Heavenly Dreck

Why is airplane music so universally bad?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The music you hear in airports and on airplanes before takeoff—like the music you hear in shopping malls, hotel lobbies, banks, and while on hold—is sonic kapok. You can call it Muzak (a trade name), contemporary instrumental, easy listening, whatever you like: It’s fill, a lubricant, a sort of drug to help make time pass, reduce anxiety, mask noise, and get you from here to there with the greatest economy and the least friction. Whatever you call it, you may wonder why—in an age when new technologies and inexpensive design options have revolutionized everything from coffee cups to trash cans— why is airplane music still so universally bad?

Airplane music has two distinct elements. The airplane music you hear over the loudspeaker before takeoff shares an ancestry with elevator music, which Joseph Lanza, author of Elevator Music, an intriguing pioneer study of the genre, once called “[a]n artfully contrived regimen of unobtrusive harmonies and pitches; metronomic repetition; melodic segments that overlap into a tonal wash … connoting inherited concepts of how heaven sounds.” (Sure, if heaven is the waiting room of a Ventura dermatologist.) It’s science, more than art, that’s involved in manufacturing this music and creating formats for it. You probably don’t want to be listening to Sonic Youth or Pearl Jam as you taxi out onto the runway in a Boeing 757 stretch, unless maybe you’re 18 years old with $200 worth of coke up your nose—at least that’s what market research people are telling the various airlines about the behavioral responses of their respective demographics.

Promisingly, this heavenly “tonal wash” is dispensed with once you’re aloft and leveled out at 32,000 feet. Then the fun begins. The stewardess invites you to purchase a headset that will make available a cornucopia of listening pleasures should you choose to plug in. But—and here the fun often ends—that cornucopia is remarkably limited, and the audio format is very similar from airline to airline. This is because two companies are responsible for most of the airplane music market: DMX Music (which provides music for 30 airlines) and Inflight Productions (which provides music for l5 airlines). On a recent Continental flight, where I was seated next to a chic, young, rather affectless Chinese woman reading a John Irving novel, there were 11 audio programs: Rewind (“Step back in time with a collection of favorites”), Urban Groove, Latin Fiesta, Continental Lounge (“Sit back and relax to this selection of contemporary easy-listening ballads”), the Classics, the Hit Factory, Jazz Beat, Country Roads, and Live Broadway.

There was music to be listened to with pleasure—not much, but maybe half a dozen tunes among the 60 or so available: Diana Krall singing “The Night We Called It a Day” or “Keep on the Sunny Side,” performed by the late June Carter Cash, as opposed to, say, “Hot and Wet,” sung by a group called 112 featuring Ludacris or James Taylor singing “Whenever You’re Ready.” (Taylor is a staple of airline nostalgia audio. Perhaps it’s me, but Taylor’s music triggers an unpredictable, often violently toxic reaction in me and has done so for nearly 35 years.)

Setting aside my issues with Taylor, two major problems with listening to airline audio are: l) The roar of the aircraft dirties the sound, and 2) you’re not able to choose freely among the songs. You’re stuck with the entire channel’s program in fixed sequence at the point you come in. This often includes a crass “host” jumping in now and then like an unwelcome pop-up on your computer screen, trying to whip up enthusiasm for whatever’s going at that particular moment: “This hot new group has all the hip and cool cats dancin’ from coast to coast with their unique fusion of swing, surf, rockabilly, and cocktail.” I mean, really.

The first problem can be solved nicely with noise-canceling headphones, which electronically “hush the world around you.” Bose, among others, makes them; a pair will set you back about $300. As for the sequencing, etc., well, you’re stuck there, pilgrim.  

Companies like DMX and Inflight attempt in earnest to cater to the tastes of their customers, assuming that at least a few tracks among allthe jazz, hip-hop, country, nostalgia, and whatnot will keep you amused for a little while between viewing Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over or, if you’re the cerebral type, leafing through the airline magazine, glued to such features as “a journey to the Cayman Islands in search of crystalline waters, sheer cliffs and, oh yes, bats.” Perhaps I’m the only crank onboard, and everyone else is happy as a clam listening to “This Month’s Special Guest” Pink singing “Trouble” or YoungGunz featuring Chingy delivering a remix version of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” as they work their way through the burnt lasagna with Styrofoam sauce. But surely, I thought, I am not alone in feeling that airline programming could be a little more imaginative and bold—or at least have the kind of flexibility iPod-savvy travelers now want from their musical surroundings. So I phoned the Los Angeles office of Inflight Productions in search of a rational, articulate spokesperson who might be able to tell me who Chingy was and why he and I were marooned together six miles above the soybean fields, access roads, and Blockbuster video outlets of our great nation.

“How do you choose the music you put on airplanes?” I asked the gracious and forthcoming employee I’d reached.

“We get most of it from the current Top 40 charts.”

“How about the retro stuff?”

“Oh, from surveys. But we figure a lot of it out on our own.”

“How about the classical?”

“We farm that out to some woman in Germany.”

“How do you know if the airline passengers like the music?”

“We do surveys.” 

“And they like it?”

“No complaints yet.”

Well, let me register a complaint. It’s not that I need, or expect, to have available to me on these flights Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus,” or the Cecil Taylor Unit launched on a 47-minute, free-form improvisation, or even Junior Brown twanging and picking his way through “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.” It’s just that I’d like to be surprised every now and then. But surprise is Public Enemy No. 1 so far as market research analysis goes. Which is why airline audio is the aesthetic equivalent to the prose in TV Guide or supermarket paperbacks. The notion of mainstream taste, when pegged to the bottom line, will always cant downward—not least when it’s only two companies locked in competition to determine just how “main” mainstream can get.