Music for empty shopping centres

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan on a YouTube trend for making music sound as though it’s being played elsewhere

19 September 2018 19:03

The shopping centre is empty. There isn’t a soul in sight, only a long corridor and faint pink light on the tiled floor. As if you’ve wandered into a dream of the 1980s, Toto’s ‘Africa’ plays over a tinny loudspeaker to deserted shops and an audience of no-one.

But this is 2018, and you are sat in front of your laptop. You are watching a video that more than a million other people have seen before you. There are more like this one, plenty more. The format is nearly identical each time. A track is edited to sound as though it is being played in a specific place; an abandoned mall, or an empty bathroom, or outside a nightclub. The videos themselves are simple. A distorted tune plays over a still image of an isolated scene – a stall of toilets bathed in blue light, say, or a deserted corridor in a retro mall.

Something is evoked, and it can’t be squared as easily as common-or-garden-variety nostalgia. These videos are soothing, but they are also unsettling. Take ‘Toto- Africa (playing in an empty shopping centre)’, created by Cecil Robert. It has almost 2 million views. Scan through the comment section and you’ll find talk of memories, strange dreams and the smell of pretzels.

‘Why am I crying,’ writes one user. ‘I don’t even know if I’m sad’.

‘For some reason, this makes me feel like I’m in a different time,’ writes another. ‘It feels comforting. I’m not even sure why, because I never lived in the 80s.’

‘Toto- Africa (playing in an empty shopping centre)’

Cecil Robert

Robert tells me that some of the videos induce a phenomenon called anemoia: ‘It means to experience nostalgia for a time you never actually experienced. Something about taking something familiar, but making it more distant, seems to create a duality of comfort and longing.’

Anemoia is a neologism coined by the writer John Koenig, as part of his ongoing Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows project. Imagine stepping into an old photograph, where you can watch the locals pass by, inhabiting a world that ended before you were even born. That’s anemoia, and there’s a whiff of it in these YouTube videos, many of which combine 1980s architecture with pop songs from the same era. Listen to Echo and the Bunnymen on a loudspeaker above an empty food court, for example, and you can pretend you’re sat there, stabbing at your milkshake with a plastic straw.

‘The Killing Moon- Echo & The Bunnymen (playing in an empty shopping centre)’

But there’s something disquieting going on beneath this make-believe. There’s an eeriness in the abandoned spaces, and in the disconnect between their familiarity and their datedness; an uncanny distance from your own childhood memories.

‘There’s a feeling of nostalgia, but also unease,’ says Robert. ‘Nostalgia for shopping trips with your mom when you were just a little kid, with tinny Madonna playing in the background. But the unease arises when that background noise becomes the only sound around, and gets your full attention.

‘It can make you feel like you’re somewhere you don’t belong, like you’re locked in after hours. Some people also say it makes them feel like they’re in the apocalypse.’

This apocalyptic quality is brought to the foreground in a handful of the videos, such as Robert’s take on the Simple Minds classic, ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’. The setup is much the same as before, except now the shopping centre is not only empty, but in disarray. The electric lights have stopped working. The floor tiles are broken. A patch of moss has started to grow near some rubble. If anemoia is nostalgia for a past that you’ve never experienced, perhaps this is nostalgia for a catastrophe that has yet to happen.

‘Simple Minds- Don't You (Forget About Me) (playing in an empty shopping centre)’

Abandoned shopping centres aside, many of these videos tends to evoke scenes of momentary isolation in busy places. A creator that goes by the name of Allyson M, for example, has made dozens of videos set in club toilets, where songs such as Childish Gambino’s ‘Redbone’ or The Neighbourhood’s ‘Sweater Weather’ are played muffled, as if there’s a party happening outside.

These modern songs conjure different feelings than those edited around empty shopping centres. Instead of immersing you in a sense of eerie isolation, they make you feel like life is going on as normal, out of reach. They speak to those quiet moments during long nights out, when you find yourself totally alone. You are lingering there longer than you need to, enjoying the solitude as you stare at your reflection, half-listening to the music and muted chatter. It is 3am and at any moment this peace could be broken by someone walking through the door.

‘“Childish Gambino's - Redbone” but you're in a bathroom at a party’

Crucially, these are cinematic moments. These are where the camera hones in on a character before something dramatic happens; before a revelation, a chase, an epiphany under artificial lighting. When you are actually alone in a club toilet, when you actually find yourself in a closing shopping centre, you feel like you are in a film. You are momentarily thrown outside of your own body, and you are watching yourself through a camera lens. These YouTube videos capture those flashes of dissociation, whether it’s sitting alone in a public toilet, or going to a petrol station at 2am, or driving somewhere in the rain.

Some of these videos go further in juxtaposing sound and vision. One of Robert’s clips combines a muffled edit of The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’ with a loop of an astronaut’s face. Another does something similar with Cher’s ‘Believe’ and footage of planes dropping bombs. These play with contrasts, but they lack the clarity of the videos that hinge on images of empty rooms; of murky bathroom stalls and deserted shops, where the mood is palpable and you can slip into a comfortable daze as you imagine being in another place and time.

In another of Robert’s tracks, Toto’s ‘Africa’ is distorted (again), but this time as if it is being heard from outside a club. Unlike the version in the empty shopping centre, the song here is barely audible. It is only a faint line beneath the rhythm of traffic, footsteps and occasional sirens. You have to strain to hear the song; the total opposite of searching for a crisp recording on a streaming service. And yet there is something deeply pleasurable about listening to it like this, as if it is being played in a physical place and not the void of a video streaming site.

‘Nights - Frank Ocean while driving at night in the rain’

Shopping centres and nightclubs are dwindling worlds against the virtual spaces of Amazon and Tinder. Perhaps we hanker after the sense of physical presence that these videos create, where instead of swiping around a Spotify playlist we catch the chorus of a song we remember through a wall. Perhaps these videos have millions of views because there is something fundamentally calming, and sad, about how they give the impression of real life.

‘I love the community that exists in the comments,’ says Roberts. ‘They’re almost always positive, and people share personal stories all the time. Stories of being a kid, hearing your older sibling play The Smiths from their bedroom. Stories of friends and family that are gone that the music reminds them of.

‘The emotions created and shared are why I keep making these videos.’

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