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The Column

Harder Than You Think
7/11/04

I don't understand why "easy listening" music is named so horribly wrong. It's easy to hear it, since it's played in supermarkets and airports and elevators everywhere. But it's not easy to listen to, since five minutes of it makes my ears bleed.

I'm sure that there are people who willingly buy easy listening music, aside from employees of supermarkets and airports and elevator companies. But as far as I know, I have not met any. None of my friends have ever said, "I got this great new CD! All the songs are 12 minutes long, and they're played on piano and piccolo! There's this one where the refrain repeats seven times in a row. I can't wait to listen to it at the supermarket!"

There's also the great deal of easy listening played while I'm on hold for customer service. I'm guessing that's so by the time the phone is picked up, I've lost my will to live, let alone to argue.

If people weren't buying easy listening music, musicians wouldn't keep creating it, so perhaps it is our fault. But I will argue that a large portion of the CD sales are to people who mistakenly think that their customers will enjoy it.

Maybe I'm being short sighted. Perhaps I'm failing to see that someone from a generation older than mine enjoys a good piccolo. Maybe I'm some brash whippersnapper who needs to be told what for, because children should be seen and not heard. Or maybe, just maybe, we should consider the numbers on this. The average age in America is late 30s. And I argue that very few people under the age of 40 actually enjoy listening to anything with a piccolo.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Some great classical music contains said piccolo, but classical music is meant to be instrumental. Easy listening is often a former quality song that was instrumental-ized. Sure, John Tesh creates his own new music, but it's so terrible I don't need to address it any further. I'd rather listen to Mary Hart's voice than John Tesh's piano.

I recently heard an instrumental rendition of "Like a Rolling Stone." That's right – Bob Dylan without words. Even people younger than 40 know that Bob Dylan was best known as a poet, and to take out his words and just listen to his notes defeats the entire purpose. That's like listening to the dialogue on Baywatch without the picture. If you're going to play Dylan, play Dylan. Don't play John Tesh playing Dylan.

The main idea of easy listening in a public area seems to be giving customers a sound track that would bother the least amount of people. But I argue that easy listening music bothers many more people than would be bothered by something like classic rock. Maybe that's because I like classic rock. But so do many people ages 18-65. It can't be coincidence that John Fogerty gets that much more radio play than John Tesh.

And if you think classic rock is a poor suggestion, why not actual classical music? A lot of people love classical music. And even more are trying to force themselves to because it makes them feel cultured. I doubt that anyone is trying to like an instrumental cover of "Like a Rolling Stone." so they can fit into the upper crust of society.

I was first exposed to easy listening many years ago when my family and I would eat out at a particular fast food "restaurant" that was a big fan of the brass section of the orchestra. And nothing complimented fried chicken as well as the hum of a trumpet we couldn't quite make out. Actually, anything would be a better compliment. Especially curly fries.

The reason the music was difficult to hear is because one of the main tenants of easy listening music is that it's often very quiet. Most times, you can barely hear it at all. The idea is that easy listening music is usually meant to fade into the background, as if it's not there at all. Wouldn't that be nice? Perhaps a good replacement for easy listening, then, is silence. With silence, you can avoid hearing the music altogether.

I once sat in a coffee shop, very annoyed at the horns being forced upon me. I was trying to get some work done, and instead I was "treated" to music I'd have never chosen. Realizing I was the only customer in the store, I politely asked the clerk to turn the music down. She happily obliged.

"If it were up to me," she added, "I wouldn't play this awful music at all."

Employees of all supermarkets, airports, and elevator companies, please take note. Hopefully when you call the music store to pick up some new tracks, they won't put you on hold.

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