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Following Noise

Music and sound as herald in the age of TikTok



In his ever-prescient book Noise, Jacques Attali painstakingly details the role of music and sound as a harbinger of what is to come, a simulacrum of power that signals future paradigm shifts in society at large. The argument at the heart of Noise focuses on three periods in the history of music, which Attali designates sacrifice, representation and repetition. Each period is defined by different modes of production, dissemination, and cultural reception of music. For example, the first period, sacrifice, refers to the era of music prior to written notation. The period of representation focuses on the shift in power and control between musician and nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. The musician during this period became a domestic under contract of a court, their duties shifted to re-producing the music of a written score, a new means of musical production developed during this period. The creation of written notation also signals the initial commodification of music and musician, with the site of this exchange shifting over time from the court to the bourgeois concert hall. It is this shift, in combination with the advent of recording technology, that ushered in Attali’s age of repetition, the commodification and stockpiling of music into a discrete object (the phonograph record) aided by a fully actualized music industry operating within the context of a global capitalist system.

Attali’s goal in sketching out these three historical periods is to illustrate that music is a herald, providing the earliest rumblings of unrest within political and economic structures which, over time, will become visible in society at large. In other words, music is a mirror, one that “relates to the structuring of theoretical paradigms, far ahead of concrete production” (Attali, 1977, 9). As Attali states (1977, 4), “the political organization of the twentieth century is rooted in the political thought of the nineteenth, the latter is almost entirely present in embryonic form in the music of the eighteenth century”. This is the purpose of defining these periods of music; by carefully examining the eras of sacrifice and representation Attali finds the precursory whispers of repetition. Similarly, by examining repetition Attali theorizes a fourth period which he denotes composition. Composition in this context refers very literally to the putting together of things, It describes a process oriented world, centered around production for production’s sake rather than production existing solely as a means for profit. In composition the want of being, rather than the want of having, predominates, and humans are engaged in the building of community through action, where they can make noise rather than be silenced by it.

Attali published Noise in 1977, long before the widespread adoption of the internet, with no way of foretelling the incredible disruptions to political and economic systems that would be ushered in by its rapid proliferation. At the time of publication Attali was unsure whether composition had arrived, or was soon to arrive. Careful not to fully flesh out his theory of composition, Noise portrays it as a hazy framework, not a nostradamus-esque prediction of the future. Attali points to certain musicians and performance artists as perhaps representing the early stages of composition, the creation of many new and exciting musical instruments as potential precursory signals of this new age. From our privileged vantage point in the year 2021, one would be hard pressed to argue that the age of composition had arrived. The technocratic lurch of music streaming and social media looks more like illusory growth spiraling out of control, a state of hyper-repetition rather than the comparatively idyllic composition.

Mass production and commodification have only accelerated since the publishing of Noise and the advent of the internet, the music industry has not been spared from its effects. Despite this, it cannot be ignored that the internet has had a democratizing impact on the creation of art and music, suggesting that some of Attali’s hopes may have been realized. Free DAW software allows any one of us to create our own music, we can all make a meme and share it on Instagram or even sell our art via NFT if we’re so inclined. For all its toxicity, the internet is a forum where communities can gather, absent many of the limitations that can make in-person community unattainable. In contemporary online society there is one platform that represents a new wave of online community building while simultaneously embodying a culmination of the last decade of internet culture, that platform is TikTok.

TikTok is a great example of the concept of “hyper-repetition”, the never ending feed of content interspersed with ads designed to fit natively into surrounding content is an overwhelmingly consumption-driven experience. Jacques Attali is likely not a fan of TikTok; many of its commodifying, capitalist features are the type of thing Noise hoped composition would turn us away from. But that said, I do feel that in other ways TikTok is a fantastic use case to study other points raised in Noise, namely the property of music as a herald. As Attali demonstrates, music and sound have the ability to signify political and economic paradigm shifts long before they are realized. Yet as we will see, this concept can also take more concrete forms. Rather than simply clues to be extracted from a repertoire, music as a herald can exist as a process and function, one that can be utilized by people, companies, and developers to achieve their goals. Music and sound, by virtue of their use within the TikTok platform, signal the advent of a “social media 2.0” era. It is thanks to the foregrounding of sound within the TikTok platform that this is possible, for music possesses the ability to affect these changes. By carrying Attali’s principle further we are able to create an addendum to Noise, a footnote from our contemporary position within the digital age.

The advent of TikTok and its rise as one of the dominant social media platforms signals the arrival of “social media 2.0”, a digital ecosystem where multimedia, and audio in particular, are the primary vehicles through which cultural material is shared and consumed. Through the lens of TikTok we can take a glimpse into the early machinations of this new wave of social behavior, one categorized by and predicated on audio as the dominant instrument of exchange, which uses sound as both an object and milieu to affix dynamic communication within a workable frame. In order to discuss TikTok and its ability to operationalize sound, let’s first define sound object and sound milieu, as both represent functions that are employed to achieve this end. A sound object in this context refers to a discreet package of sound, a bell signifying an elevator arriving at the next floor, a Soulja Boy ringtone, or Metro Boomin’s producer tag. This objectification gives a sound a “purpose”, providing a context in which sounds can be extracted and used to labor towards a specific goal, whether that be annunciatory (an oven timer), comedic (a sound bite), or any number of other possibilities. While “object” is one property of sounds, it is not the property of all sounds, nor are sound objects divorced from their surroundings, rather sound objects are always emplaced within a larger context. This is what is meant by sound milieu: the totality of audible material existing within the same temporal space of a particular sound object.

The question of “what is sound?”, has pulled at the minds of academics for centuries, but the advent of recording technology brought a new layer of immediacy to the conversation. Particularly, the music of Pierre Schaefer and the musique concrète movement called into question the very nature of sound and sounding objects. Prior to recording technology a sound was always anchored in real time, sound was a reproduction of another physical object, a strumming guitar or a locomotive rumbling, not an object in and of itself. But a wax cylinder or LP is something altogether different, how do we reckon with an object which is the material embodiment of sound itself? How else are we to categorize sound samples leveraged by Pierre Schaefer and his contemporaries besides sound objects plucked from their initial environment, building blocks to create a new sound-world? Additionally, how do we reckon with the commodification and repetition of sound made possible through recording technology? Again I point to Attali for one prominent interrogation of these questions.

Despite the emergence of recorded sound objects as a byproduct of twentieth century commodity exchange, it is clear that the LP (recorded sound) is not the only manifestation of sound in our world. Nor is sound engaged with or consumed in a silo as a one to one interaction with its listener. As a matter of fact, the harnessing of sound as a recorded object has made sound inescapable. Sound now inhabits every aspect of our world, functioning as Hildegard Westkamp has dubbed “music-as-environment”. Music-as-environment “has established itself as a cultural system, a “place” in the world, the “womb” of twentieth century living” (Westkamp, 1988, 35). This is similar to Makis Solomos’ conception of sound milieu, foregrounding the understanding that all listening and perception is impacted by the sound milieu in which it exists, and furthermore that sounds are also impacted by and in conversation with the milieu in which they are sounding. “Because a milieu is just a part of the environment, the act of listening is not a truncated perception focused on one sense and which anaesthetizes the other senses: it weaves the relationship between the subject and a particular milieu, the sonic milieu, which coexists with the visual, tactile and other milieus” (Solomos, 2018, 104).

Returning to TikTok, we see that sound plays a critical role both as sound object and as sound milieu, with the presence of each providing the foundation for the functioning of the app. The sound object within TikTok takes the form of the audio clip that is present in every single video (tiktok) on the app. These audio clips appear in many formats, they are clips of popular songs, spoken text, clips of other videos taken from YouTube or spliced together from multiple TikToks, even natural sounds and field recordings (dare I say, musique concrète?). These audio clips are the engine that keeps TikTok running, they are the primary source for the viral memes and dance trends that fuel TikTok’s growth. They are also the key piece of material that organizes TikTok’s coveted recommendation algorithms. One needs only to spend a few hours on TikTok to understand that audio clips enable the spread of viral content that the app is known for. When a dance is popularized on TikTok, it is the audio clip that remains constant in every video. When a meme goes viral, its audio clip is co opted and used by thousands of other users. To go one step further, the audio clip is the meme, it is the material (the sound object) that is copied, the foundation of the video that exists on top of it. These audio clips are extracted sound objects which act as vehicles allowing for the rapid spread of memes and trends on TikTok; the sound object’s existence as repetitive commodity making this exchange possible. The sound object also contributes to virality thanks to its properties as a representative object. Sound’s ability to embody meaning and its representation of this cultural meaning allows it to immediately trigger information and understanding for a listener. On TikTok the audio clip is the meme, and the meme is a sound object, the properties of which allow users to set expectations, to be primed for the multisensorial event they are about to experience, to immediately understand the meme. Thus, the properties of the sound object and its foregrounding on TikTok explain the particular virality of memes and trends on the platform. TikTok is unique among social media platforms for the way it employs sound, and the explosive growth and success of the platform has been unique in kind.

This foregrounding of music and sound is intentional. TikTok developed directly from the karaoke/social media platform Musical.ly, music and sound have been at the forefront of TikTok’s identity since its inception. Furthermore, one of TikTok’s prominent features is a categorization engine for all audio clips on the app. Every TikTok video displays its audio clip in the lower right corner of the screen, with the name of the clip running across the bottom of the screen. The lower right audio button is also linked and can be clicked by the user, allowing them to view every single video on the app which utilizes this sound. This meticulous tracking of audio on the app allows for viral trends to be monitored in real time, both for the app developers and users alike. Special care has been taken with treatment of audio clips on the app, I can find no prior app with such a sophisticated audio-categorization engine. It is clear that TikTok parent company Bytedance understands the importance of music and audio on its platform, and has developed the UX and infrastructure to reflect it; I have no doubt these audio categorization and recommendation algorithms are a key reason why the company entertained acquisition offers from companies as varied as Walmart, Oracle, and Microsoft in the latter half of 2020.

TikTok is multimedia and multisensorial. While audio is foregrounded and critical in the functioning of the platform, it is the pairing of video, audio, and textual material which make TikTok videos engaging. Indeed, similar to any other sound, the TikTok audio clip (sound object) exists within a larger milieu, interacting in concert with the video clip overlaid on top of it to create the TikTok itself. This audio/video relationship is further supported by text descriptions and hashtags which provide the user with additional information. All of this information is emplaced within an interactive environment, providing deeper engagement with the content on screen than a comparable YouTube video or Instagram story. As Solomos (2018, 104) says “Listening is no longer about contemplating the objects before us, but about being immersed in a milieu”. This deeper level of engagement is emblematic of social media 2.0, users are not simply passively engaging with content on a platform, they are participatory actors within an immersive social milieu.

What does this mean for life outside of the screen? Well, as we enter a social media 2.0 age social platforms will continue to become more and more closely integrated with “real life”. We will also see more platforms follow TikTok’s lead, foregrounding audio on their app (hello, Clubhouse). The veil separating life inside and outside the screen will continue to disintegrate; TikTok itself represents a milieu within a milieu. Both the listener and the sounds emitted from their phone exist within the milieu of the “real world”, but the sound object of a TikTok sound clip also exists within its own milieu, the digital milieu of the TikTok For You Page. The multimedia, multisensorial nature of the TikTok experience calls forth a separate sound milieu within the user’s phone. The user not only observes but is immersed within this milieu, which itself is embedded within the larger sound milieu of the user’s world, whether that is a bedroom, train car, or line at the bank. This nesting of milieu within milieu is a key component of the social media 2.0 framework.

The dis/integration of digital media within daily life is not a neutral occurrence, as Attali points out, the production and control of noise is bound up with power. Those in power seek not only to produce noise, but to silence the noise that they deem subversive; this power of silencing is key to Attali’s period of repetition. TikTok again provides a contemporary use case of this process in action. In the past year TikTok has been under scrutiny for censoring user content that could be seen as antithetical to the values of the Chinese government and Beijing-based parent company Bytedance. TikTok has been accused of censoring and shadowbanning a variety of topics ranging from protests in Hong Kong, the Minneapolis Uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd, treatment of Uygher Muslims in Western China, LGBTQ issues, and more. This process of silencing “is turning the modern State into a gigantic, monopolizing noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalized eavesdropping device”(Attali 1977, 7). As social media becomes the locus of noise production for the public it is expected that we will see the State step in, to wrest control of the soap box from the masses in an attempt to control noise. But what is the purpose of silencing, of social media surveillance? As Attali (1977, 7) puts it “it is necessary to ban subversive noise because it betokens demands for cultural autonomy, support for differences or marginality”. Noise, sound, and music are clairvoyant, heralds of what is to come, for that reason it is always in the interest of those seeking power to control the auditory narrative.

TikTok and its direct predecessor Musical.ly forged new ground among social media apps by foregrounding audio as the primary vehicle through which content was created and shared. TikTok’s use of music and sound, specifically sound’s properties as both object and milieu, has powered the app’s explosive growth and enabled the virality that TikTok is known for. As Attali (1977, 5) noted, “change is inscribed in noise faster than it transforms society”; music is a herald and a code that can be mined for clues that point toward the future. By interrogating this phenomena through TikTok we see that music is not only a herald in abstraction, but a herald in practice, one that can be leveraged in concrete ways to enact change. It is used by TikTok in precisely this way to herald to us a social media 2.0 world. Yet as this new world comes into focus we must also be vigilant – music is not only a herald but a simulacrum of power, a tool that can be used to communicate or to silence. Thus far TikTok and it’s peers have served to further entrench the repetition, commodification, and stockpiling of noise common to the digital age. It remains to be seen what can be done to curtail these pernicious effects, but following the noise will help provide clues as to what lies ahead.


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