Charlotte Shane explores the phenomenon of audio memes on TikTok. She argues that these memes are more than just a trend, but rather a new form of communication that allows users to “riff” off of each other’s ideas in a way that is both creative and collaborative. Shane also considers what makes a sound compelling beyond its musical qualities or linguistic meaning, and suggests that the “brainfeel” of an audio meme is what ultimately makes it so popular.
Before social media, Gleason’s “Nobody’s gonna know” might have been called a catchphrase: a banal word combination animated by unique context and delivery. “Did I Do That?” “I’ll Be Back” and “How You Doin’?” would mean nothing if not for the precise tones and cadences with which their originators (Jaleel White as Steve Urkel, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator and Wendy Williams as herself) so reliably rendered them. In a phone call, the linguist Molly Babel mentioned Alicia Silverstone’s “As if,” from the movie “Clueless”: Taken altogether, Silverstone’s iconic phrasing, intonation and cadence are the sound. Like earworms, these quips are so mentally sticky that it takes just a few listens for your mind to latch onto them and never let go. Try reading them without hearing their corresponding acoustic signatures in your head: “Here’s Johnny!” “You talkin’ to me?” “Damn, Daniel!”
“Memes are often symbols,” says Don Caldwell, editor in chief of the dizzyingly comprehensive website Know Your Meme, and exceptionally viral memes tend to be “very novel or very catchy or just very, very striking emotionally.” Even when they’re estranged from their origins — i.e. taken out of context — they’re funny or moving or both. He mentions “sad trombone” as a pre-internet audio meme, and it occurs to me that the song “Yakety Sax” counts, too. Both musical cues evoke an unmistakable mood in and of themselves, but after decades of application to that effect, their deployment adds another layer of information to whatever scene they orchestrate. It’s a wink to the audience that positions the moment within a cultural continuum. The famous Wilhelm scream, a histrionic stock effect taken from a 1951 film, has since appeared in more than 100 movies, where it has become an inside joke for sound engineers and film fans. An audio meme’s most crucial quality, though, is the ability to instantly excite us, to make us think, upon the first listen: I need to hear that again.