The Strange Origins of 17 Popular Songs

Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You’ve hummed along to them in the car, belted them out in the shower, performed them on karaoke night, and possibly even danced with your grandparents to one of them at your second cousin’s wedding. But do you really know the dark origins behind Van Halen’s “Jump” or the existential conversation that is Hanson’s “MMMbop”? The answers may not be as obvious—or innocent—as you might have thought. Here are the surprising origin stories behind 17 popular tunes.

1. “MMMBop” // Hanson

Yes, Hanson’s 1997 hit “MMMBop” contains such lyrics as “Mmm bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du.” And it was written and performed by a trio of young brothers ranging from 11 to 16 years old at the time. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t deep. “It’s the most misunderstood successful song of all time,” Zac Hanson told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “Even at the height of 1997, it’s a song nobody understood. [Ninety-nine] percent of the people who have any reference from it don’t understand it.” One month later, Zac gave an even more explicit answer about the meaning behind the song while appearing on the Kyle and Jackie O. Show, stating:

"'MMMbop' represents a frame of time: 'In an MMMbop they're gone' it says in the lyrics of the song. The whole song's about the fact that almost everything in your life will come and go very quickly. You've got to figure out what matters and you've got to grab onto those things."

So that’s what “ba duba dop ba du” means.

2. “The Way” // Fastball

Don’t let the catchy beat fool you: Listen to the lyrics of Fastball’s 1998 hit “The Way” and you might just notice that the tune is coming from a pretty dark place. While lines like “And it's always summer, they'll never get cold / They'll never get hungry / They'll never get old and gray” could be mistaken for describing a kind of utopia where one would want for nothing, the song in question is about the disappearance of Raymond and Lela Howard, an elderly Texas couple who headed out one night to attend a local fiddling festival and never came home.

The couple was found dead in their car two weeks later near Hot Springs, Arkansas, several hundred miles from their home. Police concluded that the Howards had gotten lost on their way to the event, became disoriented, and accidentally drove off the road. (Raymond had recently suffered a stroke and Lela had been exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease.) Suddenly "The Way" doesn’t sound as upbeat.

3. “Ticket to Ride” // The Beatles

There’s some contested history between John Lennon and Paul McCartney about what “Ticket to Ride” was referring to, even though the song’s lyrics were credited to both of them. In McCartney’s version, the ticket in question is just that: a British Railways ticket to Ryde, a seaside town on the northeastern coast of the Isle of Wight, where McCartney’s cousin owned a pub (he and Lennon once hitchhiked their way there). Lennon, however, had a different—and saucier—explanation.

According to journalist Don Short, who logged a lot of time traveling with the band back in the day: “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking—you always had to be careful with John like that—but I certainly remember him telling me that.”

4. (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) // Beastie Boys

In 1986, the Beastie Boys gifted teens across American with a legendary party anthem in “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).” There was just one issue: The song was written specifically as a mockery of party anthems. “There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ who were oblivious to the fact that it was a total goof on them,” band member Michael “Mike D” Diamond said. “Irony is oft missed.”

5. “I Will Always Love You” // Dolly Parton

Thanks in large part to Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” in the hit 1992 movie The Bodyguard, the Dolly Parton tune became a battle cry for deeply in-love couples who for, whatever reason, could not be together. But Parton’s song wasn’t about a romance—failed or otherwise—at all.

In 1967, country music star program Porter Wagoner invited Parton, then an up-and-coming singer, to be a regular performer on his weekly TV show, The Porter Wagoner Show, as well as to join him on the road. Five years later, Parton was itching to move on from the show but Wagoner didn’t want to see that happen. Parton knew that she owed a huge debut to Wagoner and, as she explained to the Tennessean in 2015, wondered: “How am I gonna make him understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go? So I went home and I thought, ‘Well, what do you do best? You write songs.’ So I sat down and I wrote this song.”

6. “Mother and Child Reunion” // Paul Simon

Paul Simon had a major hit on his hands with the 1972 song “Mother and Child Reunion,” a reggae-infused meditation on death that came about from the loss of a family pet. “Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss—one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was [my wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.”

Though lyrics like “I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day” made it clear that it wasn’t supposed to be a necessarily happy song, the strangest part of this tale is where the title came from: “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained. “There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’”

7. "Born in the U.S.A." // Bruce Springsteen

America experienced a renewed sense of patriotism in 1984, when Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."—the song and the album—dominated the music charts. The Boss's raspy repeat of the fact that he was "Born in the U.S.A." made the song seem like an American anthem for the 1980s. Except it was more of a protest song, questioning the country's involvement in the Vietnam War.

For his part, Springsteen called it "the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.'" In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Springsteen said: "But when you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back—surviving the war and coming back and not surviving—you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives."

8. “Walk This Way” // Aerosmith

While putting together their iconic 1975 album Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith knew they wanted to play around with a song that would infuse elements of R&B and funk and get people up out of their chairs and dancing. Ultimately, that song would become “Walk This Way.” But the tune was one of those occasions where the music came before the lyrics.

“‘Walk This Way’ was this really cool riff and we got this whole thing together but had no idea what we were gonna do on top of it, vocal-wise, melody-wise,” guitarist Brad Whitford told Spin. “And then we watched Young Frankenstein … There was a part where the main character arrives at the train station in Transylvania and he’s met by this classic evil assistant, who takes his suitcase for him and hobbles down the steps and says ‘Walk this way,’ and to humor him he follows him down the steps the same way. So we told Steven [Tyler], you’ve got to call the song ‘Walk This Way.’ Steven was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to call the song, I haven’t even written the lyrics yet!’ But we told him he had to do it. So he did." Fair enough.

9. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” // Aerosmith

“Walk This Way” wasn’t the only time Aerosmith turned a joke into a song title. There was also “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” which came about from an experience Steven Tyler had at a bar: As he glanced around the room, he saw what appeared to be a young blonde woman with teased out hair. Upon further inspection, Tyler realized that the “woman” in question was actually Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. Tyler later showed the tune, which he had renamed “Cruisin’ for the Ladies,” to songwriter Desmond Child.

“I listened to that lyric, and I said, ‘You know what, that’s a very boring title,’” Child recalled in 2016. “And they looked at me like, ‘How dare you?’ And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing ‘Dude Looks like a Lady.’” But the band was concerned that using that as the title could be offensive to the LGBTQ community. “I’m gay, and I’m not insulted,” Child said. “Let’s write this song.” (For the record: Vince Neil did learn that the song was about him and, according to Desmond, “He had a good laugh.”)

10. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” // Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's “I Can’t Make You Love Me (If You Don’t),” a melancholy ballad about unrequited love, was a major hit in 1991. But the song’s story and refrain came from an even more unfortunate (and violent) real-life love affair. The song was penned by popular Nashville songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and the idea originated with Reid after he read an article about a man who got drunk and shot up his girlfriend’s car. While standing trial for the incident, the judge asked the man if he had learned any lessons, to which he replied: “I learned, Your Honor, that you can't make a woman love you if she don't.”

Raitt’s recording of the song went on to become one of her biggest hits: It landed the eighth spot on Mojo Magazine’s 2000 list of the greatest songs, came in 339th in Rolling Stone’s ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.

11. "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" // Green Day

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, no graduation ceremony or going away party was complete without someone playing Green Day's 1997 hit "Good Riddance." Between the title, its upbeat tune, and the repeated "I hope you had the time of your life" lyric, it had all the makings of the perfect ditty for bidding farewell to a great couple of months, or years, of your life. In reality, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song as a bitter farewell to his girlfriend, who was leaving him and moving to Ecuador. "I wrote the song as a kind of bon voyage," he told Guitar Legends in 2005, where he admitted it took less than 10 minutes to write. "I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bit bitter anyway." Try telling that to the class of '97. Or '98. Or '99. Or ... you get the point.

12. “Rosanna” // Toto

In 1982, the same year actress Rosanna Arquette won an Emmy Award for her role in the TV movie The Executioner's Song, Toto released their hit song “Rosanna,” which was partly inspired by the actress (who was dating Steve Porcaro, the band’s keyboard player, at the time). In the years since, the band—and Arquette herself—have played down the idea that the song is about her … though it does seem a bit too coincidental.

Fun fact: While he has never confirmed it, rumors have long circulated that Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (the song that Lloyd Dobler blasts from his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything) was also written for Arquette, who was romantically involved with Gabriel for several years. (The fact that the opening line to Toto's tune is "All I want to do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes" only adds credence to the argument that both songs were written about Arquette.)

13. "Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby" // Counting Crows

Rosanna Arquette isn’t the only actress to have inspired a hit song… although in the case of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” there was no romantic relationship between the songwriter and his muse. In 1998, Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz reportedly developed a bit of a crush on actress Monica Potter after seeing her in Con Air and Patch Adams. Cut to: Approximately one week later, and the band is in the studio getting ready to record more of their upcoming album … including “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” Duritz’s ode to an actress whom he had never met. That’s when a friend called to let him know that she was having lunch with Potter’s agent at that very moment, and they all wanted to meet him (Potter included). Duritz obliged.

As Duritz later told the Broward Palm Beach New Times, Potter then asked him if it was true that he had written a song about her. “Well, no. I mean, not exactly,” he explained. “It’s a song about an imaginary version of you. The song is about what happens when you fall in love with people who don’t exist, like with a person on the movie screen.” When he informed Potter that he actually needed to leave to head back to the studio where he was recording the song, she asked to come along and listen. And it was Potter who, when Duritz decided the song was not ready for public consumption, convinced him that it was great and to keep it on their upcoming album.

14. “…Baby One More Time” // Britney Spears

You could be forgiven for thinking that the 1998 song that turned Britney Spears into a pop princess was called “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” as that was the original title—and is very clearly the song’s refrain. But Spears’ record label was (rightly) concerned that the title would make it sound like the song was about—or even worse, condoning—domestic abuse. The truth, it turns out, is far less controversial: The song was written by Swedish hitmakers Rami Yacoub and Max Martin, who thought the American slang term for “call me” was “hit me” versus “hit me up,” hence the more violent-sounding lyrics.

15. “Jump” // Van Halen

The lead single from Van Halen’s hit album 1984 might be best remembered for Eddie van Halen’s synthesizer solo and David Lee Roth hamming it up for the camera in the video, but the song’s key direction to “Go ahead and jump” takes on a more ominous connotation when you learn that the lyrics came to Roth after he watched a news broadcast about a suicidal man standing on the top of a building and threatening to jump. While the news report may have put the word “jump” in Roth’s head, the band’s song is decidedly more positive.

16. “One Way or Another” // Blondie

With its rock-heavy beat and powerfully delivered lyrics, Blondie’s “One Way or Another” sounds like an anthem for empowerment. But listen more closely and it’s clear that the title is more of a threat.

“I was actually stalked by a nut job, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event,” Debbie Harry told Entertainment Weekly in 2011 of the song’s genesis, which she wrote as a sort of revenge poem to the man who was harassing her. “But I tried to inject a little bit of levity into it to make it more lighthearted. I think in a way that’s a normal kind of survival mechanism. You know, just shake it off, say one way or another, and get on with your life. Everyone can relate to that and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

17. “Sunny Came Home” // Shawn Colvin

“Sunny Came Home” was a hit song off Shawn Colvin’s 1996 concept album A Few Small Repairs that went on to win Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Yet it was also a song that was inspired by the cover art used for A Few Small Repairs. How did that chronology work, exactly?

“The inspiration behind that story came from the painting that I chose to be on the cover of the record,” Colvin explained in 2017. “I just liked Julie Speed’s work and I really wanted something different rather than a photo. In the 11th hour, ‘Sunny Came Home’ was really barely there—in fact I think I had it as ‘Jimmy Came Home’ at one point before I’d written the lyric to ‘The Facts About Jimmy.’ I looked at this cover and I thought, you need to write a story about this woman on the cover who’s got a lit match and a big fire in the background.” And with that, a Grammy Award-winning song was born.

13 Facts About Amadeus On Its 35th Anniversary

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though much has been written about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the most entertaining look at the master composer's life might very well be Amadeus, Milos Forman's film about the artist's life (and rivalries), which was released on September 19, 1984.

Here's a look back at the Oscar-winning biopic that not only brought renewed interest to Mozart's music in the 1980s, but inspired Austrian rocker Falco to write the chart-topping "Rock Me Amadeus." Poor Salieri never stood a chance.

1. Amadeus began life as a Tony Award-winning play.

Russian poet/playwright Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play in 1830 called Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer—who was already a Tony winner for Equus—took inspiration from that to write his own play. Amadeus played in various theaters in London beginning in 1979, then premiered on Broadway in 1980 with Ian McKellen as Antonio Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart, and Jane Seymour as Constanze, Mozart's wife. The production won five Tonys, including Best Play and Best Actor for McKellen, who beat out Curry for the award; the two leads had been nominated in the same category.

2. Mark Hamill wanted the lead role, but Milos Forman wouldn't let him audition.

In an attempt to circumvent any typecasting he might get after three blockbuster Star Wars films launched his career, Mark Hamill played the composer on Broadway for nine months in 1983. But when the time came for the movie to be made, Czech director Miloš Forman couldn’t get the space cowboy image out of his head. “Miloš Forman told me, ‘Oh no, you must not play the Mozart because the people not believing the Luke Spacewalker as Mozart,’” Hamill said in a 1986 interview. “He was very upfront about it, and I appreciated that rather than getting my hopes up that it was possible I’d be playing the role.”

3. Kenneth Branagh legitimately thought he had landed the lead role.

A young Kenneth Branagh was an early contender for the part of Mozart. In his autobiography, he wrote that he thought he had the part in the bag until Forman informed him they were casting Americans for the leads. Other actors who auditioned for the Mozart role included Tim Curry and Mel Gibson. Though Mozart was a rock star in his day, actual rock star Mick Jagger was also turned down after his audition.

4. Mozart's frequent collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder was played by another stage Mozart.

Actor Simon Callow originated the role of Mozart at the Royal National Theater production of Amadeus in 1979, and though Forman told him his portrayal was "truly brilliant, fantastic, asshole and genius, funny, tragic, crazy, a baby and a god," the director wasn't prepared to give him the title role in the film. Instead, he cast Callow as Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist who worked with Mozart on The Magic Flute and played the part of Papageno the bird catcher.

5. The movie was shot without the use of light bulbs or other modern lighting devices.

The Tyl Theatre in Prague was the original theater where Don Giovanni first premiered in October 1787, and the authenticity of the building was a huge boon for the production since it had hardly been updated since it was first built in 1783. “[The Tyl is] where the opera premiered. And he conducted the first performance. And none of the opera house had been touched since he was there," choreographer Twyla Tharp recalled in 2015. "We had fire everywhere. We could have burnt down the opera house. We had live fire in the chandelier. We were lighting people on stage, and these guys were whipping these torches around."

Patrizia von Brandenstein—who became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Art Direction with this movie—had nightmares about damaging the all-wooden opera house. "I thought, 'God will truly punish me if this place catches on fire,'" she said.

6. Tom Hulce practiced piano for four to five hours a day.

In order to look believable on camera, Hulce spent a month with a piano teacher before filming. Although he knew some basics—he could read music, and had played violin and sung in choirs as a child—he needed to look like a natural. "I spent four weeks, four to five hours a day learning to play,” Hulce told People in 1984. “The first two days were scales and exercises. The next day was a concerto." And for that scene at the masquerade ball when Mozart plays a tune while lying on his back? That was really Hulce.

7. Tom Hulce's laugh is semi-historical, though he had trouble recreating it.

Throughout the movie, Mozart has an infectious cackle—it comes out just as often when he’s giddy as when he’s uncomfortable. Though there are dubious historical reports that the real Mozart had such an obnoxious laugh, Hulce created the giggle after Forman asked him to come up with "something extreme." "I've never been able to make that sound except in front of a camera," Hulce later said. "When we did the looping nine months later, I couldn't find the laugh. I had to raid the producer's private bar and have a shot of whiskey to jar myself into it."

8. Someone really did commission a requiem from Mozart—it just wasn't Salieri.

The script clearly took some artistic liberties, including the plot line of the masked man who comes to Mozart pretending to be his dead father. This was not, as the movie portrays, Salieri. But in 1791, Austrian Count Franz von Walsegg—who had a penchant for commissioning music to pass off as his own at his twice-weekly concerts—approached Mozart and asked for a requiem for his beloved wife, who had died on Valentine’s Day.

According to a famously censored document in which a teacher near Vienna, Anton Herzog, recorded firsthand accounts of von Walsegg’s court, the Count often rewrote these commissioned quartets and other scores in his own hand and didn’t give credit to the original composers. His staff musicians often laughed this off because it seemed to amuse the Count, and because the Count was also an amateur musician in his own right. Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” the document alleges, was one such piece. And Mozart really did die later that year, in December, before completing the full mass. Salieri didn’t help him complete it though; Austrian composer and possible Mozart student Franz Süssmayr took that on.

9. The actors felt intense jealousy, too.

Salieri and Mozart were the 18th-century equivalent of frenemies: They were contemporaries in a competitive field, and though they needed each other’s support, they weren’t above petty jealousies and a little backstabbing. Hulce and F. Murray Abraham (who played Salieri) also felt those pressures. ''Tom and Meg [Tilly, the actress originally cast as Constanze] were very close,'' Abraham told The New York Times in 1984. ''They had these secret jokes and were always laughing together. I was pushed out, and I was resentful. I began to have very nasty feelings that were exactly like Salieri's feelings toward Mozart. When that correspondence between a film and real life occurs, it's a director's dream.''

“Occasionally Murray and I would go out and drink this terrible sweet champagne that they have in Prague," added Hulce. "But at other times there was a rivalry between us, and I found myself suspicious of him.''

10. It was shot almost entirely on location in Prague—while under surveillance from the Secret Police.

During filming in 1983, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. The production team was often followed around by the secret police, and Forman and the cast spoke about their fears that a Fourth of July prank—the unfurling of the American flag in the concert hall and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the large cast and crew—would lead to their arrests for inciting rebellion. Many suspected that their hotel rooms had been bugged during the six months they spent filming the movie.

Forman, who was considered a traitor for becoming an American citizen and not returning to the Soviet-controlled area, had previously had one of his movies banned in the country (then called the Czech Socialist Republic). According to Twyla Tharp, in order to shoot in red territory, Forman had to make certain concessions. "Miloš had to sign an agreement that he would go to his hotel every night for the year that he was there and that his driver would be his best friend from the old days," Tharp told The Hollywood Reporter. "And everybody knew what would happen to his best friend if something untoward politically happened around Miloš, because Miloš was a sort of local hero and he was dangerous to the authorities."

11. A teenage Cynthia Nixon had a small but pivotal role.

At age 17, Nixon played Lorl, the maid employed by Salieri to spy on Mozart. Though she was an experienced child actor at that point, she was also trying to finish her schooling. Thus, she and her parents were cautious of the time she'd need to be abroad for filming. "When I was cast in Amadeus with Miloš Forman, which was shooting in Europe," Nixon said in 2014, "I said, 'I want to be in your film so much, but I have a request: If I don’t shoot for two days in a row, you have to send me home.' They agreed."

12. The distributor made a promotional video depicting Mozart as a modern rock star.

Since the movie wasn't financed by a major studio with lots of promotional dollars behind it, the distributor, Orion Pictures, decided to get creative. And what better way to promote a rock star in the age of MTV than with a music video featuring David Lee Roth and cuts of Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, KISS, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Madonna dancing along to Mozart's "Symphony No. 25 in G minor"?

13. The movie was a huge hit.

The film nearly tripled its $18 million budget at the box office, which was particularly impressive considering it opened in a limited 25 theaters and didn’t have a wide release until several months later. The movie also swept the Academy Awards—of its 11 nominations, it won eight, including Best Picture and Best Director. And, just as on Broadway, Salieri won the Best Actor statuette over Mozart, with Abraham beating out Hulce.

16 Soothing Facts About Muzak

Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images
Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you know it as background music, elevator music, or, as Ted Nugent once called it, an “evil force causing people to collapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” Muzak has ruled speakers for the better part of a century. Press play on your favorite easy-listening album and scroll on for some unforgettable facts about the most forgettable genre of music.

1. Muzak is a brand name.

Much like Chapstick, Popsicle, and a certain type of vacuum-sealing plastic food container, Muzak is a registered trademark. It began as the name of the company that first produced the easy-listening instrumental tunes that played in factories, elevators, and department stores. As its popularity grew, people started to use Muzak as a generic term for all background music.

2. Muzak was invented by a U.S. army general.

Major General George Owen Squier
Library of Congress // Public Domain

During World War I, Major General George Owen Squier used electrical power lines to transmit phonograph music over long distances without interference. He patented this invention in 1922 and founded Wired Radio, Inc. to profit from the technology. The company first devised a subscription service that included three channels of music and news and marketed it to Cleveland residents for $1.50 per month. When Squier and his associates realized their product was a little too close to regular (free) radio, they started pitching it to hotel and restaurant owners, who were more willing to pay for a steady broadcast of background music without interruptions from radio hosts or advertisements.

3. The name is a portmanteau of music and Kodak.

In 1934, Squier changed the name of his business from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining the first syllable of music with the last syllable of Kodak, which had already proven to be an extremely catchy, successful name for a company.

4. Muzak has been releasing instrumental covers of pop songs since its inception.

The first-ever original Muzak recording was an instrumental medley of three songs performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: “Whispering,” by John and Malvin Shonberger, “Do You Ever Think of Me?” which was covered by Bing Crosby, and “Here in My Arms,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy.

5. Muzak was briefly owned by Warner Bros.

The sound of Muzak was wafting across the country by the end of the 1930s, which caught the ears of Warner Bros. The company bought Muzak in 1938, fostered it for about a year, and then sold it to three businessmen: Waddill Catchings, Allen Miller, and William Benton (Benton would later publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica and serve as a U.S. senator for Connecticut).

6. Muzak was designed to make factory workers more productive.

Muzak manufactured soundtracks, based on a theory called “stimulus progression,” that consisted of 15-minute segments of background music that gradually ascended in peppiness. The method was meant to tacitly encourage workers to increase their pace, especially during the productivity lulls that often occurred during the late morning and mid-afternoon.

7. Muzak helped calm anxious elevator passengers.

Since more advanced electric elevators diminished the need for elevator operators in the mid-20th century, passengers were often left alone with an unsettling silence that made them all too aware that they were hurtling upward or downward in a steel box. Soft, calming Muzak played through speakers offered the perfect distraction.

8. There’s a reason Muzak's tempo is slower in supermarkets.

Just like factory workers might move faster while listening to fast-paced tracks, you might slow down while shopping to slower-tempo Muzak—which is exactly what supermarket owners want you to do. The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to toss a few extra snacks in your cart. (It's unclear whether the slower music might inhibit the productivity of supermarket workers.)

9. More than one U.S. president endorsed Muzak.

Muzak was installed in the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but he was arguably only the second biggest presidential fan of the genre. Lyndon B. Johnson actually owned Muzak franchises in Austin while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

10. Andy Warhol was also a fan of Muzak.

Andy Warhol
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop culture aficionado Andy Warhol supposedly said, “I like anything on Muzak—it’s so listenable. They should have it on MTV.”

11. Ted Nugent offered to buy Muzak for $10 million to “shelve it for good.”

In 1986, the Whackmaster put in a bid to purchase Muzak from parent company Westinghouse just to shut it down. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he called it an “evil force” that was “responsible for ruining some of the best minds of our generation.” Westinghouse rejected the bid.

12. Muzak didn’t formally introduce vocals until 1987.

As part of a rebranding campaign to modernize Muzak, the company started adding voice-accompanied tunes in 1987. Before that, Muzak broadcasts had only featured voices twice. The first was an announcement that Iran had freed American hostages in 1981, and the second was as part of a worldwide radio broadcast of “We Are the World” in 1985.

13. 7-Elevens blared Muzak in parking lots to chase off loiterers.

7-Eleven storefront at night
Mike841125, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1991, 7-Eleven parking lots in Southern California became well-trafficked watering holes for youth who evidently had no place else to go. To deter them from loitering with skateboards, beer, and lots of teen angst, the stores blared Muzak—and it worked. “It will keep us away,” one young loafer told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re torturing themselves more than us because they have to sit inside and listen to it.”

14. Seattle is the capital of Muzak.

Though it's well known as the birthplace of grunge, Seattle also had a thriving elevator music scene. Muzak based its corporate headquarters there in the 1980s, and three other leading background (and foreground) music corporations opened in the city over the years: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc., and Environmental Music Service Inc.

15. Kurt Cobain wanted Muzak to cover Nirvana songs.

When an interviewer told the Seattle-based rock star that Muzak didn’t recreate Nirvana tracks because it found them too aggressive for its purposes, an amused Cobain said, “Oh, well, we have some pretty songs, too. God, that’s really a bummer. That upsets me.”

16. It’s no longer called Muzak.

In 2013, an Ontario-based sensory marketing company called Mood Media acquired Muzak. The company, which provides music, smells, signs, lights, and interactive displays to businesses to achieve a certain mood, consolidated all of its services under the Mood brand, effectively killing the Muzak name (at least officially).

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