Heavy on the Lite

Ultra Lounge puts on paper a simple truth: Easy listening ain't easy

In Sally Holloway's essay on Martin Denny, we discover that the tropical jungle sounds one usually associates with exotica were actually the result of loud frogs that interrupted a show one night back in 1955 at the open-air Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village nightclub in Waikiki. We also learn that John Barry, in spite of never getting credit for it, really did compose the James Bond theme, that Astrud Gilberto really did hail from Ipanema and that Liberace really did pay a plastic surgeon to alter the face of his younger companion, Scott Thorson, to look exactly like his own.

My favorite essay in the book, "Muzak," by Tony Parsons, is an expose on the business of background music. "Muzak's music travels from its Seattle headquarters via satellite to receivers in 200,000 businesses across America," Parsons writes. "Each site has its own receiving code so that Muzak's 12 channels can be geared to a specific audience, ethnic community, geographic area -- even the time of day." Creepy. Parsons then explains the background-music industry's

" 'lifestyle marketing' (music that makes an image statement) and 'stimulus progression' (music that plots the fatigue cycles of a working day, picking up the tempo just when worker's droop sets in)." Wow. Mall shopping with Orwell; it can never be the same. And thank god for Ted Nugent (never thought I'd write those words), who at one point offered Muzak a $10 million buyout just so he could have the pleasure of destroying the master tapes.

If Ultra Lounge is to be critiqued, it might be for the rather hefty sticker price -- $19.95 -- put on an offering so decidedly lite -- 144 pages. An extra hundred pages could have been added without disrupting the campy tone at all. (Claudine Longet is missing, for example, and Frank Sinatra is only mentioned in passing! And what about surf instrumentals? Or Don Ho? And all those cheeseball conductors such as Hugo Montenegro and Jackie Gleason -- how might one make some value judgments there? And what about a decent discography?) Jones's ability to toss around terms like "pomo" (postmodern) and the clever "white man's blues" hints at a deeper understanding of the easycore phenomenon, but he never really addresses why so many Caucasoid young folks -- both here and over in England -- want to frolic in the ideologically heinous music of their parents and grandparents. Nor does he delve far past the obvious when discussing how lounge affects contemporary scenes from Blur to Eric Matthews to trip-hop. Then again, we're talking about easy listening -- "sophisticated schmaltz" that, whether you envision yourself in Paris or in Tahiti or in the living room of your ranch home reclining next to your "open plan hi-fi" with a martini, was created to keep you from doing exactly that: thinking too much.

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