The Death and Resurrection of Barbaric MusicSaturday, October 23, 2010
Somehow I missed the death and the funeral. But apparently, smooth jazz passed away in its sleep almost two years ago and it was pronounced dead on the scene. Where was I? Says one critic on PopMatters:
I come to bury smooth jazz, not to praise it. The evil that radio formats do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their gimmicky call letters. So let it be with smooth jazz.
In recent months, the continual format shuffle that is inevitable in corporate-controlled radio cast a shadow over a previously successful corner of the “jazz” world. In February and March of 2008, “smooth jazz” stations in New York and Washington, DC shifted formats to rock, leaving two of the nation’s largest radio markets free of Kenny G, Chris Botti, Dave Koz, and Spyro Gyra.
Dentists in the two most powerful cities in America are panicking.
The author of the piece, Will Layman, offers up perhaps the best definition, ever, of smooth jazz, outside of a technical explanation:
Smooth Jazz, then, can be understood as an embrace of clean edges, a rejection of the analog sensibility that sits at the root of all the great American music, whether Delta blues, improvised jazz, or rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. Smooth Jazz sought to be pleasant and shining and sweet and easy. Like soul music without the sex, like jazz without a pulse of urgency, like rock without the essential roll, Smooth Jazz was an answer without a question.
At one point during this obituary, Layman even refers to smooth jazz as a “soprano saxophone note held for 45 minutes.”
Smooth jazz triggers a strange sense of nausea in me. It is one of two types of music I can’t listen to for more than five minutes without enduring seasick-type swells running through me, bringing on an unsavory headache. I’ve been in offices and hairstyling shops where this lifeless format is blaring over the ceiling speakers, subjecting unsuspecting listeners to acute melancholy and a quasi-vegetative state. I was sure that my hometown, Detroit, still had its smooth jazz station, so I checked, and it looks like there’s still a pulse over at the HD 98.7 FM. We can’t seem to manufacture cars that you want to buy, but we can deliver music to fall asleep to while driving your Honda.
I have noted that, typically, the only folks who like smooth jazz are those people who never really cared about music in the first place. Smooth jazz is a generic utterance coming from otherwise good instruments that fills the dead air but doesn’t make its listeners think too hard about the music – it’s passion, purpose, or message. If traditional jazz is chicken soup for the soul, then smooth jazz is waterboarding for the senses.
Now I count myself as a mega-fan of jazz – everything from the early jazz musicians and swing to the vocalists, modern innovators, and instrumentalists. I occasionally enjoy a sooty, hole-in-the-wall jazz club with a full docket of great, raw music. I especially love 50s and 60s Blue Note jazz. This book, Blue Note: The Album Cover Art, is one of my favorite books that I bought about 20 years ago, shortly after it was published. Blue Note cover art was almost as good as the music. Good jazz music is an immensely personal experience while smooth jazz is a soulless experience, akin to a saxophone in a perpetual coma.
The other format that gives me vigorous nausea is Muzak, also called elevator or piped music. My father, who had no interest in any kind of music except Guy Lombardo on the New Year’s holiday, used to play that stuff in the car just to break the silence. When you are a child or teenager making the long haul to the summer home Up North (that’s what we call it here in Michigan) in Dad’s pickup truck, and you are subjected to 5 straight hours of 1) driving under the speed limit 2) Muzak, and 3) cigar smoking – cheap cigars – with the windows up, you become a green-around-the-gills captive to a situation you cannot alter because you are severely lacking in position power. I remember hearing many of my favorite songs being tortured at the hands of Muzak’s audio architects. I owe much of my current resilience to surviving those satanic moments in Dad’s ’75 Chevy.
What’s fitting is that Muzak was founded during the Great Depression by George Owen Squier, a two-star General and graduate of West Point. At the time, some research studies were executed, apparently, by Moe, Larry, and Curly, which showed Muzak was a functional music that reduced workplace absenteeism and early departures. Further studies revealed that Muzak spurred cows to give more milk and chickens to lay more eggs. The World War II workforce was wired for Muzak, and accordingly, as the stories go, production skyrocketed. So that’s what happened to the Big Three automakers in Detroit? They turned off the Muzak?
The great novelist and essayist, Vladimir Nabokov, described Muzak as being “abominably offensive,” and in Smithsonian magazine he referred to Muzak as “a stupefyingly bland, toxically pervasive form of unregulated air pollution, about as calming as the drone of a garbage compactor.”
Although the term “muzak” came from a cross of “music” and “kodak,” it can’t be overlooked that it sounds more like Prozac. According to a 2004 story in USA Today, Muzak is a much more modern company that is successfully fighting off its elevator music reputation and has re-branded its product as upbeat, edgy, and yeah, even hip. Muzak Holdings LLC filed for bankruptcy protection back in 2009, and it emerged from bankruptcy early this year. If it was ever approaching cadaver status, its carcass was sprinkled with groovy dust and now it claims to be churning out “the universal language.” While smooth jazz is picking out its pallbearers, Muzak claims it is making headway by inspiring a new generation of Muzak hipsters.
Can anything be more degenerate than a Muzak rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, or, god forbid, the Star Wars Imperial March?