Trying Too Hard to Be Cool Music


Walk into a restaurant that is viewed as somewhat “hip,” “cool,” or “trendy,” and you’re likely to hear a pulsing background music that is some infernal cross-pollination of contemporary jazz and European house music. It’s never a tune you know – just a THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP – with layers of electronica providing a rhythmic counterpoint to the bassline. Go to Vivace (or frankly, any of the Urban Food Group restaurants), and it’s there. I remember when Charlie Deal invited me to the friends and family night of Grasshopper a couple years ago, and that’s what was playing – and on a very short loop, too. Loved the food, but I wanted to shove a chopstick in my frontal lobe to ease my harmonic pain. My oldest son and I have a running joke about this quasi-melodic phenomenon, calling it the “Trying Too Hard to Be Cool Music.” I can almost imagine Mike Meyer’s old Saturday Night Live character, Dieter, grooving to this sound.

So, I ask myself, why, oh why, is this dreck played? It’s techno-Muzak, as far as I’m concerned. I just couldn’t figure out why this music is so ubiquitous in restaurants. And then I asked my secretary, who is way cool, way young and stylish, and totally into electronic house music. She told me that it’s exactly the type of music she wants to hear when she’s having a drink or eating with friends. It IS hip and fashionable.

Damn, I’m old.


13 Responses to Trying Too Hard to Be Cool Music

  1. PolitiPornster says:

    I can see myself walking into a restaurant and hearing “BadgerBadgerBadgerBadgerBadgerBadgerBadgerBadgerBadger!” I think I’d turn right around and walk out. 😉

  2. Kelly says:

    There was an article a few months back either in the NY Times or the San Francisco Chronicle (please forgive my absent mind as to which publication) stating that faster tempo music actually caused people to order more and also order faster. Not sure how much I agree with it personally, but i guess we’re just the exceptions to someone’s silly scientific experiment.

  3. Joe says:

    I wonder if the music being played in a place has anything to do with the people working there. A lot of people working in food service are younger and single ( I realize I’m making a huge generalization here), and probably are more likely to want to listen to and bring TechnoThrob to work.

    Personally, I don’t care so much about what the music is as I do about how loud the place is overall. I like to be able to talk to people when I’m out.

  4. Tom from Raleigh says:

    There was an interesting interview with a food scientist on this very topic on the most recent Splendid Table program.

  5. AmyH says:

    I think your secretary is trying too hard to be cool.

  6. KJ says:

    Trying to be legal. Believe it or not, restuarants have very limited music selections (provided by Muzak mainly). We often times struggle with the music “stations” as they are horribly inconsistent. One minute they are playing the music we want–interesting mostly calm quality backround music. Next minute they are playing house music with the familiar thump. We are just as frustrated as you are. Until other options come along, we are forced to play what we are offered, or face fines from the music police.

  7. catena says:

    I’m guessing that KJ must be Kevin Jennings.

  8. pheebs55 says:

    are there really music police??

  9. MB says:

    As a restaurant who USED TO HAVE live music, I can tell you first hand, the “music police” are real. The folder where I file all of the law suit threats from BMI and ASCAP I label “Music Nazis,” actually. I think it’s a slightly more accurate name.

  10. detlef says:

    First off Dean, you know as well as I that the short loop was very unintentional and we spoke about as much the next day. I forget now what happened but recall it was a pretty simple fix and I was mortified when I realized that I’d been playing like a 4 song loop all night long. I should also add that had you not been forced to listen to those same 4 songs over and over, the chopstick in the ear thing would not have crossed your mind. Those tracks were really not that “clubby” in an of themselves.

    Now, as for the choice of music people play in restaurants. There’s a reason why music is included among the things you’re just not suppose to argue about (along with politics and religion) and that is simply that there is no music universally adored by everyone.

    I have actually put a ton of energy into creating mixes for Jujube that are hip but not too hip. Honestly, it’s a ton of work and I’ve run the risk of getting popped by the music police. The hassles of keeping up with keeping the music new, the fact that it’s really hard to get everything to play at the same volume (yes, I know there’s features in itunes for that, I just also know they don’t work that well), and my nervousness has caused me to sign up with DMX.

    Let me tell you, if you want Musak, now you can come and get it. They have like 100 channels and basically all of them suck. The mainstream jazz is the only one that I could remotely tolerate. They have some channels in the “urban” category but nothing consistently ambient. Four of Five songs may be fine but, next thing you know, you’re in a disco. My only salvation comes from the fact that, most of the time you can barely hear the music anyway, so it ultimately doesn’t matter that much.

    I also researched what seemed to be all my options, even hoping that rhapsody had a commercial version with higher fees to deal with compliance. It was my hope that I could continue making my own mixes. Unfortunately, they only offer residential services.

    So, there’s the story from the stand point of somebody who has actually made a concerted effort to have music that added to the experience (and has been complimented on it by people of all ages and demographics on numerous occasions). We don’t want you to stick chopsticks in your ears. Really.

    The music industry hates people.

  11. Varmint says:

    I actually forgot about the problems with the loop, and, of course, I might have written with just a wee bit of hyperbole.

    Ultimately, though, it’s not just a matter of taste for me. It’s more of a question of why music is necessary in the first place. My only memories of restaurant music are bad ones, where the music was intrusive. Of the thousands of meals I’ve eaten out, I cannot think of one where I could say, “Boy, the music they played was great.” That’s because, for me, music is a distraction; it makes conversation more difficult and in no way enhances the dining experience. I loved Babbo, but the music drove me crazy AT THAT TIME. I actually loved the music, but just not then.

  12. Varmint says:

    Frank Bruni of the New York Times has a piece on restaurant music here:

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