine exactly what audio experience – down to the lag time between tracks – best tunes its audience to its goals.
That movie protagonist’s/plugged-in pedestrian’s cocky sense of ownership is exactly the mood Muzak wants shoppers to be in. If the right soundtrack seems to align the external world with an individual agenda, the hands of savvy marketers can turn around and create an individual agenda – a profitable one. Consumers experiencing Muzac will ideally feel not only comfortable in the store, but like the master of it, and entitled to the world it offers.
Cold-hearted as the process sounds, I really can’t fault Muzak for tapping into this phenomenon. In a brief visit to New York City this summer, one evening I found myself lured into a store every few steps I took down a secretive downtown street, where the buildings are low and close and the traffic is mostly pedestrian. I was alone, amusing myself, looking less for worthy purchases than for diversion. The sense of anonymity I felt from such quietness and solitude was artfully transformed each time I stepped over a store’s threshold.
The stores were self-contained universes, each sensory level a branded one: smell, taste, look, feel, sound. Each level cradled and supported the others in a comprehensive aesthetic. New York is famous for the way design governs its public spaces, and these low-profile stores were accordingly articulate. As a consumer you were not only buying a quiche – you were renting a life.
The New Yorker article described the way the music element can signal what experience awaits consumers: “A business’s background music is like an aural pheromone. It attracts some customers and repels others, and it gives pedestrians walking past the front door an immediate clue about whether they belong inside.”
With no agenda and no company, I had no reservations, and each establishment seemed to envelop me comfortably, for a time. In this they resembled nothing more than noise-canceling headphones.
In my luck – or my paucity, depending on your view – I had no headphones and no soundtrack in the haphazard, miraculous openness of the street. It’s a city I have no personal governance over, and I’m not sure I’d want any illusion of an alternative.
-Colodner’s soundtrack is comprised of free jazz, John Cage and “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” E-mail her at email@example.com.