The Soundtracking of America

Music made sense when the world did. Now the sense is gone, but the melody lingers on -- everywhere. We live surrounded by music, from torch songs at Starbucks to the Beatles in the elevator, and the barrage may be turning our minds to mush

A WRITER my wife and I knew in New York would sometimes invite us down for drinks on a late-summer afternoon. There in his apartment off Washington Square he would load into the stereo his latest CD -- with an odd, expectant look of pride, as though by discovering an album he were somehow responsible for making it -- and turn the music up so loud that the windows would rattle in their casements and the neighbors would dive to catch their toppling vases.


"Isn't it lovely?" he'd bellow above the din, and we would nod and smile dutifully before slipping off to the bathroom to cower, like dogs during a thunderstorm, in relative quiet until the terror ended.

The first time anyone openly acknowledged music as a weapon may have been during the 1989 invasion of Panama, when U.S. soldiers bombarded the Vatican envoy's house with rock-and-roll in an attempt to chivy out the fugitive Manuel Noriega. But the truth is that we all are terrorized by music nowadays. It's not so much the high school kids parading down the street with boom boxes, or the college students partying away a Saturday afternoon, or the insomniac in the next apartment pacing up and down to Beethoven at 3:00 a.m. It's, rather, the merciless stream of 1960s golden oldies drenching suburban malls, the disco-revival radio thumping out Donna Summer in the back of a taxi all the way to the airport, the tinny Muzak bleating from storefronts as you walk along the sidewalk, the tastefully muted Andrew Lloyd Webber seeping from recessed speakers above the urinals in the men's room. America is drowning in sanctioned music -- an obligatory orchestration cramming every inch of public space. There's hardly a bar in which to nurse a quiet drink or a café in which you don't have to shout your order above the upbeat swing of 1940s big-band standards.

Perhaps it was Hollywood that taught us to expect life to come with background music, a constant melodic commentary on the movie of our lives. But we are soundtracked nowadays with relentless demands for only the most obvious and officially appropriate emotions. You should be as bright and bubble-gummy as the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" when you shop for a new pair of blue jeans. You ought to be as sophisticatedly ironic as Frank Sinatra's "They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil (The Coffee Song)" when you go out to eat. There's something wrong if you aren't as moody and melancholy as the Cowboy Junkies' whispery version of "Sweet Jane" when you sit in a midtown bar. Popular urban chains such as Pottery Barn and Starbucks even sell CDs of the proper ambient melodies for shopping in their stores.

Of course, the movie sort of soundtrack never quite works, because in real life it's delivered entirely in snippets, as we cross from one stereo zone to another -- the radio suddenly blaring out as the car starts up, the jukebox suddenly cut off as the door to the diner closes. In a Washington, D.C., office building I was recently subjected first to a stomach-churning fifteen seconds of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" as the elevator rattled up to my floor, then to five jangly seconds of guitar in the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" from a deliveryman's radio down the hall, and then, as I stood by the receptionist's desk, to a minute and a half of one of those insane seventeenth-century Scottish folk tunes whose purpose was to make the tartan clans seize their two-handed battle swords and wade through English blood, howling like the sea. We've all been damned to a perpetual quarter-final round of Name That Tune.

And it's not just in public spaces. Private life in America is equally littered with dissociated musical fragments, from the moment the clock radio turns on in the morning until the "sleep" function turns it off at night. You can snatch five minutes of Copland's Appalachian Spring while you gulp your first cup of coffee, take in the second act of a Mussorgsky opera during the morning commute, slip a CD into the office computer and squeeze in a little Villa-Lobos between department meetings, recognize a scrap of Holst's The Planets in the theme song for the evening news, and fall asleep after dinner in the middle of Dvorák's New World Symphony.

Children at summer camp, college students in their library carrels, soldiers at war in the desert: Americans seem incapable of going without music. It pours from the open windows of the apartment house across the street and the car in the next lane at the stoplight. "Let us rather spend our time in conversation," the doctor Eryximachus tells Socrates as he dismisses the after-supper flautist in Plato's Symposium -- but when did you last go to a dinner party at which the stereo didn't rumble through the evening? When you add up the radio stations, the local philharmonics, the jazz clubs under the freeway, the dingy used-record stores, the movie studios, the $1.3 billion market for rap music, the $1.9 billion spent on revivified country-western, and all the rest, American music represents an enormous cultural investment.

In 1981 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, an influential attack on the fragments of Enlightenment philosophy that constitute much of our contemporary moral discourse. Part of his argument is a devastating account of the rise of twentieth-century "emotivism," and nearly the only thing he missed is its curious parallel in the rise of recorded music. People began to imagine that morality was a set of feelings rather than a system of ideas at around the time they began to be able to evoke any mood they wanted by putting a 78 on a phonograph.

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