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Contemporary Television’s Construction of Sonic New Jersey

At the start of The Soprano’s sixth season, in the wake of being accidentally shot by his dementia-suffering uncle, New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano enters a coma-induced dreamstate in which he reimagines his life as a successful precision optics salesman. A show interested in Freudian psychology, The Sopranos is full of dream sequences, but this one stands out as the longest and most frustrating, as first-time viewers must watch as the hour-long plotline follows Tony’s convoluted dream while his family waits in agony at his hospital bedside. Within the dream sequence, Tony awakens to find himself at a sales conference, where he has mistakenly taken someone else’s briefcase, and he attempts to find its rightful owner. Despite the frustrating circumstances, Tony has lost his tough, mob boss demeanor: instead, he’s professional, polite, and patient, qualities that the former Tony rarely exhibits throughout the show’s six seasons.

Screenshot from YouTube video “The Sopranos – Join The Club /When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die 720p”

But what immediately strikes me about this dream sequence is the sudden loss of Tony’s thick Jersey accent. Gone is the fast-paced speech filled with dropped ‘r’s’ and long ‘a’s’ and ‘o’s’. Instead, Tony’s way of speaking is relatively accentless, aligning with what is considered a neutral North American accent. By dreaming of himself as an upwardly mobile, white-collar worker, Tony has not only imagined a new career, he’s also imagined a new way of speaking, one that lacks any clear markers of region, class, or ethnicity. This transformation ultimately tethers Tony’s New Jersey accent to his identity as an Italian American mobster with working-class roots, and it reinforces the idea that speech is indicative of one’s class. The dream sequence is one instance in which television constructs the New Jersey accent as signifying a certain brand of whiteness—not quite white trash, but perhaps one step above it, a form of whiteness lacking sophistication, riddled with ignorance and superficial wealth.

Here I examine contemporary television’s construction and performance of the Jersey accent in order to understand what it confers about class status and ethnic identity. As others have argued, New Jersey dialects are actually quite eclectic, though contemporary television tends to represent the state’s accent as defined by long vowels and quick, poorly articulated speech:

I’m interested in how television shows such as The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and Real Housewives of New Jersey, among others, construct the Jersey accent as a homogenous indicator of ethnicity and social class. Within these predominantly white shows, the Jersey accent is associated with whiteness, situating characters at a distance from dialects susceptible to scrutiny and violence, such as nonwhite immigrant accents or who embody what Nina Sun Eidsheim calls sonic blackness, but it also signifies that these characters do not come from respectable backgrounds or generational wealth.

Screenshot from Season 1 Episode 1 of MTV’s Jersey Shore

New Jersey has served as a popular setting for contemporary television, and reality television in particular has capitalized on the state’s materialistic and ostentatious reputation. As Alisha Gaines argues, reality television has a “full-blown crush” on the state, as its geography serves as “a stage for class and social passing, a late capital playground of ethnic representation.” MTV’s Jersey Shore is the most well-known reality TV show to emerge out of New Jersey. Although only a few of the show’s main characters originate from the state, they all embrace a stereotypical Jersey aesthetic: the big hair, the tanned bodies, and yes, the accent. Like The Sopranos, Jersey Shore’s Italian American characters claim to have a complicated relationship to whiteness. The characters attempt to reclaim the derogatory term “guido” (or “guidette,” in the case of the show’s female characters) and admit to not fully identifying as white: “I’m not white,” the show’s Nicole Polizzi (Snooki) says at one point. “I’m tan. That’s what I am.”

In Episode 7 of the show’s first season, Snooki meets Keith, a man she’s surprised to have hit it off with not only because he’s not Italian, but also because “he talks like a cowboy.” Yet Keith does not have a Southern accent, as one might expect, but instead speaks in a standard North American accent. Snooki’s assertion that he speaks “like a cowboy,” then, points to not only how accents are perceived (in the eye of the beholder), it also centers and normalizes the characters’ Jersey accents and calls into question how American television audiences have been trained to experience and think about accented subjects.

Predictably, within New Jersey shows, accents and “improper” ways of speaking often become the butt of the joke. For instance, in The Sopranos episode “Cold Stones,” Tony gifts his wife Carmela a Louis Vuitton wallet containing thirty grand in cash. “This is the real Louis Vee-toon,” he assures her, butchering the pronunciation of the French designer’s name. Tony may be able to afford the “real thing” (and then some), but his inability to sonically perform it gives him away: this is not a lifestyle he inherited or was born into; it does not come natural to him.

In a similar vein, Bravo produces blooper reels of the New Jersey Real Housewives mispronouncing common words (skooers instead of skewers, lopter instead of lobster, bought instead of brought, for instance).

Here, these characters’ mispronunciations are intended to indicate their ignorance and lack of education, echoing the show’s hints that their female characters have mob affiliations and primarily live off their husbands’ money. Within the Real Housewives of New Jersey and other Jersey-based shows, commenting on the state’s accent often functions as a way of implying that their characters are not to be taken too seriously, thereby influencing how audiences perceive this way of speaking beyond these shows (see, for instance, this Reddit thread).

As it pertains to whiteness and class, the privilege that the Jersey accent does or does not confer is difficult to unpack. Scholars such as Jennifer Stoever and Shilpa Davé have shown how nonwhite accents are subject to surveillance and violence in ways that white accents are not. Similarly, Christie Zwahlen argues in her Sounding Out! post “Look Who’s Talking, Y’all” that “In contradistinction to ‘foreign’ sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.” But what version of whiteness, and more specifically, Americannes, does the Jersey accent connote? While within the shows examined here, the accent is spoken primarily by characters belonging to immigrant groups that have been encompassed within the category of whiteness (often Italian and Jewish Americans), the legitimacy of these characters’ social class and education level is often under scrutiny. These characters’ interest in flashy outfits, gold jewelry, and French Chateau style decor (you know it when you see it) is represented as trashy and artificial, a performance of wealth rather than the actual embodiment of it.

In many ways, the “improperness” of the Jersey accent becomes another way of indicating that these characters are not highly educated and therefore their words, thoughts, and even their wealth, are deserving of suspicion. And a show like The Sopranos, in which most characters have organized crime affiliations, confirms that this suspicion is well-warranted. Indeed, this is not the whiteness or social status assumed to accompany standard English or American accents.

“New Jersey” by Flickr user Doug Kerr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Unsurprisingly, these shows’ centering of middle-class whiteness and its sonic registers ignores the disparity that exists across New Jersey’s geographies. While the state is one of the nation’s wealthiest, it’s also home to poorer cities of color that continue to suffer from the effects of suburbanization and neoliberal urban development. For example, scholars such as Kevin Mumford and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas show how a city like Newark (a frequent setting on The Sopranos) has been heavily shaped by inequitable and volatile racial politics. And yet, the shows examined here eschew these socioeconomic and racial differences, erasing New Jersey’s communities of color from the state’s cultural discourses.

In an episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder expresses her fear that her Irish accent makes her “sound like an immigrant,” to which city treasurer Nucky Thompson responds, “But we’re all immigrants, are we not?” While his response echoes the assimilationist myth of the U.S.-as-melting-pot, it hits on something precise about New Jersey: as the state with the third-largest immigrant population, the homogeneity of the region’s accent is largely a construct. While contemporary television presents audiences with an all-encompassing Jersey accent, in actuality, the state’s diversity makes it nearly impossible to pin down exactly what New Jersey “sounds like.” Examining New Jersey’s representations in popular television reveals how the accent has become one of the state’s most prominent and recognizable features, and shows how these representations have the potential to reductively categorize an entire population.

Featured image: “Memorial Day Weekend” by Flickr user SurFeRGiRL30, CC-BY-2.0

Shannon Mooney is a PhD student in English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut in 2018. Shannon studies contemporary multi-ethnic U.S. literature, television, and film, with a focus on cultural geography and critical race theory. Her work examines how multi-ethnic writers and artists from New Jersey engage with the state’s natural and industrial landscapes to make sense of their positions as political and historical subjects. Shannon is also the Creative Director of Paperbark Literary Magazine, a publication rooted in sustainability and environmental justice.

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SO! Amplifies: Marginalized Sound—Radio for All

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Marginalized Sound is an online radio station that will launch in late 2020. The mission of the station is to provide a 24/7 platform for underrepresented sound artists to broadcast their work. Marginalized Sound will host music hours with varying genres, poetry readings, live event broadcasts, and special programs such as “Mental Health and the Artistic Process” (see audio sample below).

The station plans to interview coding musicians, poets, singer/songwriters, and composers from across the globe, as well as commission new works with pending grants. Sound art here is defined quite broadly and the station is very excited to uncover what this means to different people. For now, the breadth of work to be played includes sound plays from the 60s as well as contemporary, Congolese rap (see sample below).

Marginalized Sound will indulge a space outside of whiteness. By using the internet to broadcast to the globe, the station endeavors to reclaim space for underrepresented folk. J Diaz, founder, states, “What I’ve never understood is that diversity is a choice and as a society we continue to choose whiteness.” It is because of this that Marginalized Sound will unapologetically and enthusiastically support underrepresented people only (interested collaborators please click here for the form).

In the coming years, J Diaz hopes to turn this into a full-time job instead of just a hobby. He sees potential for the station to provide paid internships in audio and marketing, collaborations with local and international organizations or festivals, and collaborations with university courses.

The online station is raising funds to pay for initial filing fees to become a non-profit business. Please donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ean89c-becoming-a-nonprofit. Other ways to help are to like the facebook page (www.facebook.com/marginalizedsound) and share it with three friends.

Featured image: logo for Marginalized Sounds 

J Diaz is a Sound Artist currently based in Philadelphia, PA. He designs sound for a variety of mediums—including theatre, dance, and the concert stage. Over the past few years, J has collaborated on numerous projects with theatre and dance companies located across the continental United States and has even worked internationally. J holds a Bachelor of Musical Arts in piano from DePauw University (’13). He studied piano with Dr Phang and composition with Veronica Pejril and Dr Perkins. He holds an MFA in electroacoustic composition from the Vermont College of Fine Arts (’17) where he studied with Dr Mallia, Dr Early, and Dr Holland. In fall of 2018, J completed an MA in composition with distinction at The University of Sheffield under the supervision of Dr Ker.

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The Queerness of Wham’s “Last Christmas”

Christmas pop songs tend to revolve around just a few basic topics: 1) Jesus, 2) Santa, 3) Did you notice it’s winter?, and 4) Love. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, of course. For instance, the overlap between the second and fourth category produce a sub-genre I’d call Santa Kink, exemplified by “Santa Baby” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And the overlap between the first and fourth categories—between Jesus songs and Love songs—is, I would argue, complete overlap. The dominance of Christian ideology in the United States means that even when Christmas pop songs don’t explicitly say anything about Christianity, they are reenforcing dominant Christian ideology all the same. That’s how hegemonies work: hegemonic ideas are always already implicit in a variety of discourses whether those discourses are closely or remotely related to that ideology. So while pop stars may shy away from Christmas songs about Jesus because they don’t want to seem too religious, any song with Christmas as its theme will inherently fold back onto Christian ideology regardless of an artist’s intentions.

“Last Christmas” by Flickr user Helgi Halldórsson, CC BY-SA 2.0

So, what does it mean when Love and Jesus overlap in Christmas songs? It’s quintessentially heteronormative: a man, a woman, and a baby who will rescue humanity’s future. But hegemonies aren’t totalizing, so while they dominate discourse, it is possible to craft ontologies that map out other ways of being. Here, I’m going to engage the queerness of “Last Christmas”—the original Wham! version (1984)—and a 2008 Benny Bennasi remix of the original song. What each have in common is a failure to achieve heteronormativity that, in turn, undermines the Love/Jesus trope of Christmas pop songs; this failure orients us toward queer relationalities that plot alternatives to Christian heteronorms.

Looking back at those four categories of Christmas pop songs, three of them make lots of sense for a Christmas song topic: Jesus, Santa, and winter. But why love? In part, it’s because most pop music boils down to love in some way. Beyond that, though, a love song in the context of Christian heteronormative ideology yields what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurity”:

terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.

In other words, the heteronormative imperative of reproducing and then protecting (white) Children is embedded so deeply in politics that it isn’t even up for debate. It is, instead, the societal framework within which debate happens, and anything outside that framework resonates as queer.

“Traditional Nativity Scene” by Flickr user Leonard J Matthews, CC BY-ND 2.0

Pivoting back to Christmas, it’s instructive to contemplate the nativity scene. It can be built with a variety of details, but at its center every time is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—baby, mom, and dad. In a reproductive futurist society, recurring images like the nativity scene underscore the normalcy of the nuclear family, regardless of how utterly abnormal the details of the story surrounding the nativity scene might be. The heteronormativity of the nativity scene “impose[s] an ideological limit” on the discourse of Christmas love songs: every cuddle next to the fireplace, each spark under the mistletoe, all coercive “Baby, it’s cold outside”s are a reproduction of the christian Holy Family (baby, mom, and dad). What on the surface is simply Mariah Carey’s confession that all she wants for Christmas is you becomes miraculously pregnant with a dominant religio-political ideology that delimits queerness and manufactures White Children. That’s why pop stars sing Christmas love songs when they don’t want to sing about Jesus or Santa or winter; it’s because the love songs buttress a Christian ideology that squares comfortably with dominant political discourse even when they don’t explicitly mention religion.

The texture of my “Last Christmas” analysis is woven from a few theoretical strands. Jack Halberstam’s queer failure and Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomonology each orient us to queer relationalities that emerge from getting heteronormativity wrong. Hortense Spillers’ vestibular flesh and Jayna Brown’s utopian impulses tune us to the vibrations of alterity buzzing just beyond hegemony’s earshot. Taken together, these theories open space for hearing how a Christmas pop song about love might resonate queerly even in the midst of heteronormative dominance. Instead of rehearsing the nativity scene, a queer Christmas pop song might undo, sidestep, detonate, or otherwise fail to recreate the nativity. A queer analysis of Christmas pop songs looks and listens for moments of potential disruption in the norm.

Screenshot from official video from “Last Christmas”

In a reproductive futurist world, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is a nightmare: heartbreak, disillusionment, and loneliness. Lyrically, the hook tells us that this year our singer has found someone special, but the verses betray the truth: he’s still hung up on last year’s heartbreak and has already started hoping that, actually, maybe next year will be the one that works out for him. I think we can push deeper than this lyrical message of hope (strained though it is) and find something a little Scroogier in the structure of the song, a denial of fulfilled desire that projects a queer, non-reproductive future:

Intro (8 measures) (0:00)

Chorus (16 measures) (0:15)

Post-Chorus (8 measures) (0:53)

Verse 1 (16 measures) (1:11)

Chorus (1:47)

Post-Chorus (2:23)

Verse 2 (2:41)

Chorus (3:17)

Post-Chorus (with partial lyrics from Verse 2) (3:53)

Post-Chorus (4:11)

There’s a reason we all know the chorus so well: it’s a double chorus that happens three times. That is, from “Last Christmas” to “someone special” is only 8 measures long, but that quatrain is repeated twice for a 16 measure chorus. So that’s six different times we hear George Michael summarize what happened last Christmas, and it becomes easy to recognize that this is less a celebration of having someone special than it is an attempt to convince oneself of something that isn’t true. When we compound the double chorus with the percussion part, which hits a syncopated turnaround every four measures (the turnaround signifies moving on to a new part; by repeating the same one every four measures in the middle of lyrical monotony, the song suggests a failure to really move on), the effect is one of extreme repetition. We rehearse, over and again, the failure of last Christmas, the failure to hetero-love, the failure to reproduce anything but, well, failure.

What I’ve labeled the Post-Chorus is a bit of an oddity here, a musical interlude played on festive bells that separates Chorus from Verse. The work it performs is best understood in conjunction with the music video. In the video, a group of friends meet to enjoy a getaway at a ski lodge; the character played by George Michael is here with this year’s girlfriend, and last Christmas’s girlfriend brings this year’s boyfriend. Intrigue! The visual narrative matches the song. In the same way the jolly instrumental seems largely unaware of Michael’s downer lyrics, the group of friends seem oblivious to the furtive, hurt glances between last Christmas’s lovers. This structural oddity, the Post-Chorus, proves key to the visual narrative. There’s a Scrooge in this story, and the Post-Chorus will visit him in the night.

The first Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas present. As the friends crowd into a ski lift that will take them to their lodging, the first bell hits right as last year’s girlfriend is center screen (0:53 in the video above), and we watch as the friends arrive at their getaway, the final two measures playing over a wide-angle shot of a ridiculously large cabin. The second Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas past. Here, as everyone gathers around a feast, all holly and jolly, the bells (2:23) strike at the moment Michael catches sight of the brooch he gave last Christmas’s girlfriend. He broods. The payoff comes in the second half of Verse 2 (2:59), when we see a flashback to the happy couple the year before, when they frolicked in the snow, lounged by the fire, and exchanged fabulous 80s jewelry. Finally, the third Post-Chorus is the ghost of Christmas future. This time the bells strike as the group is hiking back to the ski lift, returning to the point where they began. We hear the Post-Chorus twice this time, and the first instance (3:53) is accompanied by lyrics pulled from the flashback section of Verse 2, where Michael describes himself and the heartless way he’s been treated. This time, though, instead of finishing the line with “now I’ve found a real love, you’ll never fool me again,” Michael can only offer a breathy “maybe…next year.” In this third Post-Chorus, we have future (maybe next year) overlapping with past (the flashback lyrics) accompanied by visuals that close the narrative circle – a return on the same ski lift we see during the first Post-Chorus. In other words, Michael’s character can sing about someone special all he wants, but the song knows last year’s failure to reproduce will repeat again and again. The fourth Post-Chorus hammers this repetition home: as the friends debark from the lift and the screen fades, we hear this Christmas ghost haunting, lingering at the edges, reproducing heteronormative failure ad infinitum (the fade in the music suggests there’s no definitive ending point).

Screenshot from Wham’s “Last Christmas”

George Michael, of course, was publicly closeted for a long time. It’s unsurprising that we see some horror motifs in this heterofest. The wide-angle shot of the isolated cabin, the close up of a brooding, tortured hero…There may well be a queerness in the absence of gendered pronouns and in the visual aesthetic of the music video. But the real disruption, I think, comes in the structural repetition, the rehearsal of the singer’s failure to reproduce each year at the moment that reproduction is most central. If Christmas love songs circulate in a framework of reproductive futurity, “Last Christmas” Scrooges its way onto the airwaves every year and projects an utter failure of a future.

Most Christmas pop songs come and go. The drive to fill the airwaves with a genre of music that is only functional for 6-8 weeks of the year yields heaps of treacly sonic detritus. Christmas pop songs are, by nature, ephemeral. A few of these songs, though, become classics that artists return to and cover or remix over and again. “Last Christmas” is one of these classics, settling onto November and December playlists in its original form and the myriad cover versions that have piled up over the years. Benny Benassi’s “Last Christmas” remixes the Wham! song in a way that maintains the original’s queerness even as it flips the idea of looping failures.

Benassi’s “Last Christmas” revolves around two main sections: a driving techno beat (A) and a reworking of Wham!’s chorus (B).

A (48 measures)

B (48 measures) (1:25)

A’ (24 measures) (2:22)

B’ (56 measures) (3:04)

A” (32 measures) (4:15)

The A sections include a voiceover from a computerized voice affected so that it sounds like some dystopic transmission. “We would like to know if something does not sound quite right,” the voice starts, and then preps the entry of section B with “to guarantee safety to your perfect celebration, be sure – when playing this tune at maximum volume level – to chant around like everybody else is.” It’s hard to be more on-the-nose than this: an android voice instructing us how to fit in at our reproductive futurist holiday gatherings. “You know, just…I don’t know, just do what the others are doing?”

The B sections are each a sequence of three “Last Christmas” choruses (B’ includes an extra eight measures of the third in the sequence). The first is a sped-up but otherwise unaltered Michael singing about last Christmas. It’s a jarring entry, as the cool machinery of Benassi’s beat suddenly gives way to shimmery 80s pop. The second time through that familiar double chorus, we can hear Benassi’s groove faintly in the background and growing louder and fuller toward the end. It’s a straightforward remix technique: here’s the thing, here’s the thing mixed with my beat, and now here’s what I’m really getting at.

It’s the third sequence (1:53), then, where Benassi really crafts his own “Last Christmas.” Here, the beat we heard when the android told us how to fit in combines with Michael’s chorus as Benassi stutters and clips not only the lyrics but the instrumental, too: nothing is stable. Michael can’t finish a sentence (“La-a-as-a-ast, I gave you my gave you my hear-. Thiii-i-i-i-is year to save me from save me from, I’ll give it to someone, I’ll give it to someo-o-one.”), and the beat can’t get a firm start. While Wham!’s “Last Christmas” uses the Post-Chorus to form a closed loop where past and future circle back around to each other, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” denies reproductive futurity by chopping off the beginnings and ends of phrases. Built on a simple two-measure loop that otherwise motors smoothly through the song, Benassi’s “Last Christmas” can’t loop in the third sequence of the B section because there’s nothing to latch onto.

“last christmas” by Flickr user Dako Huang, CC BY 2.0

While Wham! loops queer failures in their overarching forms, Benassi’s version of the song queerly fails to loop. Both versions of “Last Christmas” bah and humbug at reproductive futurism. They’re Scroogey reminders each year to listen for disruptions of nativity, refusals of politically delimited desires that are queerly vibrating through our earbuds.

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Featured image: “GOOD BYE and THANK YOU” by Flickr user fernando butcher, CC BY 2.0

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Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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Mukbang Cooks, Chews, and Heals

Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet.  –JS

Today’s post comes from Binghamton University junior David Lee, former student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to

write one researched, multimedia blog post on our class WordPress in the style of Sounding Out! on a sound studies topic of interest to you (approximately 1500 words). Your post should involve an issue involving power and social identity, use our in-class readings as a springboard and quotes and analyzes at least 2 in the post, relate our course topic at hand to a contemporary event, conversation, or issue and includes evidence of research of that topic (3-5 quotations/links to credible online sources), include audio, visual, and/or audio-visual elements as a key part of your analysis (this can include recordings, still photos, you tube clips, videos, etc.) and follow SO!’s submission guidelines on form, style, tone, and content: (https://soundstudiesblog.com/to-blog-2/).

For the full assignment sheet, click How We Listen_Final Blog Assignment For the grading rubric, click Blog Assignment Grading Rubric (1). For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018

Mukbang is the newest wave in trends for ASMR; it is an online audiovisual broadcast in which the host enjoys his/her food while interacting with the audience. Adopted from Korea, Mukbang’s literal translation is a portmanteau—it is a combination of two Korean words: “mukja” (let’s eat) and “bangsong” (broadcast). The first time I watched these eating broadcasts was in 2018, before major surgery. Prior to the surgery, I could not eat for twenty-four hours. It came to the point where I was so hungry that I would chew up the meat and spit it out and I would make a mental list of foods that I wanted to eat after the surgery. In an effort to satisfy my hunger, I watched a lot of videos on the Tasty network and stumbled upon Mukbangs. I had heard of the term prior to that day but had never watched the videos myself. The experience could be expressed as an oxymoron: sweet torture. I remember salivating uncontrollably but at the same time watching someone eat began to ease my own stomach.

In recent years Mukbang has blown up on streaming sites like Youtube, and has been met with a subsequent huge audience growth. Mukbang was most notably referenced in the company’s Youtube Rewind 2018 video:

Interestingly, Mukbangs have only been considered ASMR once they were adopted by American content creators. According to journalist Matthew Sedacca, viewers explain that they experience what they call a “braingasm”, described as a tingling sensation down one’s spine from the sounds of cooking and eating. The sizzling sounds of the broth or the slurping sounds of noodles are what is said to relax the listeners. In Touch the Sound, Evelyn Glennie communicates that to hear is to also touch. Likewise, the viewers experience a sensation of touch from the audio and visual elements that the video stimulates. The sounds of food that many associate with tingling, pleasant sensation can also provide viewers with a sense of comfort and reassurance.

In today’s busy society, it is hard to have a formal meal with our family and friends, so oftentimes we are found eating alone. Watching Mukbangs can mitigate the feeling of loneliness through the presence of what Steve Connor calls the vocalic body, so while we are eating alone, the presence of another is real and felt. According to Connor, “[t]he principle of the vocalic body is simple. Voices are produced by bodies: but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea—which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucination—of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice” (35). The voice in these videos takes the form of a body sitting next to us, eating and talking to us.

Simply put, viewers are watching another individual enjoy his/her meal, but Mukbangs have a greater social implication. The rise in popularity of Mukbangs coincide with the rapid technological advancements occurring in society and the shift in entertainment focus on streamable content. Eating is a routine and everyday experience, so Mukbangs portray a vital aspect of life where viewers can passively watch while experiencing the sensory feeling that sound evokes. When the host visually and audibly enjoys his/her meal the viewers can feel the presence of a body ,which accounts for the chills down one’s spine characteristic of ASMR videos. As this phenomenon demonstrates, sound can lessen feelings of loneliness by bringing the audience a sense of human comfort.

“the cook has to eat alone” by Flickr user Joseph Choi, CC BY 2.0

Mukbangs are also helpful to those who have restrictions in their diet. For someone who may be deadly allergic to shellfish, he/she can imagine that experience by watching another person enjoy the dish. While it is not the same as twisting off the claws of a lobster and eating the meat, watching and listening to another person do just that allows the viewer to be a part of that experience. Moreover, a deadly food allergy may keep someone from sharing a communal meal with friends; the sounds of a Mukbang video could recreate that experience. Lastly, and no less important, Mukbangs act in opposition to the unrealistic beauty standards of society; while society’s expectations push us to always keep our figure, a Mukbanger’s response is to eat senselessly. Therefore, Mukbangs embody our fantasies; we live vicariously through the broadcaster.

Mukbangs have introduced a new format for cooking shows. Rather than emphasizing cheesy background music and eccentric hosts on cable tv, Mukbangs strip all these effects away, so that viewers can truly appreciate the essence of cooking in the kitchen: it’s not just about what the dish tastes like in the end, but also the auditory experience. On cooking shows, a lot of the focus ends up on what the plate looks like, or what steps go in what order—it is a visual experience, in general. When it comes to Mukbangs, people watching the videos get to enjoy the relaxing sounds of cooking, and the focus is not on copying the recipe: Sedacca states, “with ASMR it becomes more about the sound than the taste.” The alternate format promotes cooking to a larger audience instead of gearing towards stay-at-home moms. Mukbang cooking videos tend to be more of a minimalist everyday perspective rather than displaying cooking as a luxurious commodity. Mukbangs show us that it is no longer about becoming the cook, but appreciating the cooking being done, and the sound adds to the intimacy of the event. With Mukbangs it is as if your mom were cooking in the kitchen.

In doing so, Mukbangs can also advocate for cultural awareness, as viewers are exposed to different foods that the host enjoys. By seeing a host they trust enjoy foreign food, it encourages the viewer to possibly try that food or visit that country in the future. A popular example of this would be when kpop idol Hwasa from group Mamamoo went on a South Korean tv show called I Live Alone and ate gopchang (cattle intestines) at a nearby restaurant. After the video went viral, the Korean BBQ restaurant industry exploded within a day, so much so, that the dish was reportedly sold out in all of Seoul, Korea.

As for me, nowadays I watch Mukbangs when I miss home. Now that I am away at college, many of my meals consist of dining hall food. Where I go to school, Korean restaurants are scarce and do not taste the same as home. There is something about a well-cooked Korean meal that Korean restaurants at school cannot replicate. So, when I am away at college, I often watch Korean Mukbangs to tap into the comfort of home, through sound and images.

Mukbang watchers have an array of audience members; people watch it to lose weight, for ASMR, or simply when they are eating alone. Mukbangs challenge social norms; although it may be rude to slurp spaghetti noodles in public, Mukbang is evidence that some people enjoy those exact sounds. Likewise, as more people begin to live individualistic lives, the eating broadcasts make up for this difference in human interaction. For those trying to lose weight, Mukbangs offer the option of seeing someone “eat their feelings” without you yourself having to overindulge or feel guilt.

More importantly, Mukbang is a relevant example that listening can be a tactile experience: through vibrations and also from sensations through the body. It challenges the listening audience to be present and appreciate the essence of food, and cooking as a sustaining artform. The aforementioned is especially true for cooking shows where the audience listens for the calming sounds that come with cooking instead of listening to what seems like a sales pitch to best copy the recipe. Mukbang makes cooking and, consequently, eating into healing activities instead of something that is reserved solely for those who have the time. Mukbangs are making a social difference by promoting Korean culture, spreading cultural awareness through food, and helping to lessen the feeling of loneliness. While Mukbangs were previously seen as fetishized or weird they are now challenging our preconceived notions on how, what, and with who we should enjoy food.

Featured image: “Korean Food – Korean Kimchi and BBQ Cooking Meat (Creative Commons)” by Flickr user Sous Chef, CC BY 2.0

David Lee is a Korean American Junior at Binghamton University studying Finance and Marketing. In his free time he likes to read, work out, or watch TV. He is an avid fan of Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and Got7.

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