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Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every episode, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.
On this episode, senior producer Benjamin Frisch explores the misunderstood history of Muzak, formerly the world’s foremost producers of elevator music. Muzak emerged out of the technological innovations of World War I as one of the most significant musical institutions of the 20th century, a cultural juggernaut, only to become a punching bag as the second half of the century turned public perceptions of popular music on its head. By the ‘80s and ‘90s, Muzak was trying to figure out a new direction, since it happened to employ many players in Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene. This is the story of how different ideas about pop music butted heads throughout the 20th century, including inside Muzak’s offices.
Some of the voices you’ll hear in this episode include Joseph Lanza, author of Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, which was instrumental in researching and reporting this episode. Also, Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson; Kirk Hamilton of the Strong Songs podcast. The creator of Grunge Lite, Sara Debell; composer and Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame member Amy Denio; former Muzak vice president Bruce Funkhouser; journalist Liz Pelly; Mark Arm of Mudhoney, and Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Records.
We’d also like to give a special thanks to Carlo McCormick, Bruce McKagan, Jim Meyering, and Amanda Krause for their help in researching this episode.
For your listening pleasure: Ben’s Muzak and Easy Listening Playlist.
This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.