It would be revealing to compile an alternative history of Western music, focused solely on Songs Played in Hotel Lobbies and Cruise-Ship Corridors Through the Ages. You’d document a bizarro parallel universe, one where Michael McDonald is more popular than Led Zeppelin and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons trumps everything by Mozart. The Eagles would be more revered than Dylan; Jamiroquai bigger than Springsteen. And at the top of the pyramid, with her Nagel-print cheekbones, would sit Sade.
The quintessential background record of any era, Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1984) was also the perfect theme for its time: languid, sexy, and reeking of money. This explains why it’s been playing in yacht clubs and business-class lounges since the Reagan administration, despite being a patently ridiculous song (not least for the sax solo). Its popularity highlights a key ingredient of the genre: If you’re going to make sultry, anodyne lounge music, it helps to sing with an accent. Sade’s own inflections—she rhymes Key Lah-go with Chicago—were indeterminate (French? Latin? Nigerian? Who could tell?), yet indisputably cosmopolitan.
An even better tactic for background success? Don’t sing in English at all. Whether it’s Serge Gainsbourg wooing Jane Birkin or Cesaria Evora lamenting her saudade, foreign-language songs are believed to lend any venue an air of sophistication. They’re easy to listen to and easy not to listen to, since the lyrics make no sense. Where would your neighborhood tapas bar be without the worldly stylings of the Gipsy Kings, the Buena Vista Social Club (the Gipsy Kings of the 90’s), and Amadou & Mariam (the Gipsy Kings of the 00’s)?
Then there’s Brazilian music, which has supplanted reggae as the global sound track for chillaxing. From Bali to Bodrum, every high-end sandal emporium and beachfront sushi bar seems to play the same 12 songs by the same six Brazilian singers—particularly Bebel Gilberto, the Brazilian Sade. The samba is as ubiquitous as the caipirinha. (Don’t get me wrong, I adore Brazilian music, even after 3,500 listens. Not knowing Portuguese, I used to think it the most romantic music of all. I’ve since learned that every song is about soccer. But I love it no less.)
If you think I take this all too seriously, talk to Daniel Barenboim. The Argentine conductor has spoken out vehemently against the creep of background music into every corner of public life, calling it “as disturbing [as] the most despicable aspect of pornography.” Others agree. A London-based group called Pipedown is waging a vigorous campaign against canned music; in 2002 they staged a demonstration outside Selfridges department store. Two years earlier, a bill was introduced in the British House of Commons proposing a ban on recorded music in civic spaces. (It didn’t pass.)
Citizens have to reclaim “the right not to listen to music,” argue Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook in their (very funny) 2008 treatise “Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go?” Comparing background music to secondhand smoke and acid rain, the economists claim it promotes “a culture of non-listening.” More troubling to the authors is the insidious manipulation at work by marketing and retail puppeteers who don’t play music so much as deploy it. Studies have shown that sad songs can actually boost greeting-card sales; that slow songs inspire shoppers to spend more time in supermarkets; and that classical music spurs diners to order more expensive bottles of wine.
Background music is as old as recording itself—though, unlike the recording industry, it shows no sign of going away. It found its apotheosis in Muzak, created in 1934 and still heard in 400,000 locations worldwide. Other services have expanded on the Muzak model, including the Austin-based DMX, which sends its 106 satellite channels out to Cheesecake Factories and Gold’s Gyms across the nation, reaching 80 million defenseless listeners. DMX’s themed playlists range from Malt-Shop Oldies and Riviera Discothèque to Italian Bistro Blend, which sounds like a coffee and seems to perform the same function. (“Give me a nonfat ‘Volare’ with a double shot of Prima!”)