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Reading: On Coke and Muzak

Capitalism's most spectacular successes don't come from meeting old needs in new ways--building the proverbial better mousetrap--but from creating entirely new needs and going all out to fill them.



A couple of months after the Coca-Cola Company changed the recipe for its product in 1985, a consumer in Marietta, Georgia, spotted a Coke delivery man stocking a supermarket with New Coke, as it was called back then. "You bastard!" she yelled, smiting him with her umbrella again and again. "You ruined it, it tastes like shit!" Pepsi, which is never far behind Coke these days, was represented on the scene by a uniformed driver of its own; when he started to laugh at the commotion the woman turned on him in her fury and screamed, "You stay out of it! This is family business. Yours is worse than shit!"

By the time you read this anecdote, near the end of Mark Pendergrast's For God, Country and Coca-Cola (which has just been issued in paperback), that kind of passion won't surprise you in the least. From the moment it began to flow, the fountain of Coca-Cola has bubbled with strange and bewitching powers: it has uplifted and consoled its drinkers, inspired its pitchmen with the magic of an elixir, and earned profits for its makers so sublime that they have stood before it in awe. Consolation, magic, awe: it may not be decent to place a fizzing soft drink upon the altar of modern religion, but according to this book the history of Coke is, quite simply, a history of fanaticism.

Its inventor, Dr. John Pemberton, combined several classic American types: obsessive trial-and-error experimenter, visionary booster of a new product, and quack. Before he perfected Coca-Cola in 1886, he'd already put an armful of patent medicines on the shelf, remedies like Dr. Sanford's Great Invigorator and Triplex Liver Pills. It was the golden age of snake oil--the bottled kind, anyway--and Pemberton would have been just another purveyor of long-forgotten humbug but for two things: he developed a passion for an exotic South American leaf, chewed immemorially by Indians as a stimulant and cure-all; and he was living in Atlanta, which back then was falling under the spell of another panacea, this one strictly homegrown--temperance.

Cocaine, Pemberton believed, was a gift to medicine. A lot of other doctors back in the 1880s thought so too, among them a young Viennese specialist in bourgeois nervosity whose own inventions were destined for a fame, if not a success, equal to Coca-Cola's. To both Freud and Pemberton cocaine was a wonder drug: aphrodisiac, mental floss, and easy cure for the insidious disease now recognized as substance abuse. The future pioneer of the unconscious mind soon lost his enthusiasm and moved on, but Pemberton, himself a victim of morphinism, never gave up on cocaine. His first efforts produced a drink called French Wine Coca, a copy of a European wine-and-coca infusion that was already a big hit. Pemberton added a few things to the blend, including the caffeine-bearing kola nut from Africa, but mostly he just gave it the American hard sell, as in this newspaper ad: "Americans are the most nervous people in the world. . . . All whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration, irregularities of the stomach, bowels and kidneys, who require a nerve tonic and a pure, delightful diffusable stimulant, will find Wine Coca invaluable, a sure restorer to health and happiness. Coca is a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs. . . . To the unfortunate who are addicted to the morphine or opium habit, or the excessive use of alcoholic stimulants, the French Wine Coca has proven a great blessing," etc, etc.

It's not hard to imagine the great blessing a wine spiked with cocaine might be; but less than two years after Pemberton put his drink on the market, Atlanta voted to go dry. That sent the doctor back to his laboratory, where he worked feverishly to perfect a nonalcoholic version of the coca-and-kola brew by the time the ban took effect. With a few months to spare, he had it: a sugar-sweetened syrup with a small bite of phosphoric acid, to be mixed with carbonated water at fountains and sold in six-ounce doses. Atlanta's experiment with prohibition lasted only a year and a half, and Dr. Pemberton was able to sell French Wine Coca throughout the ban anyway: with the sure touch of the American promoter, he repositioned it as a "temperance drink." The cunning of history had done its work, however, and the greatest single product of our age was born.

As fizziographer of Coke, Pendergrast is shrewd and tough-minded and likes to stick close to the facts. He comes to his subject as a journalist, not a partisan. But he also understands that a great civilization needs a great symbol, so the story he tells is about more than the success of a soda pop: it's about the evolution of an emblem, the "sublimated essence of all that America stands for." That sounds grandiose, but this book ought to convince you that whatever else it may be, Coca-Cola is a drink with a destiny.

If its birth was something less than virginal--Pemberton died, just two years later, still addicted to morphine--Coke found a true apostle in the man who then took over the patent, Asa Candler. A pushing adman with a vision that went far beyond peddling nostrums to the gullible, he saw the possibilities of a brisk, refined beverage, and as a devout southern Methodist he had a passion for the stuff that was nothing short of evangelical. For decades Candler ran his sales meetings like revivals: agents delivered testimonials to the "thirst-quenching, heaven-sent drink," compared themselves to missionaries, and at the end sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" led by their chief and his brother, a major stockholder and then preeminent among southern Methodist bishops. The wine-and-coca concoctions had always smelled of Europe, even Romanism--Pope Leo XIII was an early celebrity spokesman--but here was refreshment fit for fundamentalists, a true temperance drink. And it was 100 percent American.

Like those early soldiers of Christ, Coca-Cola men went forth to show the world that their product wasn't just more of the same flimflam but the tonic for a new age; and when they began to win a following, they too were denounced by authorities as merchants of a dangerous, even subversive fad. The problem was cocaine. By the turn of the century the drug had run the usual course from panacea to poison, and since only a few high priests of Coca-Cola knew the secret formula, the question of how much cocaine was actually in it stirred up defenders of the public's health and morals. The popular image of the soft drink as a slightly wicked indulgence did its makers little good in this battle--up until the Second World War, devotees routinely called for a "dope" at the fountain--and when bottled Coke was first sold, around 1900, the battle was lost.

From the start Candler had resisted bottling as nothing but a vulgar heresy, and his fears were soon realized. The chance that children might now be taking swigs behind the barn was bad enough, but down where the air was scented by magnolias, hush puppies, and chain gangs, Coca-Cola revived the ancestral dread: newspapers spread stories about hopped-up field hands, victualed on bottled Coke instead of food by unscrupulous overseers, who were butchering their bosses and defiling the countryside. With yokels all over the south gaping at these extravagant and indecent fictions, Candler had no choice, and by 1903 he'd removed all traces of cocaine. There were other skirmishes down the line, including a brief ban by the U.S. Army in 1907, and four years later a highly publicized trial under the new Pure Food and Drugs Act. In that case prosecutors tried to horrify the jury with the revelation that the caffeine in Coca-Cola was not only harmful, it was actually added deliberately by the company. Heavens! The government lost that round, perhaps because the logic of a Coke bottle as a "caffeine delivery system" was still far, far in the future.

Once he'd taken the cocaine out of Coca-Cola, Candler refused, even under oath, to admit it was ever there. And nearly a century later that remains the company line: no cocaine, ever. What had been so crucial to the early success of the enterprise was simply erased from its official history, like Trotsky, once the regime settled in. You could say that such a history is built on a lie, but Pendergrast has a more generous view: that it's built on a belief, the conviction that Coca-Cola really is something like the saving potion its inventor thought it was. All great institutions assume the privilege of rewriting the past, and why not? What good would it do Catholics, for example, to be told about the festivities that certain early Christian sects enjoyed for their Eucharist? Likewise, if the millions who visit the World Museum of Coca-Cola in Atlanta stagger through the exits with Coke sloshing in their bellies and their brains fuddled by some moonshine about a folksy southern root doctor and his natural, wholesome elixir, where is the harm? Coca-Cola, no less than the Church itself, is proof that success is free to make its own rules.

If God was the force behind the first stage of Coke's success, during the second it was Country. By the 1920s all the essential features of the product were set: the formula, the shape of the bottle (based on a peculiar fashion called the hobble skirt that enjoyed a brief vogue around the First World War), and a pitch focused on the beverage's intrinsic merits (in 1929 "The Pause That Refreshes," today "Always Feels Right") rather than its life-changing qualities, the territory eventually claimed by Pepsi ("Be Young--Have Fun--Drink Pepsi"). Having won America with this package, Coca-Cola now entered its imperial phase.

In the 20s and 30s, under its new boss Robert Woodruff, the company made some headway in foreign markets, but it wasn't until the end of the Second World War that Coca-Cola really began to flood overseas. The author of the classic wartime memoir God Is My Co-Pilot offered this crisp epitome of the new era: as he went off to "shoot down [his] first Jap" he was inspired, he says, by "America, Democracy, Coca-Colas." The war, among its other results, saw the triumph of those three crusades, which became practically interchangeable verities. It was a special moment in our history, when patriotism was natural, common, and unabashed, as easy as drinking a Coke--or selling one. So when the United States took up its new global role after the war, Coca-Cola was our single greatest ambassador.

The chapters that tell this part of the story are some of the best in the book. Pendergrast could hardly go wrong with characters like Giovanni Pretti, the midcentury archetype of the new international Coke man. When he leapt out of bed in the morning, he found tucked in his mirror the following list of questions: "Hair Combed? Shaved? Uniform Clean and Neat? Shoes Shined? Friendly Smile?" And as he tooled around Milan in his spit-polished red and yellow van he was hailed, thanks to his new station, as Signore Pretti. Wherever they went, Woodruff and his men saw themselves spreading the word on quality, efficiency, and clean water, fostering political stability, links with other industries, and better transport--acting, in a word, as agents of a beneficent Americanism. Very well, you say, but weren't they really just ruthless seekers of gold, modern-day conquistadors? The reproach is not wrong, but it is misguided: if they made themselves rich, like Cortes the Coca-Cola men also believed deeply in what they brought to the new lands, and they too were horrified by an evil they saw menacing the natives--communism.

A placard at Coca-Cola's first international convention in 1948 read, "When we think of Communists, we think of the Iron Curtain. BUT when THEY think of democracy, they think of Coca-Cola." This may actually have been true. In Russia, to possess it was a crime. Mao called it "the opiate of the running dogs of revanchist capitalism." (For those unfamiliar with Marxist lingo, this appears to be a literal translation of "Things Go Better with Coke.") Across Europe, communists waged a bitter, losing war against "Coca-colonization." Nasty rumors about the drink were spread in Italy, Austria, and Switzerland--it caused colitis, it was a potent laxative, its bottling plants were actually atomic-bomb factories. But the loudest croaking came, as you might expect, from the French. Communists in the Assembly denounced Coca-Cola as a tool of warmongers bent on the destruction of French culture, and when they failed to get it banned as a poison, prowine mobs attacked delivery trucks and turned them over, sending the fatally incorrect juice into the sewers of Paris. Even the eminent, only mildly leftish Le Monde issued a desperate warning to the nation: "The moral landscape of France is at stake."

It would be unbecoming for an American to survey that landscape today, but if it needs any work, Coca-Cola is hardly to blame. Coke merely gave the people what they wanted. In that sense its alliance with democracy was no pose, and its victory, like that of the economic way of life it symbolized, was never really in doubt. But if the cold war is now history, the cola war goes on. And it was this struggle--the epic siege of Coke by the forces of Pepsi--that produced the only real disaster in Coca-Cola's hitherto charmed life.

Since the 30s Pepsi had been chipping away at Coke's giant share of the market, winning customers with its bigger bottles and greater sweetness (which led less broad-minded Coke supporters in the south to sneer at Pepsi as a "nigger drink"), its sexy advertising, and of course its irksome Pepsi Challenge. This last was based on a simple fact: in blind tastings Pepsi beat the pants off Coke every time. Roberto Goizueta, president of Coca-Cola since 1980, came back with a sweeter drink that beat both Coke and Pepsi in the lab and was also, incidentally, free of any (decocainized) coca. But the ancestral leaf would not so easily be laid to rest, for the instant New Coke poked its head above the sand it was buried under a tidal wave of anger and amazement.

Pendergrast nicely discredits the idea that the company cooked up New Coke as some kind of publicity stunt. In fact it was just what it appeared to be, a colossal blunder. Goizueta really thought New Coke was a better product, and though he was forced to reinstate "Classic" Coca-Cola, he still believes that Coke II, as it is now called, will eventually carry the day. Top executives somehow forgot the old rule about selling the sizzle, not the steak. Their own research told them that Coke boozers typically have rigid personalities, feel a "lack of personal control," and believe the world should be governed by "certain self-evident truths": could there be a better way to upset such people than by abruptly changing their formula? But the story ends happily, for now: Coke still holds a respectable lead over Pepsi, and consumers enjoy yet more of that freedom peculiar to our age, the freedom to choose, than they have ever known before.

As Coca-Cola reminds us, the most spectacular successes in capitalism don't come about by meeting old needs in new ways--by building the proverbial better mousetrap--but by creating entirely new needs and going all out to fill them. This is usually done in plain view of the consuming public, which may then bark out its endorsements loud and clear; but great things are also achieved more quietly, with little fanfare, though in the end they affect us just as profoundly. Who troubles himself to dwell on the virtues of plastic, for instance, or counts all the hours photocopying has saved us? Perhaps even more pervasive than these innovations, and certainly more neglected, is background music. But now, thanks to Joseph Lanza and his new book, Elevator Music, Muzak and its allies are finally getting their due.

Unlike Pendergrast, Lanza writes as an enthusiast. Behind all the gibes against "sonic wallpaper" lies a sense that "moodsong" (his generic term for all styles, from shopping music to George Winston) really is good stuff. He makes no great claims for its intrinsic merits--though he doesn't dismiss them either. Instead he argues, "Muzak and mood music are, in many respects, aesthetically superior to all other musical forms: they emit music the way the twentieth century is equipped to receive it." This won't surprise readers versed in the latest critical fashions, who will at once pick out the axiom of postmodernism: Est, ergo bonum--"It is, so it must be good." That movement, already quite long in the tooth, often offends with the incoherent verbosity and bad breath of old age, but fortunately Lanza is not from its academic wing. He doesn't pester you with obscure syllogisms, and he obviously knows his subject. His book is mainly an exercise in classification, and in that it succeeds admirably.

The great divide Lanza marks is between music with specific emotional content--dreamy, spiritual, seductive, or whatever--and pure ambient sounds. He astutely locates this split in the prehistory of the genre, with the moody Ravel and Debussy on one side and the spare, oddly neutral Erik Satie on the other. The impressionists were ancestors of the string-heavy, "gush of lush" style made famous by Mantovani and his followers in the semiclassical vein, while Satie was a direct forerunner of Muzak. Perhaps as a result of his early years toiling on pianos in cabarets and bawdy houses, Satie recognized a need, as he put it, for "music that would be a part of the surrounding noises. . . . without imposing itself." He called it "furniture music," and when he debuted it in 1920 he was so put out by the rapt attention of his audience that he actually had to go among them to stir up talk and noise.

Satie was clearly a man ahead of his time, but not by much. Fifteen years later Muzak was a going concern, already stockpiling suitable compilations and study after study demonstrating the benefits of what it called "functional music." Stores and restaurants were looking for increased sales, of course, but the research focused mainly on the workplace. Muzak was promoted as a way to combat stress and fatigue (like Coca-Cola in its salad days), cut accidents and absenteeism, even reduce employee resentment. To his credit, Lanza doesn't paint this as some kind of insidious Big Brotherism but as another form of environmental control. One Muzak executive put it this way: "The worker should be no more aware of the music than of good lighting. The rhythms, reaching him subconsciously, create a feeling of well-being and eliminate strain." Eventually Muzak diversified its programs with tempos suited to specific settings, and in the late 1940s the company discovered its ideal format, Stimulus Progression: each hour is broken into 15-minute sequences, and within each block there's a movement from more subdued to more stirring songs. The idea is to manage workers' mood swings, to offset natural rhythms of boredom and inattention better than a random series would do.

Stimulus Progression is still the basis of Muzak programming today. The song list has changed over the years, and trends in music have been gradually acknowledged (synthesizers, for instance, were finally added in the late 70s); but conservatism is natural to a form in which the artists who make it principally debate whether people actually listen to it or not. Even our author gets impatient with Muzak now and then, at one point dismissing it peevishly as "doomed to reconstitute ditties like 'Danke Schoen' to make them sound more jejune than the originals." Oh, Mr. Lanza! Jejune? Did you forget those "splendidly homogenizing effects" of Muzak's monaural transmission you discovered in that "modest-size McDonald's in Connecticut," where it was doing a fine job of "standardizing noise, enhancing private conversation, and even making the food taste better"?

Whatever its faults, Muzak is redeemed in Lanza's eyes by its service as a kind of conservatory for many of the more daring styles in background music, and he's at his best when he wades straight into the froth to enjoy himself. His chapters on the 1950s are especially good. He shows how the advent of the LP turned that decade into a golden age for mood music, as it was for so many other forms of culture pitched to the newly elevated American mass man. That mortal may not have known it, but it was his golden age too, a time when his country was paramount in every way and when he found himself poised, at last, to enjoy the fruits of his own labor. If he wasn't high in the saddle of the affairs of state, he was at least happy in his BarcaLounger at home. Muzak rendered him docile and efficient on the job, and the domesticated Americano of the 1950s also had just the right music to serve as background for his repose and his entertainments. When he felt the urge to pitch some woo he had the lubricious Jackie Gleason to soften up the beach for his advance; if he fancied classical music he let Andre Kostelanetz and Annunzio Mantovani pour strings down on his head; for those times when the spirit called there were the Ray Coniff Singers doing Gregorian chants in an echo chamber; and when he got tired of the old USA he could sail off to a tropical symphony of steel guitars, ukeleles, conch shells, and birdcalls, putting his feet up in his very own living room with a pitcher of mai-tais, not a harpoon, by his side.

The longhairs were writhing, no doubt, but once again the people had spoken. Even their president, Dwight Eisenhower--also a famous Coke drinker, by the way--had Muzak installed in the White House, proving that when you have the affairs of the planet well in hand there's little need to put on airs at home. If the music tended to trivialize foreign cultures or embrace ideals that seem remote today (Lawrence Welk: "Champagne music puts the girl back in the boy's arms--where she belongs"), it was monstrous only in its banality: like Coca-Cola, moodsong is strictly nontoxic. And in the marketplace of its own culture, the only one that really matters, it has achieved the kind of success that answers all critics. To take but one example, the bubblemeister himself was the featured performer at Ike's second inaugural ball, had the longest run in the history of television, and became the second-wealthiest star in all show business. Lanza talked to many elevator musicians from that era, and they're all proud of their accomplishments. Ray Coniff is typical: "Instead of playing trombone solos that other musicians liked, I made an about-face and wrote my arrangements with a view to making the masses understand and buy records. From that point, I became very successful. I use the word success both financially and as a person. . . . I could have gone on as I did with the big bands and be a little over the heads of the general buying public, but this is a better way to go."

Are those not the words of a genuine democrat? True, democracy is usually taken to mean something like the power of the multitude to choose its own masters, not its own amusements. But ask yourself: Which power is more real? Which is likely to be surrendered first? Maybe the communists were right to despise Coca-Cola, because they saw something inside that shapely bottle that was more democratic, and more dangerous, than free elections: the ability of capitalism to deliver the goods. The statesmen who currently run the affairs of Russia and China, not to mention others in the many lands seeded by Coke after WWII, have learned that if elections are negotiable and can always be faked, the goods never can be, and now they're doing all they can to deliver a few of their own.

But there are still rebels, alas, fighting the old battles--the veterans of Tiananmen Square, the insurgents sweating under their ski masks in Chiapas, and all those patriots seeking the independence of [blank] from [blank]--who failed to notice when they took good, long pulls on their Cokes while drafting their latest and most dire demands for more "democracy" that they'd just tasted the best they're likely to get from that philosophy. I admit that the democracy of getting-what-you-pay-for looks homely next to its dashing brother, power-to-the-people. But it is steadfast, and so hardworking that it won't be satisfied with giving the people merely what they want. It must give them, as the boosters of New Coke learned the hard way, what they think they want. Now who, dear Reader, could ask for more than that?

For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It by Mark Pendergrast, Collier Books, $14 (paperback).

Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong by Joseph Lanza, Saint Martin's Press, $22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.

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