Sound as Popular Culture

By Jens Gerrit Papenburg and Holger Schulze

Sound is a subject through which popular culture can be analysed in an innovative way. From the roar of the crowd in a stadium to the sub-bass frequencies produced by sound systems in the disco era.  Sound – not necessarily aestheticised as music – is inextricably part of the many domains of popular culture.

Sound is an integral part of contemporary everyday culture. From the speech recognition system integrated in your computer’s operating system to the roar of the crowd in a stadium, from the sub-bass frequencies produced by sound systems in the disco era to the sound image of advertising, sound – not necessarily aestheticised as music – is almost overly present in the many domains of today’s popular culture.

However, the sonic dimension of contemporary, globalised popular culture is not only represented by sounds you can hear, songs you can buy or effects you can sense. More fundamentally, what one calls sound is deeply constitutive for popular culture; it is driving its specific subjectivities, its economies, and its forms of knowledge. Thus, sound does not only reflect or represent contemporary cultures: it plays a crucial role in the transformations of cultures.

Whereas sound is often thought of as an effect you mainly hear – foremost through one’s ears – research has more recently focused on the manifold effects of sound on the whole body in all its activities, perceptions, its affects and reactions. Sound is not anymore regarded as just an ephemeral, a cerebral, or an intricately fragile atmosphere; in the early 21st century it is an easily confirmable notion that sounds are materially, physically and sensorially dominant and present in all of our everyday lives, regardless of social class, gender roles, abilities, ethnicities, world region, whether one lives in an urban or rural area, whether one works in the public service sector or in an industry producing consumable commodities. In the sounds one hears the visceral and the affective potentials of popular culture can be traced.

 

Analysing Cultures Through Sound

As sound takes such a central role in contemporary cultures the research on sound is actually a study of sound as both an integral and constitutive part of culture. An investigation of sound as popular culture would hence be more aptly described as a study through sound than a study about sound. Sound therefore not only provides commodities or objects which one might study; more precisely sound is a subject through which contemporary popular culture can be analysed in a way that allows us to listen to cultures: to echoes from the past, to the interfering resonances of the present, and all discontinuities and the contradictions that suggest a possible, a desirable or a feared future.

Popular culture’s sound and its sophisticated design resonates with power structures now and then and one can study these structures by analysing historical and contemporary case studies of listening in various sound cultures. Through such an analysis one will be able to consider the ways contemporary practices of sound generation are applied in the diverse fields in which sounds are produced, mastered, distorted, processed, or enhanced. One striking example is for instance the examination of the noises of a baby monitor: a study of this rather minor and often overseen device makes it possible to analyse changes in domestic space beginning in the 1960s, including a new organisation of the parent-child relationship in western urban family life, up to the expansion of technologies and habits of surveillance in everyday life. Another example would be research on sub-bass frequencies as they were produced by the sound systems of 1970s disco culture: this research allows us to explore a recent history of listening that is related to practices of dancing, of non-listening and tactile sound perception as well as to study the production of proximity, and maybe intimacy in a highly mediatised world.

One striking example is for instance the examination of the noises of a baby monitor: a study of this rather minor and often overseen device makes it possible to analyse changes in domestic space beginning in the 1960s, including a new organisation of the parent–child relationship in western urban family life, up to the expansion of technologies and habits of surveillance in everyday life.

Through a study of loudness in popular music, we can identify listening practices that are designated as “legitimate”, joyful, affirmed and appropriate – or as “illegitimate” or unpleasant, criminal and disgusting. An analysis of video game sound design and location-aware technologies facilitate the study of a militarisation of the senses and the ambiguity of sensory distance. Scrutinising the sound of popular music productions allows finally for a cultural interpretation of recorded sound and its transforming and revealing role in various regional, social, gendered and race-related contexts. What do the voices of the researchers presenting their work in the famous lecture series “Technology, Entertainment, Design” (TED) tell us about contemporary subjectivities? Subjectivities that are driven by contemporary ideologies of almost infinite self-improvement and self-marketing – and that are expressed in voices that are sonically adapted to transmit well and efficiently over the laptop speakers through which curious citizens all over the networked globe will mainly be experiencing those presentations.

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Sounding Out Cultural Transformations

However, sound can not only inform us about popular culture’s status quo, it can also be listened to as a trendsetter. Take, for instance, the new kind of economy that came up in the late 1990s related to sound. The emergence of a so-called “sharing-economy” and peer-to-peer networks was catalysed through music. This radical transformation of the media industry through the tech industry’s file-sharing platforms in the late 1990s was regarded as a model for a more general industry change, covering many top-selling industrial sectors. The film industry is one obvious example, but there is also the electric power industry – both of which have been affected by the so-called sharing-economy first practiced in the music sector. Furthermore, this shift towards an incorporation of sound can be deduced from the increased interest of leading tech companies’ in audio companies – such as Apple’s acquisition of Beats Electronics and Beats Music in May 2014, or Eric Schmidt’s extensive visit to the headquarters of Native Instruments’ Berlin in October 2014.

Hence, this prognostic and exemplifying quality of sound allows for an analysis of the contemporary state of a culture in its aptness to certain transformations, and its inclinations to upcoming distortions and ruptures. Right now, in the early Spring of 2017 for instance the contemporary efforts of Western cultures to struggle with rapidly growing authoritarian movements and more and more authoritarian, protectionist, and neo-nationalist governments  – for example in the US – can be analysed by the manifold musical productions, by memes, and performances by artists from popular culture. The fear and the irritation triggered by these developments is audible and sensible in a growing number of activities not only in the tech and media sector in general but foremost and vividly in the field of musical and sonic production in particular. Artists voice their dissent not only in lyrics, but also in performances (e.g. at the Grammy Awards 2017) and in new record releases stating the eerie dominance of authoritarian politics and their impact on individual lives, especially from non-hegemonic groups of this society. This urgency of resistance generates new and maybe impactful sonic forms of resistance.

While most musical personae of popular culture these days carefully keep a certain distance to Trump, Trump’s populism encompasses a sonic dimension that is strongly informed by popular culture.  

Yet, popular culture’s sound can also coincide with authoritarian politics. Recently the German film critic Georg Seeßlen pointed out that emerging “Trumpism” with its “alternative facts” is heavily based in popular culture’s casting shows, in the imagery and performativity of comic super heroes and TV-series. These artefacts of popular culture though are definitely not about a linguistic representation of reality, but, instead, give their customers what they want or, rather, what they are willing to pay for (with money or with data). Besides popular culture’s pictures, its sound also resonates with Trumpism. In that case, a populist’s voicing of the popular is more than a sheer metaphor: it is a sonic phenomenon decidedly. Stephen Bannon’s vocal sound – in contrast to his messages, of course – seemingly differs not too much from the sound of the maligned left-liberal “establishment”. However the description of Bannon as an obscurantist, nearly invisible and camouflaged “Trump whisperer” – vis-à-vis, say, investigative loud whistle blowers – is as far as possibly inapt. Bannon’s neonationalist agenda is documented well in the form of easily accessible lectures and documentaries. However, the sound of the 45th President of the United States of America is thoroughly different. It moves up against an overwhelming, almost material dimension, where the aim of speaking – as Seeßlen puts it – is to make the other speechless, similar to the mannerisms of aggressive ranting and raving in the daytime tabloid talk show The Jerry Springer Show. In the end, tweets can often be closer to spoken language than to written text. In Trumps tweeting voice, not only the private person and the politician Donald Trump are merging virtually spontaneously. Moreover, the president speaks or tweets directly to the whole of his people and nearly intends to merge with all of them. While most musical personae of popular culture these days carefully keep a certain distance to Trump, Trump’s populism encompasses a sonic dimension that is strongly informed by popular culture.  

To analyse cultures and their transformations via sound excavates their underlying sound concepts: What are sounds for you or for me? What is an allowed property of sound (e.g. structure, pleasure, or innovation) and what is not being granted in a sound concept (e.g. vagueness, boredom, technophobia)? These sound concepts then signal their general positions and their impact in larger cultural areas: “Who sings the Nation State?” (Butler/Spivak) And who sings the resistance against a renaissance of neo-nationalism?

Featured image: Chris Walla records The Thermals album “Personal Life” at Jackpot! © Jason Quigley

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 Jens Gerrit Papenburg is visiting Professor for Popular Music History & Theory at Humboldt University Berlin. He is the co-editor of Sound as Popular Culture (MIT Press 2016) and sound review editor of Sound Studies. An Interdisciplinary Journal (Routledge). His research interests include the media history of popular music as well as the history and culture of listening technologies.

Holger Schulze is full Professor in Musicology at the University of Copenhagen and Principal Investigator at the Sound Studies Lab. His research focuses on the cultural history of the senses, sound in popular culture and the anthropology of media. Recent book publications are: American Progress (2015), Sound as Popular Culture (2016, ed.) and Krieg Singen: Singing The War (2017, ed.).

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