Onboard Music Offerings

When, a few weeks ago, I rhetorically asked what had become of the band Men Without Hats, one hit wonder from those formative days of MTV, I did not expect, or particularly want, an answer. To my amazement, the following came in from reader Bill Owen:

“I don’t know where the rest of them fetched up, but the keyboardist went on to become my dentist here in Ottawa. At least he used to be my dentist; about a year ago he packed up and moved to the states. Before leaving, he did the soundtrack for a locally produced film called ‘Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter,’ which was even worse than it sounds.”

I’d wondered which country, or perhaps which planet, Men Without Hats called home. Had I known Canada, I’d have pegged the keyboardist for a career in Cirque de Soleil, maybe. Definitely not dentistry.

Thinking back to 1983, I’m able to picture the “Safety Dance” video with an almost painful vividness. My apologies if the past 22 years have commixed up certain details, but I seem to recall bandmembers prancing ridiculously through what looked to be the rolling moors of the British countryside (though maybe it was rural Ontario). Behind them frolicked a strangely outfitted ensemble of fairies, dwarves, or druids of some kind, while Canada’s weirdest dentist-to-be plinked away at his synthesizer, urging us to “dance if you wanna.” It was all too much, even then.

What got this thread going, maybe you remember, was my grieving over the general atrociousness of in-seat entertainment, particularly the music options. On-demand video is becoming more and more commonplace, but staple of the US domestic flight still consists of bulkhead screen reruns of “Frasier” and an abysmal selection of audio channels. For those of us who don’t yet tote along digital music players, the only thing more disappointing than a stale packet of snack mix is in the usual armrest anesthesia of nonthreatening pop songs, quasi-jazz and world music mish-mash. Give the airlines credit, I suppose, for upgrading their gadgetry, but truth be told Sting’s greatest hits aren’t any more palatable through ear buds (or, in some premium cabins, noise-reduction units from Bose), than they were through those old-style stethoscopic head vices.

En route to Argentina I was amazed to catch one of my favorite early ’80s songs — the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” on the channel ten playlist. Hoping against hope, I wondered if maybe the airlines were on to something. Alas, my more recent trip to Chile took care of that suspicion. Not that there’s anything wrong with people willing to stomach Destiny’s Child, Gwen Stefani, and LL Cool J all in the same loop. Or maybe there is, but either way I don’t presume there are many of them. Surely I hope not.

And that’s the thing: by attempting to satisfy everyone, the inflight mix-masters please nobody. In fact they really tick some of us off. Who wants to endure the tedium of having to wait in 45-minute cycles just to hear one bloody song? And why are there so few channels to begin with? If I can get 16,000 cuts into a single iPod, there’s no reason a quarter-billion dollar 777 can’t offer me Hüsker Dü, the Jazz Butcher, the Wedding Present and the Mountain Goats at my choosing.

At the same time, you might be amazed — some would say disheartened — to learn how seriously some airlines take this stuff. In one of the most daring examples of airline merchandising you’ll ever encounter, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) compiles its onboard music program — mostly instrumental folk tunes and the occasional Pakistani pop song — for sale on CD at stores around the country. (I’m left struggling to imagine a similar endeavor here in America. Where to go with this? Now at all Tower Records locations: “The Best of Delta, Unplugged.”)

Ask the Pilot’s man in Pakistan is Ameel Zia Khan, who lives in Islamabad. I sent Ameelon a mission to find me a disc of PIA’s greatest hits, so I could sell the idea to JetBlue.

“I went to several shops,” he reports back. “But they were mostly sold out. The compilations are actually quite popular. Only one store had copies, and those were pirated.”


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.