Friday, September 17, 2010

Start the Music

Whatever happened to elevator music? It seems to have become extinct, at least in public places, where elevator music performed its greatest service.

Sure, the music was as bland as warmed over Cream of Wheat, as insipid as a Lifetime movie, but that was its great strength. Elevator music could be ignored. It asked to be ignored. Like one of those nettlesome tasks you really ought to do, but which no one will notice if you don't, it begged to be ignored.

The accompaniment to the unpleasant but necessary, it was found in the places you didn't want to be, usually in a waiting room where you were biding your time until the doctor or dentist was ready to hurt you.

Hugo Winterhalter, Andre Kostelanetz, Lawrence Welk, Enoch Light, Nelson Riddle and the rest were ideal waiting-room companions. If you wanted to read a magazine, work a crossword puzzle or share your medical history in all its nauseating detail with the stranger next to you, they didn't interfere. And if you wanted to sleep, elevator music was a terrific soporific.

Of course, there was the possibility you might be vaguely familiar with the lyrics to one of the languid melodies. Then those few words, that phrase, that snippet of schmaltz would linger. The mind wanted to sing, but the only words it knew were "baubles and bangles and beads," or "shall we dance, bum ba bum," or "across a crowded room," or "I'm crossing you in…a boat?"

It was frustrating. But the words had limited staying power and fled at the first sign of impinging reality.

Sadly, elevator music has been banished from most waiting rooms and replaced with televisions tuned to one or the other cable news stations. Regardless of their politics, all news networks have two things in common: announcers with screeching, grating, nasal voices; and theme music with an insistent, driving rhythm, like the music announcing the approach of the shark in Jaws, only louder, more ominous and more demanding of attention. To add to the frenzy, the announcers, who never have much to say, insist on saying it rapidly and at great length; perhaps they're paid by the word.

It's nigh on impossible to read, carry on a conversation or nod off for a moment when the waiting room is filled with the mind-jarring, ear-piercing yammering of people whose job it is to convince us that the end is near – right after this commercial break. Stay tuned or miss the apocalypse.

To make matters worse, these news people, with their degrees from some of America’s great universities in English or journalism or communications, seem incapable of asking a simple question. Five minutes of meandering speed talk and fractured syntax produce a disjointed, convoluted query that might have a point – somewhere.

Then the guest says, "Well, Sharon, I think…"

Only to have the newscaster interrupt in a rare burst of brevity: "I'm sorry, Senator, but we're out of time. Thank you for dropping by."

Then the nurse calls for you, and a few minutes later the doctor says, “I think we better talk about your blood pressure.”

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