Saturday, October 9, 2010

'Musical bug spray'

The Canadian composer-musicologist Colin Eatock surveys the "weaponization" of classical music: Playing it as "musical bug spray" to repel people. Growing numbers of businesses and public facilities – transit stations, convenience stores, libraries, shopping malls – pipe Bach and Mozart through loudspeakers to send the message, "Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space," Eatock writes:

He goes on to outline the socio-aesthetic "dead white European male" critique of classical music. I wish he instead had given more and broader consideration to using music as a cultural marker.

Music is employed/deployed this way in all kinds of places, mostly commercial spaces. Stroll through the nearest shopping center and you're sure to pass by stores piping some kind of music, which (1) may lure you in and make you more inclined to buy something, or (2) let you know that this place is not for you.

This practice doesn't just separate highbrows from lowbrows, but also lays down markers within popular culture. Piping bluegrass into a crowd of minority youths says "move along quickly" more vividly than opera. Playing hip-hop on a store's sound system will keep the good ol' boys away. Some retailers figure that playing baroque music conditions customers to expect higher prices.

Such use of music is so pervasive that the music industry had to come up with a style that would be vaguely attractive, or at least not repellent, to people of differing ages, ethnicities and lifestyles. This music is played by radio stations that use "lite" or "mix" in their names. I hear it for about an hour twice a year, at my dentist's office. It's amazing how many styles are absorbed and homogenized – sampling it last week, I heard bits of Afro-pop. I may have heard an accordion at one point. No banjos yet, though.

I deplore using music as a cultural marker. I presume Eatock does, too.

I'm delighted that the Richmond Folk Festival, now playing on the downtown riverfront, is my town's best-attended musical event. (Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are expected over this weekend.) This festival, and others like it, send the message that all kinds of music are "for you."