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Bad Music in Public Spaces

If you’re like me, you’ll agree there’s nothing so dispiriting as finding yourself in the lavishly appointed dining room of a luxury resort, flute of Prosecco in hand, about to embark on a nine-course tasting menu—when, from somewhere up on the ceiling, in wafts the opening verse of “Lady in Red.”

Maybe I’m oversensitive, but it felt like a dentist’s drill aimed squarely at my skull. I loathed Chris de Burgh’s 1986 original; going cheek-to-cheek with this florid instrumental version was infinitely worse. From that point on the meal became an afterthought, while the god-awful sound track consumed all my attention. An orchestral arrangement of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” came and gave without mercy. Mantovani’s rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” only made me wish I were.

They say music has the perceived effect of slowing down time. In this case it made time grind to an agonizing halt. By dessert (rhubarb tart and six violins playing “Against All Odds”) my thoughts were with Manuel Noriega, holed up in that embassy, besieged by the likes of Rick Astley. When I finally escaped to my room, I savored the silence like never before.

At breakfast the next morning, however, it was a whole new vibe. Jazz drifted through the room like sunlight glistening off the china. The warble of Chet Baker’s trumpet put me in a perky mood. Everything seemed brighter, crisper, cooler. Two meals, two playlists, two wildly different impressions of the very same table.

Some people are irked by bad lighting, excessive AC, the reek of European men’s cologne. I’m hopelessly particular about music. Background sound tracks can make or break my impression of a place—and these days every place has one, from wine bars to Williams-Sonoma. Too often it’s employed with alarming incompetence.

I’m not talking about loud music in public spaces. I’m talking about bad music in public spaces. If the right song playing at the right restaurant functions like a rave review posted in the window, the wrong music is like a violation notice from the Board of Health: do not approach. back slowly away.

Most people, I’m told, hardly notice background music, which I guess is the point. But like a dog tuned to the shrillest frequencies, I seem to register only the most grating aural wallpaper, the Célines and Enriques and Mariahs (she of the voice like a dog whistle). I’ve walked out of otherwise appealing shops that elect to blare Maroon 5. I’ve hung up on reservations lines that put me on hold to “Groovy Kind of Love.” I bring earplugs on planes to block out not the roar of the engines but the insipid pabulum of the boarding music.

In certain environments songs are presumed to help people relax. They generally have the opposite effect. Spas still insist on playing what my piano teacher liked to call “newage” (“rhymes with sewage”). This sounds innocuous enough for the first two minutes, but after an hour ties your nerves into knots faster than any therapist can undo them. Airports play soaring ballads that are supposed to make you feel like you’re flying; they make me feel like stabbing someone with a piccolo. Resorts pump their newage right into the pool via underwater speakers, leaving you no hope of escape. Even hospitals get it unfathomably wrong. A friend of mine went in for an MRI and had to endure not only her own claustrophobia but also the clinic’s cheesy piped-in sound track—45 minutes of continuous soft hits to the head.

The infuriating thing about background music is not that it’s unavoidable; it’s that it screws with the natural order of things, elevating the blandest drivel (“Lady in Red”) to the status of a timeless classic—or, worse, sullying timeless classics (“Eleanor Rigby”) by programming them alongside the drivel.

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