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Essay: The Perils Of Public Music

JF Riordan explains in her essay, The Perils of Public Music, that she’d just like a little peace and quiet on the road.";

Lake Effect essayist JF Riordan travels a lot for work. And as she explains in her essay, The Perils of Public Music, she’d just like a little peace and quiet on the road:

There used to be a lot of mockery about Muzak, that bland public music that took popular tunes like “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” removed the drums, and added violins and a zither. Its mediocrity was intended to soothe, but for people who actually like music, it served mostly to irritate. I don’t know if Muzak still exists. But if the corporate entity has faded, its inane heritage carries on with a vengeance.

Public music wears on the nerves. Airlines have decided that their passengers want to hear it as they get on and off the plane. Perhaps they believe that the hostilities taking place as passengers hunt for space to stow their carry-ons will be somehow mitigated by jazz. Unwilling to participate in this ritual combat, I can always check my bags, take my seat as quickly as possible to get out of the scrum, and have the leisure to watch what’s going on around me. I admit to being amused by the contrast between the activities just overhead and the saxophone music. If the music is an attempt to create the impression that everyone’s having a good time, it’s a fail. But maybe the airline executives have a previously unsuspected sense of humor.

Hotels play music in their public spaces, and the selections are clearly chosen to set the correct tone of “fashionableness” and “chic.” At the last place I stayed—iced-in while the airport was closed for two days—the effect was surreal. A colleague described it as “Bollywood on acid.” Even at four in the morning, during a discussion with the desk clerk over whether the gym was open, the empty lobby resonated with a strange undulating sound that created a vague feeling of nausea.

In the public rooms outside of a conference, the tinkling sound of wind chimes and synthesized chanting interferes with serious thinking and creates a mental discord between the reality of work and the unattainability of vacation.

At resort hotels, the soothing sound of surf is covered up by the incessant beat of techno-funk amplified at the beach. Inside the hotel lobby, however, you can hear the sound of waves, but only embedded in the Tibetan chimes of corporate spa music.

Travel, particularly business travel, is stressful. You are away from home and family and dogs. The TSA has put its hands all over your self and your stuff. Your feet hurt. You packed for the wrong climate. You haven’t finished writing your speech when the leading expert on the topic will be on the panel. Your flight is delayed, and you may miss a conference call with your boss. Your cell phone battery is low. You are breathing stale air from planes, airports, and hotel conference rooms. You’re eating unhealthy food, and the gym was closed when you tried to work out. The airport announcements blare at you, and neon signs invite you to eat bad things, and spend money on stuff you don’t really need. At times like these, you need your thoughts to yourself. So, a word to people who control the volume: just turn it off.


Wisconsin writer J.F. Riordan is author of the North of the Tension Line series of novels, set on Washington Island in Door County. Her latest book is a series of essays called Reflections on a Life in Exile.