The Backstory: The most irritating Christmas songs

I have my own in-house Christmas Muzak system in the form of a 7-year-old granddaughter who won’t stop singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer since we watched it on TV. It was cute the first time as she struggled to get the words and melody right, it started to wear thin around the 23rd version and now, a week later, it’s right up there with nails on the blackboard for irritating.

The interesting thing about piped-in music is that it works. The companies that offer it back up their marketing with scientific studies that show people’s moods do change with music. Recent research at McGill University in Montreal discovered that listening to music can trigger up to a 9% increase in dopamine to the brain. Dopamine is the chemical in our bodies that produces good feelings from various stimuli such as food, money, eating sweets or taking certain drugs like cocaine.

sch176~1Apparently irritating music can have the reverse effect. The BBC reported some years ago that American interrogators had used music from Metallica, Sesame Street and Barney the Dinosaur to break down Iraqi prisoners. Similarly, the US Army claims that playing Van Halen’s Panama over and over helped flush the Panamanian dictator Noriega out of hiding during the invasion of 1989. On a more personal level, I know that I quicken my step when passing mall stores that play loud hip hop, death metal or club techno.

A number of musicians have protested the use of their music for torture, er, interrogation. They include Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf, Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M., Roseanne Cash, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Rait and Trent Reznor. One musician took the opposite stance. Stevie Benton of the group Drowning Pool said he was honored that their song might help prevent another 9/11.

The history of piped-in music is interesting and could fill several volumes. It initially stemmed out of the growth of radio as a broadcast medium, but a lack of licensed music kept it limited until the 1930s and 1940s when public taste in music changed dramatically. Then there was a period when they extensively used all string orchestras to replicate pop songs in a “lite” format, and by the 1970s customers were able to start defining their own playlists. Today, music companies even have their own in-house bands to create music in different styles, which also gets them around the issue of licensing royalties.

Music, even Christmas music, has a shelf life and eventually fades into obscurity. As tastes and styles change so does our music, for better or worse. For some the change can be jarring. The other day I heard a song that was for many baby boomers the quintessential “angry youth” song meant to be played loud and often to annoy parents and neighbors. It was Born to Be Wild, playing in an elevator as an all-strings lite version.

As I stepped off the elevator, I decided that hearing my granddaughter sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer a few dozen times a day was not really so bad after all.

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