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Background Music? There Is No Such Thing!

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Sometime in the early 90s, I was in a car with two of my sisters.

The radio was on at a low volume, and I kept interrupting the conversation by complaining about how bad a particular song was. My sister Marybeth became annoyed and said:

“It’s just background music.”

“You don’t have to pay attention to it and comment on every song.”

EVER-Logical sibling Marybeth, somewhere on I-55, circa 1994

Oh, dear sister, if only it were that simple.

No, wherever I happen to be, if music is playing anywhere, no matter how faintly or in the distance, if I can hear it, I will be involuntarily pulled into its orbit. 

Restaurants are a prime example.

While others are settling in and figuring out their drink order, there’s a good chance I’m quizzing them on the title of the song playing overhead. 

I may offer tidbits of information as well, such as, “Did you know this was recorded in three different studios?” or “Went #1 in the Summer Of 1977!”

Charming. (That last one is a more recent development, courtesy of Tom Breihan’s column.)

It is one thing to have music almost involuntarily and randomly soundtrack the moments of one’s life.

But this intense focus can also spill over to movies with actual soundtracks.

Me:

“Didn’t you find it problematic that the movie (American Hustle) takes place in the late 70s, but most of the songs they used were from the early 70s?”

Practically anyone else:

“No.”

Dentist and doctor appointments can also get interesting when it comes to music. The very thing that is supposed to sooth can cause the opposite reaction. 

“Endless Love? Really?” Is it possible for me to get enough Novocain to knock me out completely?” 

I do have to say though: I have noticed that the medical profession in general is rocking out slightly harder these days, and the music is somewhat more compatible to my tastes.

Then there was that time about nine years ago when I was sitting outside a gift shop at the zoo, waiting for my wife and daughter to make a purchase. 

The song “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor was playing out of a speaker overhead. 

I loved that a zoo was playing a song that name checked a tiger and waited to see what the next song would be. Alas, it appeared to be just a coincidence, as none of the songs that followed featured animals. And I was left disappointed and thinking that a great opportunity had been missed. 

When we arrived home, I immediately rectified the situation and created A Day at the Zoo, a playlist of songs with animals in the title.

If the zoo were to ever be looking for someone with a relevant approach to their music programming, I would be ready.

We have no doubt.

Wrapping up this topic, one last fun story:

I recently went in for an MRI. The tech asked me through my headphones if there was anything I needed before we got started. 

I said, “Can you switch the music in the headphones from country to something else?” He said, “Sure. What’s your favorite band”? 

Um, that’s a loaded question.  Let me give that some thought and get back to you in 45 minutes.

“Rock would be fine.”

But the country music persisted in the headphones, and since the MRI hadn’t started, it had my rapt attention, as one southern drawl after another regaled me with tales of lost love and folksy life lessons. 

One song in particular, about not putting off things because you think you have more time had me thinking, “that’s actually some solid advice.” 

A few days later, I googled “putting off largemouth fishing with your dad” and learned that the song was “’Til You Can’t”, by Cody Johnson.

Once the MRI started, I was shaken to the core by earsplitting noises – that alternately sounded like I was being transported to a rave, or was in a sci-fi movie on a spaceship that’s been attacked and is experiencing core meltdown and an alarm is sounding for everyone to evacuate. It wasn’t my first MRI, but it’s always startling.

When the noises would stop, I could once again hear the music in the headphones.

It was still country. 

Finally, about midway through the tests, the music changed to garden-variety rock, as I had requested. I’m lying flat and motionless inside a partial tube, serenaded by AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”

And soon after:

Axl Rose shouting in my ear:

“Do you know where you are?  You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna DIE!”

Nope, there’s no tuning that out. I wanted to laugh, but I was told not to move my head, so I just ever so slightly smiled. 

Sometimes. that’s all you can do.

Author’s note- In case you were wondering, the MRI revealed some minor issues, but nothing requiring surgery.

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rollerboogie

Music is what brought me here, but I do have other interests. I like ill-advised, low budget movies that shouldn't even be close to good, but are great, and cats too.

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Phylum of Alexandria
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May 22, 2024 8:48 am

Good to hear that the scan results were of no major concern.

I’m right with you on the foregrounding of background music. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

I tend to be pretty tough on soundtrack choices in period pieces, as it’s an important component of establishing setting and sometimes character.

I absolutely love David Simon’s writing, but I do have my nitpicks, and they’re often related to his music references.

Like in The Wire, a young down-and-out dock worker with 00s butt rock posters on his wall is playing Raw Power? Not buying it. Or an entire police department can sing all the words to a rather fast and verbose Pogues song–from their first album? That’s not character writing, that’s fanfic.

It’s interesting that your complaint of American Hustle is that the songs were mostly from earlier than the year it takes place. I had a minor complaint about The Deuce that was the inverse; its selections were a bit on the nose, especially with respect to release years. I thought it would feel more authentic if there were people playing older songs, even going back into the 60s, rather than everyone on top of the most current cuts. Maybe the sweet spot is somewhere in between, though obviously a lot it’s subjective.

I’ll have to check out your zoo music playlist. I’d recommend Shonen Knife’s “Animal Song,” but that one’s in Japanese! Maybe “Cobra vs Mongoose?”

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 22, 2024 9:27 am

On second thought: the obvious answer is “Making Plans for Bison.”

Virgindog
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May 22, 2024 10:00 am

It bothered me that The Sting took place in the 1930s but the soundtrack was mostly Ragtime piano pieces from 20 or 30 years earlier.

Also, any Shonen Knife is good Shonen Knife.

blu_cheez
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May 22, 2024 7:39 pm

I’m OK if there is music older than when the movie / show is set, ’cause people like older music, but it KILLS me when the music is newer than the time period. Directors: don’t put 1979 music in your movie set in 1978.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 22, 2024 10:23 am

I’m the same way. If there’s music playing in a restaurant, one ear is listening to it and the other is kinda sort of paying attention to whatever it is my tablemates are saying.

Sorry, everyone.

My college roommate is a record collector and a dentist. He’s digitized all his music and has it on a hard drive in the office. For any procedure that will be more than a few minutes, he asks his patients what kind of music they like and accommodates them. So if you’re near a dentist and anywhere in Florida….

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 22, 2024 12:01 pm
Reply to  Virgindog
Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 22, 2024 1:10 pm

He has it.

Low4
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May 22, 2024 12:37 pm

One of my biggest complaints with life is that it is not appropriately soundtracked with appropriate musical cues.

Low4
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May 22, 2024 1:58 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Proof there is a god?

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 22, 2024 1:09 pm

I’m another that is always listening out for what’s playing in the background. It can get distracting.

The perfect example has just occurred. Our not so glorious leader Rishi Sunak has just announced a general election for the 4th July (something familiar about that date). The announcement made outside in Downing Street in the rain. As if the gradual moistening wasn’t bad enough his speech was assailed by the sounds of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better coming from a tinny soundsystem somewhere beyond the security cordon. I say it was in the background but it threatened to overwhelm the speech.

The song apt both for echoing the sentiment of much of the population after the shitshow played out by the government in the last decade and also being the theme tune of Tony Blair era Labour before their landslide victory in 1997. Another landslide victory being widely predicted now.

Deluged by rain and D:Ream, an ignominious start to the campaign but hey, things can only get better. Then again, if the polls are to be believed; no they can’t.

Sorry, getting off topic. One other thought, I see a lot written about the soundtrack to dentist and doctor waiting rooms. Is this the norm in the US to have musical accompaniment to your wait? Over here you have to find your own soundtrack, it’s a serious business waiting for the doctor / dentist, there’s no health service proscribed playlist while you wait.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 22, 2024 1:15 pm

Doctors and dentists here can run their offices however they want. Some err on the side of solemnity, which I think is what you experience. Others try to make things as pleasant as possible and play middle-of-the-road cheerful music. Others leave it up to the receptionist.

Low4
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May 22, 2024 1:59 pm

Should we talk about hold music?

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 22, 2024 2:24 pm
Reply to  Low4

I’d rather we didn’t. I’m sure there’s occassions when there’s been a decent song but my memory has blocked that out. All I remember is the torment of endless minutes listening to the same formless muzak on a loop.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 22, 2024 2:30 pm
Reply to  Low4

They should replace it with recitations of Beckett.

Both Grouse
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Both Grouse
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June 4, 2024 11:07 pm
Reply to  Low4

God no.

Both Grouse
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June 4, 2024 11:14 pm

Sorry, but that’s the first time I’ve encountered the name D:Ream, and it seems very crude and tasteless – unless I’ve just got my mind in the gutter and am misinterpreting it. Maybe it’s some sort of transoceanic dissonance and the name has different connotations in the UK?

blu_cheez
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May 22, 2024 7:35 pm

Nice article – I do this all the time, myself.

Question: when did Axl Rose start looking like the Red Skull from Captain America?

1467994501-captain-america-red-skull
cappiethedog
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May 23, 2024 1:22 am

I had my first MRI nine months ago. I just wanted to get over with it. I asked for “random music”. The doctor chuckled. His response was:

“Lot of demand for random music.”

It was my turn to laugh. Pride settled in.

“Can I request a specific album?”

I could.

Pride kicked in. I’m no philistine. Suddenly, I wanted to impress the room.

I asked for Songs from Liquid Days. I know it’s minor Philip Glass, but it sounds cool. And maybe, they didn’t know it was minor Glass.

I like the Axl Rose story. The accompanying visuals remind me of those Holiday Inn commercials: “I’m never actually operated a magnetic resonance scanner, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn.”

Fun fact, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you already know this, but Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” was originally slated for Rocky III. Sylvester Stallone passed. He made the right choice. Rocky Balboa never struck me as an egomaniac. Bad fit. “Eye of the Tiger” fits his underdog persona better.

Is your sister always that funny? I read it last night.

I laughed.

mt58
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May 23, 2024 10:16 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Lots of you have inspired playlists when it comes to your magnetic resonance entertainment selections.
I take a different approach. I used to become incredibly anxious and claustrophobic when I was in the tube. I found the way around that was to ask them ahead of time how long it was going to take.
Once they give me the figure, I call up a favorite album side or some other timely solution. Then I imagine pushing a “play” button, and I go through the tune in my head and try as hard as I can to be in tempo and do it in real time.
Now, I know this sounds like a lot of work, but I think concentrating on getting it f
done accurately takes my mind off the fact that I’m going to be immobile for up to 90 minutes.
Fun times. Makes me want to stay healthy.

mt58
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May 23, 2024 11:22 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I did not catch that.
I sneezed in the middle of voice to text, and I think that’s what happened there.

LinkCrawford
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May 30, 2024 11:46 am
Reply to  mt58

There aren’t a lot, but there are a handful of albums that my brain can recall almost note for note it seems. I’ve found myself doing this before.

ArchieLeech
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May 28, 2024 5:06 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

My ironic comment – I was not offered music to listen to during my MRI. However, the MRI at one point sounded exactly like part of the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” That tickled me.

thegue
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May 23, 2024 2:02 pm

A few thoughts…

  1. Good to hear everything is okay with the health!
  2. There is NO SUCH THING as background music – cosigned!
  3. I regularly create lists, and when I list my Top TV shows of all-time, I never include Mad Men. I just never got into the show…but I will say: the world they created EXACTLY mimics the real world’s timeline. The set designs were perfect for the season/year it was in, and if there was a song in the background, it is a song that would’ve been heard at that exact moment in life. I was always impressed with that.
  4. The background music at our country club is frozen in time, fearful of offending any of the older members (and the fragmentation of genres, almost impossible to please a majority of members after 1980). One particular member who might have been 80 was different that the others – he barked at the general manager after yet another Three Dog Night song, “Jesus Christ! Are you still going to be playing this crap fifty years after I’m DEAD??!!”
Aaron3000
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Aaron3000
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May 25, 2024 5:07 pm

My 11-year-old daughter has music playing continuously in her room, which to me is great. She’s at that stage now where she thinks the stuff I listen to from the ’80s and earlier is “old” (which I guess it is, but hopefully she’ll come around and appreciate it as she matures). I can’t listen to current radio (the repetition kills me), but I have made an effort to listen to new AT40 once a week and have more than a few favorites.

Anyway… she keeps her music at a respectable level, my wife doesn’t even notice it, but my brain is constantly trying to identify what’s playing from the other end of the house. The worst was a few days ago when my daughter put one song on replay… and this song kept playing over and over repeatedly all evening, and all night, and all the next day… at least 30 hours straight. I pointed this out to my wife several times and she just kept saying she wasn’t even aware. Meanwhile I’m slowly going insane hearing this same song every time there’s a break in what I’m watching on TV or listening to on my player, and wondering how my daughter finds this enjoyable. (For the record, the song was “COPYCAT” by Billie Eilish, not a bad song, but it clocks in at about 3:13, which works out to about 550 times in a row over the span that it was on replay. Granted she wasn’t in her room that entire time but that didn’t mean the music stopped.)

My point to all this is I feel you, rb. Also that I probably would’ve welcomed some MRI noise after just a half hour of my Billie Eilish nightmare.

LinkCrawford
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May 30, 2024 11:50 am

I’m sorry I missed this article last week! I can so totally relate. I am always fascinated by what is chosen as background music…what do people find universally acceptable? Too mild? Too rowdy? What is used the most? What funny music do the background music programmers get away with sometimes? I love that stuff! Great topic. 🙂

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