Background music

One of the worst things about working in a restaurant is having to listen to the same background music every day. Why do we have music at restaurants? Who thought that it would be a good idea to constantly pump random songs into a dining room? Is it part of the dining experience? I don’t think so. Music is such a personal thing, all about tastes and preferences.

But whatever, you don’t go to a restaurant because you want to hear music, you go because you’re hungry, and so chances are you’re not even paying attention to what’s going on in the background. In fact, I’m trying to think right now, of all the places that I like to go out to eat, do any of them have music? I have no idea. But I’m sure the wait staffs at those restaurants are all very aware of the music.

I’ve worked at three restaurants in my life. The first one was in high school and college. The boss just pumped a soft-contemporary FM radio station throughout the front of house. In the kitchen, all of the chefs blasted Dominican music. At least radio stations keep things mixed up. Sure, they play mostly the same songs every day, but they’ll throw in a few wild cards, probably for their own sake as much as any listener’s.

What was great about that first job was that the whole place was run by a fifty-fifty mix of high school kids and recent Dominican immigrants. So there was a lot of joking around, a lot of changing the restaurant’s radio station when the boss went out to run an errand. Sometimes we’d feed in a metal station or a merengue mix and then keep it at a low enough volume where customers wouldn’t complain.

The boss was a great guy, but he had a crazy temper. So when he got pissed, it wasn’t like he’d fire you or anything, he’d just kind of scream and curse for a few hours, in half-English half-Italian, with the staff trying to act contrite while at the same time holding back the laughter. “You motha-fucking a-morons with your-a motha-fucking a-music! What are you a-looking at? Don’t you have a-something to do? I’ll a-give you a-something to do! Wipe-a down tha fucking counter! A-you! Go a-clean-a the motha-fucking bath-a-room! A-mooove!”

After college I thought I was done with the restaurant business. But the sitting in a chair and pretending to do work while really surfing the Internet all day business wasn’t working out, and so I started a-waiting a-tables again, full-time. This restaurant was in the city, so longer lines, higher prices, more of an expectation to treat it like a real job.

Unfortunately, the general manager at this restaurant was totally incompetent, a serious drug addict who, rather than actually manage the business, just left everything as it had been set up decades ago while she holed up her office all day getting good and coked out. The music situation there was this really old CD player with a few mix-CDs compiled sometime ten to fifteen years ago.

It used to drive me crazy, hearing the same twelve tired songs over and over again. The staff asked about getting an iPod or satellite radio, something to mix it up, but the GM wouldn’t have it. She probably loved hearing us complain, anything that made anybody else a little bit less happy was probably all that she was looking for in life anyway.

But she had no idea how to run a business, and so we started making our own CDs and throwing them in the rotation. Things got out of hand. When Whitney Houston died, somebody made an all Whitney CD. One time the GM was storming through the restaurant, screaming at this person and that person. In the background, Whitney was belting out the Star-Spangled Banner. It was such a surreal situation, again, everybody trying not to laugh at the boss’s obliviousness to the business, to life.

I’ve since switched restaurants, this time to a more upscale place. Like I have to wear a tie. Like I have to say “beverage” instead of “drink” and “guest” instead of “customer.” They have this ridiculous sound system with a bunch of songs programmed to coincide with the time of day, with the weather. It’s a little more organic sounding, but working there day after day, it’s equally ridiculous. Certain songs get stuck in my head that, had I never taken this job, I’d never even have heard in the first place. And I’m all for eclectic tastes and getting outside of my comfort zone, but most of the music is unlistenable. I’m thinking that maybe they’re doing it on purpose, just to get people to pay their checks and leave faster.

Whatever, it’s not a big deal. Every bullshit job has their fair amount of bullshit to deal with. Bad music on repeat is just a staple of the restaurant industry for whatever reason. I don’t get it. The restaurant doesn’t assume everybody likes veal and automatically serve everyone veal. But they do it with smooth jazz and bossa nova. Just, the next time you’re out to eat, pay attention to the background noise. Think about what it would be like to hear that same song in an hour, in two hours, tomorrow, the next day, everything on repeat, over and over and over again. Crazy, right?