After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, and a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, our summer Sound and Pleasure series serves up some awesomeness on a platter this week with the return of Steph Ceraso, who makes us wish all those food pics on instagram came with recordings. Take a big bite out of this! –-JS, Editor-in-Chief
Lightly I tap the burnt surface with a cold metal spoon until it cracks; it fractures like a fine layer of sugary glass; silent, smooth custard mixes with the sticky sweet crunch of the caramelized shards.
An otherwise bland and unmemorable dessert, crème brûlée is always my go-to treat. The sonic pleasures of this indulgence keep me coming back: the tapping, cracking, crunching.
Though the taste and visual presentation of food usually get most of the hype, it’s no secret that sound can amplify the enjoyment and delight of eating. Indeed, sound has become an increasingly important ingredient in the design, advertising, and experience of food: from “junk” food to gourmet dining. What is especially fascinating and disconcerting about this strategic use of sound is the powerful connection between pleasure and sensory manipulation. To my mind, the myriad ways sound is employed to manipulate perceptions of food underscores the need to pay more attention to when, how, and why sound influences our thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences.
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Food engineers and marketing teams have been taking advantage of the pleasures of sound for years. Rice Krispies’ “Snap, Crackle, Pop” trademark has been around since the late 1920s. And of course there are Pop Rocks, my favorite sounding retro product. The carbonated sugar crystals were invented in the 1950s, but thanks to commercials that celebrated the candy in all of its sonic glory, Pop Rocks’ popularity reached a fever pitch in the 1970s and it’s still going strong today. The official Pop Rocks website boasts that the product continues to be the “leading popping candy brand worldwide.”
Sound is a crucial part of the pleasurable experience of food’s packaging, too. Consider Pringles’ famous “Once you pop you can’t stop” slogan. A neatly stacked chip cylinder with a pleasant-sounding lid is marketed as a refreshing alternative to crinkly chip bags.
Designing sound for the things that contain food may seem like a silly marketing gimmick, but the sounds of packaging can make or break the product. For instance, in an attempt to make its SunChips brand more environmentally friendly, in 2010 Frito-Lay introduced a compostable chip bag. Consumers found it to be ridiculously noisy and complained. The bag had so many haters, in fact, that a facebook group called “SORRY I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG” attracted nearly 30,000 fans. Sales fell, and the financial loss caused Frito-Lay to go back to the un-environmentally friendly bags. Just this year, the company introduced yet another version of the compostable bag. It’s too early to tell if consumers will deem its sound acceptable.
While many companies strive to hit the right note when it comes to the pleasurable sounds of food and its packaging, recent research on taste and sound has been more focused on how external sounds affect the experience of eating. In a noteworthy study, the food company Unilever and the University of Manchester found that the experience of sweetness and saltiness in food decreased in relation to high levels of background noise (perhaps one of the reasons that airplane food generally sucks). They also identified a correlation between the increased volume of background noise and the eater’s perception of crunchiness and freshness.
Additionally, the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University run by professor Charles Spence got a lot of press for discovering that low-pitched sounds tend to bring out bitter flavors while high-pitched sounds heighten the sweetness of food. Go grab a snack (chocolate or coffee work best) and you can try this experiment for yourself.
Armed with scientific knowledge, many chefs and entrepreneurs have been teaming up to put these ideas into practice. For a limited time London restaurant House of Wolf served what they called a “sonic cake pop.” The treat came with a phone number that presented callers with the choice of pushing 1 for sweet (to hear a high-frequency sound) and 2 for bitter (to hear a low-frequency sound). The experiment was a success. People seemed to want to hear their cake and eat it too. The same Guardian article reports that Ben and Jerry’s plans to put QR codes on its packaging so that customers can use their smartphones to access sounds that compliment the flavor of ice cream they are eating.
For some, making sound a more prominent feature of eating experiences is more than a fun experiment or savvy marketing strategy: it’s a full-blown artistic performance. World-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal uses sound to draw attention to the holistic sensory experience of dining. His dish “Sound of the Sea,” for example, consists of seafood, edible seaweed, tapioca that looks like sand, decorative shells, and an iPod so that diners can listen to the sounds of the ocean.
Blumenthal has also performed sound experiments while eaters spooned up his bacon and egg ice cream (Yep. That’s a thing!). When the sound of bacon frying in a pan was played, people rated the bacon flavor of the ice cream to be more intense than the egg flavor, and vice versa when the sound was clucking chickens.
In a similar vein, Boston chef Jason Bond and composer Ben Houge have paired up to create food operas, or what they call “audio-gustatory events.” They use real-time musical scoring techniques based off of Houge’s work in video games to design eating experiences that explicitly link sound and taste.
Clearly, when it comes to the pleasures (and displeasures) of eating, sound matters. I’ll admit that I’m a fan of the more imaginative, experimental uses of sound in experiences like the food opera or Blumenthal’s edible sonic creations. There is a sense of play and discovery in these designed experiences; and, people know what they are signing up for and willingly choose to participate. Such endeavors have the potential to heighten participants’ sensitivity to how sound figures into eating and other kinds of everyday activities.
Yet, along with the sonic branding and marketing of edible products, these experiments raise some troubling questions about the relationship between pleasure and sensory manipulation: When is it wrong or unethical to use sensory manipulation to create pleasurable experiences? At what point does manipulation become pleasurable? Is all pleasure a form of manipulation?
Perhaps more significantly, the ways that people are applying scientific knowledge about sound and taste opens up another can of worms: What are the implications of trying to standardize pleasurable sounds via commercial products? What kinds of bodies are invited to participate in pleasurable sensory experiences, or not? I’m thinking particularly of individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, or who have different cultural cues when it comes to recognizing a sound as “pleasurable.”
The sounds of food do not necessarily have to be engineered to be pleasurable. However, because new information about the relationship between sound and other senses is being used to explicitly and implicitly manipulate our experiences, it seems that there is a real need for cultivating a keener, more critical sensory awareness. This means questioning when, how, and why sound is being employed to create pleasurable experiences in a range of products and environments; it means paying careful attention to the ways that sound interacts with all of our senses to influence everyday experiences. So, the next time you’re having what seems to be a simple “feel good” eating experience, be sure to open your ears along with your mouth.
Featured image by Flickr user Wizetux, CC BY 2.0
Steph Ceraso received her doctorate in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in rhetoric and composition, pedagogy, sound studies, and digital media. In addition to being a three-peat guest writer for Sounding Out!, her work has been featured in Currents in Electronic Literacy, HASTAC, and Fembot Collective. She is also the coeditor of a special “Sonic Rhetorics” issue of Harlot. Her current book project, Sounding Composition, Composing Sound, examines how expansive, consciously embodied listening and sonic composing practices can deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Steph will be joining the faculty in the English department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this fall. You can find more about her research, media projects, and teaching at http://www.stephceraso.com.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice— Yvon Bonenfant
I got my first computer, A Packard Bell desktop, in 1995, when I was 11, and my parents would only buy it after three trips to Comp USA where they found a salesman with enough patience to make them feel OK about hoarding a year’s worth of PC Magazines in a box under my bed that I was supposed to use for research, but really I just wanted to get the best computer for games.
“This isn’t just for games,” my parents said.
And there was, of course, a ton of pre-loaded educational software, like Encarta, sending my folks into a state of catatonic euphoria dreaming of Ivy League schools, but there was also a Weezer music video. Specifically, the Spike Jonze-directed video for “Buddy Holly” inexplicably hidden in the computer’s media files.
The existence of “Buddy Holly” on my computer was as mysterious as the video’s special effects. Now considered by aficionados to be a creative high point of the medium, the clip showed the band playing inside an episode of Happy Days, and to my pre-adolescent sense of humor was utterly hilarious.
More than that, through the backdoor of Windows 95, Weezer, with this music video, attached themselves onto my brain in a real way, and with their humor, made the first significant bridge connecting my musical and emotional islands in a way a CD alone never could. Sure, I liked the song, but I loved that music video.
Aggressively aging through middle and high school, through Nine Inch Nails and Black Flag, Weezer’s first album was just a blue CD stacked with a bunch of other old birthday presents I couldn’t return. Their music wasn’t harsh enough, and it dealt with realities (sentimental longing, romantic frustration, imagination seen as inner-brain reclusivity) that I hadn’t yet developed the ability to experience.
Then a couple years into high school, on a homemade VHS tape of six hours worth of videos recorded off MTV2, I was once again confronted with the band, this time via their video for “Say It Ain’t So.” This one was also pretty funny, but it took the band out of a pastiche and into a fully-realized suburban rock fantasy: playing guitars in a garage, doing laundry, and kicking a hacky sack in the backyard.
Even more importantly, this was the first time I realized how good their music was. Mixing that ever-present humor, with heavy guitars and unapologetic pop hooks, Weezer were reincarnated as instant personal favorite; as anti-venom to blindingly angry music and a reflection of my own growing inner-complexity. The content of the songs on their first album, Weezer, finally registered with me too: the fragility of relationships with “Say It Ain’t So” and the liberating loneliness of geekdom portrayed with “In The Garage,” to me, was deeply profound.
It didn’t take long for me to move on to 1996’s Pinkerton, Weezer’s second album, and with its discovery came detailed maps guiding me through new musical/emotional landmasses. Pinkerton is built around a conceit of unfiltered confession, with moments of terrifying straightforwardness, but tempered with self-deprecating humor. Songs like “Across the Sea,” “Pink Triangle,” and “Falling for You” tackled the irony and inevitability of heartbreak to the richest and most complex pop the band would ever create. Pinkerton not only mapped my feelings, but fueled them as well, keeping me anchored to the disc for years.
In point of fact, as I grew into emotional self-realization, Weezer’s first two albums became my sad records. These songs, while ironic in tone, were completely genuine in content and delivery, genetically engineered to combine with my particular brain chemistry.
Pinkerton, though, was a commercial disappointment, and since that self-perceived fail Weezer’s interests shifted from writing clever songs, tempering their rich content with sturdy hooks, to jokes. Their third album, also called Weezer, was released in 2001and presented the band as dually trying to tap into the geek ethos of their first record, but this time strictly in visual terms. They became a novelty band, writing “funny” pop songs, which are silly and sentimental, but lacking serious emotional content.
They play shows sponsored by Axe body spray, wear costumes on stage, put an actor from Lost on their latest album cover, even going as far as to name the album after his character; Weezer are now totally vapid. Everything I loved about the band was disintegrated, leaving nothing but a scorched caricature behind.
Blame that on the music business if you want, on the shifting roles of music in culture (as an art form now more closely related to branding and licensing as a way to disseminate culture), or even on the needs on the music-listening public, but that would frame “Buddy Holly’s” appearance on my pre-adolescent computer in a similar way, as nothing more than a cash-in on some big market licensing.
Well then good job, I guess. And, I guess, with all today’s corny gimmicks they’re just trying to do the same thing to another generation of fans fifteen years later. But, It’s hard for me to think about the band Weezer are now, making it too heartbreaking to listen to those two albums I used to love so much. Weezer were an important band to me. I discovered them when I was new to music, just forming my tastes, and Weezer found a way into my brain by exploiting my non-musical inclinations, and their songs and their songs mapped my emotional center. I’m worried their directions will have me going in circles forever.