I came across this wonderful article in The New Yorker about a YouTube-posted version of Toto’s “Africa” made to sound like it’s playing in a shopping mall:
In my 3 a.m. mood, the YouTube edit, uploaded by a user named Cecil Robert, was almost too affecting to bear; it sounded like longing and consolation together, extended into emptiness, a shot of warmth coming out of a void.
Oddly, listening to Toto’s “Africa” in a mall seems to trigger some fundamental human emotion … hearing a song you love when it’s playing from elsewhere is a reassuring, isolating experience: you feel solitary and cared for at the same time.
Recall that Brian Eno conceived of what he termed ‘ambient music’ after being forced to listen to a harp recording at low volume, accompanied by the natural sound of rain outside his window. Eno probably never heard a harp mixed with outdoor rainfall before, so there wasn’t a past emotional reference that affected him. It was the context of where the music existed in his mind, inspired by factors like environment, volume, reverb (natural or otherwise), and sonic quality (the frequencies that were accented or muffled). Just the same, I’m not sure if the author of the New Yorker article experienced “Africa” at a shopping mall in her childhood. But the combination of imagined context (a shopping mall, where she spent time in her youth) and a beloved song from the era triggered an emotion from a memory that probably never happened.
The YouTube clip shows a photo of a shopping mall interior, located in Everytown, USA, and the parenthetical subtitle “playing in an empty shopping centre.” This description in itself is odd, as the poster’s US origin makes me expect “center.” Perhaps he’s fittingly an anglophilic victim of the ‘80s British Invasion? But I digress – my point is that the recording would not have the same effect without the photo of the mall or the subtitle planting the seed in our heads. Instead, the picture could be of an aircraft hanger, subtitled “playing in an empty aircraft hanger.” Would retired airplane mechanics suddenly get all swoony?
Probably not. The shopping mall is powerful for contextualizing as we’ve all heard music blaring through similar retail compounds. It’s doubtful an airplane mechanic regularly heard music blasting through a hanger. The potency is in connecting two parts of the brain that agree on a possible spatial and temporal environment for a song. This song sounds different — that's because we've been told it's playing in a shopping mall. Our experience allows an understanding of this context, and now we’re feeling twice as nostalgic.
This experiment is insightful. I’ve always felt that, as a music producer, creating make-believe settings for songs can accentuate the song’s ability to connect with listeners. By constructing a world that the song takes place in – whether a particular room, or a landscape, and/or a different time – and allowing this to influence production decisions like reverb, stereo placement, equalization, and extraneous sounds, the song has the potential to open the listener’s imagination. However, there’s no reason to state that you’ve set the song in a shopping mall or any other imagined territory. By following through on intention and delivering context, the song becomes more of a living thing and cinematic, with the listener encouraged to create his or her story.
This idea isn't original. There are a number of songs and albums inspired by fictional places. But, if you haven’t considered this creative game, then I recommend it. And I’m asking you to fabricate the whole story, look, and feel of the place. Is it rocky or is it soft? Is it high up or underground? Are you there alone or are people, plants, or animals with you? Does this place have a name?
Early in my recording career I met producer Howie B., and he gave me this advice: “Invent a mental movie scene and record the soundtrack.” Howie meant this in terms of an imaginary film dictating the builds and turns of a song, but the movie’s setting would naturally influence the sonic characteristics. Even without action, a scene set in outer space gets scored differently than one occurring on the Amalfi Coast. And, to emphasize this point, no one has to know the location or plot of your mind-movie. Keep it your secret – that will encourage you to stretch, go to places that you might be embarrassed to reveal, places from your memory, or even appropriated scenes from movies that exist in the real world.
I’m simply proposing a creative exercise to give your muse some extra juice. Unless you’re making music that Eno would define as ‘ambient’ — that is, background music meant to be listened to alongside its environment – you shouldn’t use a fantastic imaginary setting to compensate for a half-written song. And subtlety is key. Overdoing your ‘sailing through the Grand Canyon’ tune with heaps of reverb and bird noises will probably be more distracting than affecting. But contextualizing music, as an occasional practice, might guide the producer toward fascinating discovery and, like Toto in a shopping mall, give the listener an unexpected jolt of emotion and haunting familiarity.