September 06, 2003

Pizza and Music

Posted by shonk at 11:05 PM in Music | TrackBack

There's a pizza place downstairs from my apartment. Now, that might seem like a dangerous situation, especially for someone who loathes cooking as much as I do, but I had never actually been in the place until tonight. You see, once again, I neglected to go grocery shopping today, preferring to spend 6 hours finishing up The Name of the Rose.

Anyway, I want to talk about the pizza place, not my neglected domestic responsibilities. The weird thing about this particular joint, which is otherwise a totally typical takeout pizza parlor, is that there was no music being played. This wasn't something I immediately noticed, but rather came to realize as I was sitting by myself and waiting for my three slices to be cooked. It's a small thing, surely, but most bars/restaurants/take-out places have some sort of music playing in the background, so long as we include terrible instrumental versions of bad pop songs being played at barely-audible levels within our definition of "music". Whether that's good or bad is a personal judgement, but it was mildly jarring to experience the exception to the rule.

Actually, the pervasiveness of background music throughout our culture is, I think, an odd phenomenon. What's the point of music that nobody pays attention to or, often, even hears? I'm inclined to think that background music (I guess "ambient music" is probably the preferred nomenclature) is popular because without it, people are more truly alone with their thoughts, which can be a scary thing. I'm sure some modern naysayers have already written at length about this subject, decrying the modern disinclination to indulge in personal thought and contemplation. I often side with this perspective, as I've never been particularly inclined to have background music playing while I'm working, writing, or reading. Since I don't pay attention to it, it seems sort of pointless or, at worst, distracting. I do find that I think better without any extraneous noise in the environment.

And, in some cases, background music can become downright annnoying. When it's really bad, for example. Or even when it's good, but in excessive quantities. Like when my girlfriend was spending several hours a day in a coffee shop that played the same Norah Jones CD on repeat all day, every day. Despite liking the CD, it quickly went from "nice" to "extremely annoying", though that eventually gave way to "totally ignored" (incidentally, from her experience working at a coffee shop, she claims Brazilian jazz is the most easy-to-ignore music).

But I can understand the positive side of background music, too. After all, it tends to cover up the conversation of others, which are usually inane or incomprehensible, but still fascinating, since listening feels voyeuristic and vaguely naughty, given the social norms against eavesdropping. And so, given the lack of background noise, I found myself overhearing the conversation of the people working in the pizza place and thinking that, perhaps, it might be a good business move to turn the radio on and cover up the rambling of the workers. For example, the female cash register worker was telling her (I'm assuming) manager that she finds it disconcerting to talk to him while he's sitting and she's standing, since she always envisions him as being above her, not below. Which was probably the innocent observation of a bored worker, but it might not play well to the segment of the market that looks for subjugation of women at every turn.

Yet again, I've run off on a tangent. In any case, the main point is, I'm used to not having background music in my apartment, in class and in my office, but almost anywhere else it's a bit disconcerting. And now that I've devoted so much thought to it, I'm sure to be hyper-aware of ambient music (or lack thereof) for the next week or two. Hopefully I'll have forgotten this obsession before I need to go to an airport, because being hyper-aware of background noise when you're sitting for two or three hours is a good way to drive yourself insane. Brian Eno apparently had a similar thought in mind when he made Music for Airports (which LaGuardia actually played in its Marine Terminal for a while). Fortunately, I've never had much reason to pay attention to such things in airports, as I usually either spend the whole time with my nose in a book or head for the nearest bar.