#144: We Are the Music Makers

A few weeks ago, Kyle Chayka wrote an essay about the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” and what he calls “ambient TV”—shows that provide “a numbing backdrop to the rest of our digital consumption” and allow us to easily divide our attention among multiple screens and household activities without missing anything important. TV has, of course, been ambient for most of its history—something we’d frequently turn on at home while we did other activities, without necessarily watching (the television is, in fact, an essential centerpiece of many American domestic spaces, and must be turned on in order to make them feel complete). The rise of Netflix and other streaming services initially seemed to make our viewing more intentional and focused, as we’d select specific shows to watch instead of just rolling with whatever happened to be on cable at the moment. “But now,” Chayka writes, “we’re learning to stream as if we never abandoned cable in the first place, especially during quarantine, when nothing’s stopping you from leaving the TV on all day long.” This year, our homes have become densely-layered media environments, with visual and audio content continuously filling our foreground, background, and whatever space remains in between. As the distinctions between work and leisure become blurry, Good Screen and Bad Screen are increasingly the same screen.

With so much of life becoming remote and virtual this year, more types of activities have transformed into digital content. Earlier this week, Spotify released its annual Wrapped campaign, summarizing users’ personal listening behavior over the past year and encouraging them to post the screen shots of their top songs and artists on social media. Some people observed that their own results were skewed by the background music they listen to while working, or anonymous functional tracks like White Noise Baby Sleep, or any of the engineered mood music that Spotify increasingly offers (“Monday Moods, or whatever the fuck they do,” as Stephen Malkmus put it)—all of which competes directly with the *real* music we consciously *like* and believe our top Wrapped results should reflect. As media becomes yet another layer of our environment, and as platforms like Spotify expand from their original narrow purposes to fill more roles in our lives, that media becomes more functional and less confined to the “entertainment” category. TV and music become another kind of furniture. Chayka cites Matisse’s declaration that his paintings should be like a good armchair; Marshall McLuhan said people don’t read the newspaper so much as they step into it every morning like a hot bath. Long before Spotify or ambient TV, Muzak pioneered this idea of positioning music in the background rather than foreground, as a functional feature of the environmental rather than an object of direct attention.

Describing other ambient shows like Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” which combines pleasant food imagery with soothing narration, Chayka writes, “The shows are functionally screen savers, never demanding your attention; they do draw it, but only as much as a tabletop bouquet of flowers.” If minimalism is the dominant aesthetic of the iPhone era—and Chayka has written about that too, calling it AirSpace—maybe this is the reason: We need our built environment to be a blank canvas onto which this always-available digital content can be projected, figuratively if not literally. Anything more baroque runs the risk of competing or clashing with the handheld ornamentation we’ve already provided. I want to call this visual Muzak, but it’s more like the opposite, filling the foreground rather than the background. The physical space itself is the Muzak. Last year I wrote an essay about AirPods in which I described the sparse environments of Sweetgreen and Equinox as “pleasant backdrops for solitary device usage.” Always-in headphones complete the transition by giving us an auditory foreground on par with the phone screen’s visual counterpart. But that’s only what we do in public: Once we’re home, as we have been plenty this year, we’re happy to let all of this recede toward the background once again, if only because more of our own devices are competing for the foreground.

I published an essay in Real Life this week about subscriptions, brand loyalty, and their erosion of the remaining limits on our relationships to companies. Check it out here!